“When you don’t care, you don’t scare“.
That is a direct quote from Sean Byrne, the Australian director of The Devil’s Candy, and since I wrote an entire blog on this concept, I had to include it just for the “I told you so” thrill. If you don’t give a shit about the characters, you don’t care what happens to them…so there is no reason to be scared. Call me a psychopath, but I just can’t summon any sympathy for one-dimensional characters whose sole purpose is slasher chum. Conversely, when you like the characters, it becomes helluva lot scarier when they are in peril…which is precisely why the low-budget, low-tech, low-gore indie horror The Devil’s Candy scares the shit out of me.
This is not a new concept for Sean Byrne; he also wrote and directed the brilliant, wildly unpredictable extreme horror, The Loved Ones. Despite the over-the-top torture sequences and twisted black humor, the horror lies with the fate of the troubled but sensitive protagonist, and I’m not embarrassed to admit that I was literally yelling at the screen during the final crazed moments of the movie. And I’m only slightly embarrassed to admit that the first time I watched The Devil’s Candy, I came very close to tears during the shit-just-got-real climax. Not only do I sympathize with the characters, I want them to be my goddamn best friends. I would invite them to my big annual Thanksgiving dinner, introduce them to the musicians and keep them far away from my mother. I would make sure they didn’t sit in one of the broken chairs, let them pick the music and secretly share my good bottle of the special liquid xanax red I drink while cooking. Mostly because of mother.
And I would definitely keep them away from the deeply disturbed Ray Smilie (Pruitt Taylor Vince). Ray is relentlessly tormented by the devil, whose dreadful commands can only be drowned out by playing his Flying V at volume 11. After killing his parents, he is forced to flee the family home, which is then sold to an ambitious, metalhead artist, Jesse (Ethan Embry), his lovingly exasperated breadwinner wife, Astrid (Shiri Appleby) and their 12 year old daughter, Zooey (Kiara Glasco), who shares Jesse’s love of metal. Despite (or because) they are hardly the typical nuclear family, they are happy…until they move into the old Smilie home. Now Ray’s devil causes Jesse to lapse into fugue states of obsessive art-making and awaken to diabolical canvases he doesn’t remember painting.
Meanwhile, Ray, who is nearly incapable of functioning on his own, tries to return home. There he meets genuinely cool, kind Zooey, who touches Ray with her accepting. friendly conversation.
Unfortunately, the devil is charmed, too. Though initially reluctant, the devil won’t shut up and torments Ray into obsessively pursuing Zooey, while simultaneously causing Jesse to obsess over his work and potential fame, right when Zooey needs him the most.
I believe the reason it is so easy to become invested with The Devil’s Candy is because Byrne is personally invested–he was inspired to write The Devil’s Candy on the day he discovered his wife was having twins. He doesn’t disagree with those who describe The Devil’s Candy as “the male version of Rosemary’s Baby“, but he was also influenced by The Exorcist and The Amityville Horror. All three films share the same theme: families struggling against an evil force, which Byrne felt reflected his own fears of being incapable of protecting his children from the evils of the world…especially when balanced against the demands of artistic obsession and ambition.
To be an artist is to be self-centered—creativity is one jealous bitch. She demands long hours and absolute focus, even at the expense of those you love the most. This is true of all art, but Byrne was particularly fascinated by some of the dark artists–Goya, Hieronymus Bosch, Francis Bacon, and the actual artist who created the hellish paintings in The Devil’s Candy, the late Stephen Kasner (more about him in Part II)–and their “compulsion to expel a nightmare”. There is a linearity to both artistic obsession and ambition; as a born again atheist, I can still remember my failed Southern Baptist indoctrination to live righteous, work hard and if you’re unlucky enough to have free time, you better pray your ass off; otherwise, you leave yourself “open” to the devil. Or as the televangelist (played by the very underrated Leland Orser) on the motel TV preaches, “the devil will slither into your soul”.
Ray’s profound mental illness makes him especially vulnerable to devil-slithering; likewise, Jesse’s ambition and quest for artistic perfection turns him into an excellent slithering candidate, as well. Byrne describes Jesse’s temptation as a modern retelling of Robert Johnson’s mythical Faustian bargain–according to the legend, Robert Johnson sacrificed his literal soul in exchange for becoming the greatest blues guitarist alive; in order to fulfill Jesse’s ambition, he must sacrifice his family…who are his soul. Unlike Johnson and Jesse, however, Ray doesn’t get to bargain—he is a doomed, hell-bound hostage, coerced into committing acts of depravity.
And Ray desperately tries to resist. He can drown out the devil’s voice by playing his Flying V at demon-repelling decibels, but invariably, eardrum-loving humans thwart him. While the horror in The Devil’s Candy is fearing the fate of likable characters, the flip-side of that horror is Ray’s undeniable humanity. Byrne told an interviewer that he had to literally beg Pruitt Taylor Vince to play Ray. Initially, Vince refused because he assumed the role was for another tedious slasher. Once Byrne explained that he would be playing Ray as a victim, Vince immediately signed on. And he was right–Vince is brilliant. I can’t imagine anybody else who could have convincingly portrayed a child serial killer with such terrifying poignancy.
In an otherwise thoughtful review, a critic dismissively described Ray’s over-the-top Flying V gift to Zooey as “grooming”; they couldn’t be more wrong. First, Ray doesn’t have the mental wherewithal to “groom” a potential victim–he is barely even capable of organized thought, much less systematic manipulation. Second, his blitz-bash methods of abduction hardly require persuasion. Third, the Flying V is Ray’s only respite from that incessant, horrible voice; he is literally sacrificing his peace–partly because of their shared love for Flying Vs, but mostly because he was touched by her friendly conversation and nonjudgmental cheeriness. And judging from his insular, discomfiting, pathological weirdness, that probably happens…never. Unfortunately, with the Flying V goes Ray’s inability to shut out the devil; no matter how fond he is of Zooey, he is incapable of not hurting her.
The fact that the Flying V is Ray’s only means of devil-avoidance perfectly fits Byrne’s clever subversion of the “metal is satanic” cliché–in The Devil’s Candy, not only is metal benign, it is both an instrument of protection and a means of affection. For Ray, the same Flying V that obscures the devil’s voice can also elicit friendly-envy, kindness and admiration from another human being. Jesse and Zooey’s shared love of metal and ritualized head-banging provide bonding experiences…and, ultimately, becomes the badass instrument of vengeance and righteousness.
Sean Byrne–an unabashedly devoted metal-head–took great pleasure in flipping the “devil’s music” trope onto its ass. Metallica loved it too, and allowed Byrne use of their music for an unbelievably cheap flat rate…and then, all the other bands felt likewise obliged. Which reminds me of Byrne’s anecdote about the late Anton LeVey, founder of the Church of Satan, who would mail beautifully handwritten notes to those artists (eg Marilyn Manson) he felt were promoting church principles or were a good diabolical role model, or…something…with a simple, two-word message: “Satan Approves”. Apparently, so does Metallica.
If you haven’t seen The Devil’s Candy yet–and it amazes me how many horror fans haven’t–please do so before reading part II, in which I will over-analyze every detail of this truly superior indie horror. Unfortunately, it’s only streaming on IFC Unlimited via Prime, but it is more than worth the $3.99 rental on Vudu, Amazon, iTunes, Google Play and all the other usual suspects. I recommend this movie unreservedly, not only for horror connoisseurs but for anybody who loves unique, unpredictable, well-directed films, featuring likable characters and universally excellent performances. Except for sick rom-com fans. I suggest you avoid them altogether. Those degenerates are just begging to be slithered.