SPOILERS! Wall to wall, A-Z, giving away everything, so…go watch the movie first
I’ve finally gotten into the habit of watching a movie and then re-watching it with the director’s commentary on and I can’t believe it took me this long to do so. After I’ve finished a movie, I go back, turn on the commentary, listen the creator’s insights, motivations, sub-themes–whatever message the creator was trying to convey. Granted, I’m a hardcore art horror geek, so I don’t know how useful that info would be to a casual fan…but I recommend it for any true horror connoisseur. And Sean Byrne’s commentary on The Devil’s Candy is exceptional.
As mentioned in Part I, the idea for The Devil’s Candy came to Sean Byrne on the day his wife announced that she was pregnant with twins. Even the most ordinary man seems to get all bunged up about pregnancy, but it takes on a different significance when you are an artist. Art requires long hours alone inside of your head, a thousand miles away from the mundane terra firma of family life. He worried that his work had become some “artistic id”, which could threaten his ability to protect his children from the evils of the world.
In this case, Ray Smilie is that evil…except Byrne’s and Pruitt’s genius is to make that evil sympathetic. Ray is literally, mercilessly tormented by the devil. Okay, here is where the viewer gets to ask if Ray is an unreliable narrator, ie is he really hearing the devil or is he insane? To which I say WHAT DIFFERENCE DOES IT MAKE? I’d say that hearing a never-ending malefic voice ordering you to go kill children would rank hellish enough to be on fucking par with actual possession. However, in this spoiler-forewarned version: yes. It is the literal devil nagging Ray to bring him some delicious candied kid souls, and Ray resists the only way he knows how: by wailing on his flying V at Devil No-More decibels to drown him out. Unfortunately, it also awakens his presumably long-suffering mother who threatens to send him back to the hospital. For her efforts, she gets thrown down the stairs…just as his father arrives.
Although ambition is portrayed as Jesse’s “sin”, he doesn’t appear to be unpleasantly ambitious; he just wants to quit painting fucking butterflies for banks Seems reasonable. He is happily devoted to his good-natured breadwinner wife and shares a close bond with their 12 year old daughter based on their mutual love for metal. This bond is established in an early scene: Jesse carpools his girls, blasting “Killing Inside” by Cavalera Conspiracy. At a pivotal moment in the song, he makes eye contact with Zooey and they simultaneously start head-banging.
The purpose of their trip is to meet a slimy slickster of a realtor, who shows them their dream house, which is suspiciously affordable…and recently vacated by Ray. Since realtors are legally required to disclose any sort of violent or notorious history, Slickster spins that history into a touching story of an old lady who fell down the stairs, causing her heartbroken husband to kill himself…bullshit, of course. Mrs. Smilie was clearly murdered, while Mr. Smilie’s fate is unclear–for the record, Byrne confirms that Ray murders his father, too. He also explains that the realtor is actually a satanic figure tasked with manipulating the family into moving into this diabolical gateway…which just happens to include the perfect space for a studio. So…Jesse’s first temptation.
…which leaves Ray homeless. While it isn’t clear how long Ray has been on his own, it is clear that he can barely function independently. He is child-like, almost helpless, apparently suffering from some developmental disability, which possibly leaves him more vulnerable to the devil. But still Ray tries to be good the only way he knows how–cranking the flying V to 11 in his fleabag motel room. But again, his good intentions are thwarted by some asshole normal human, this time in the form of cop who tells Ray–in that exaggeratedly patient way cops use to address children and the mentally ill–to shut it down.
(Incidentally, the colors of Ray’s jacket aren’t accidental–they represent a recurring red/black motif–the devil’s favorite colors, of course).
After dropping off Zooey for her her obligatory suck-first-day-at-a-new-school, Jesse hears the same creepy demon voice that plagues Ray–which, incidentally, is creepy as shit–which serves as the catalyst for Jesse’s artistic id–predictably, Satan slithers in and takes control. In a near fugue state, Jesse feverishly, obsessively, paints.
Sidebar: I think it is important to pay tribute to the actual artist who created these wonderfully fucked up paintings–the late Stephen Kasner, who–bonus–was an actual member of the Church of Satan. He died very recently–December 2019–at 49. Stephen’s death is a terrible loss on many levels, not least of all because he was a monster talent, pun fully intended. So, respect and RIP, Stephen.
By the time Astrid arrives, hours have passed and Jesse has no recollection of painting an image of Ray’s upside down cross. Rightfully freaked, they are too distracted to notice that Ray is at the door wanting to come home. Instead, Zooey answers. Ray is happily stunned by Zooey’s casual kindness and enthusiastic admiration for owning a Flying V. Judging by Ray’s expression, this may be the first time anybody has spoken to him with such acceptance and ease. She even addresses him in second person.
This scene alone explains why Byrne literally begged Pruitt Taylor Vince to play Ray. Quite frankly, this is just a fucking masterful performance and I don’t think that is hyperbole. Granted, I speak fluent hyperbole; I trend hyperbolic even in my sleep (see?), but in this scene particularly, Vince manages to convincingly portray a child serial killer as a victim–an unloved, tormented, barely functioning outcast, profoundly moved by a child’s casual kindness. You don’t see the monster, only the human…and recognizing Ray’s humanity makes his inevitable monster all the more terrifying.
Unfortunately for Ray, Jesse reacts pretty much the way any real-life parent would react when a disturbed weirdo is having a tête à tête with their twelve year old daughter: orders him to leave and threatens to call the cops…but Little Metal Jesus and mom scolds Jesse for being unkind.
Uh…judges? As an actual parent, I’m afraid I’ll have to call bullshit on this particular kumbaya. Team Jesse, all the way.
In the morning, Zooey finds the Flying V on her front porch; Jesse is alarmed by both Ray’s aberrant generosity and evidence that Ray had returned. But the Flying V isn’t just deranged generosity–it is an offering of such gratitude that Ray sacrifices his only means of peace and only shield against depravity. Jesse, of course, tells Zooey she can’t keep it; Zooey, of course, is pissed.
Jesse approaches an especially snake-y looking receptionist (note the red/black dress) at the Belial art gallery–which had rejected his prior work–to pass on an image of the painting. Snakella remains unimpressed until he tells her that he can’t remember painting it. She agrees to set up an appointment with Leonard–an important art dealer with the sort of make or break power that can propel an artist to fame and fortune.
Fun fact: the name Belial means a demon or wicked person who gives into sinful temptations…like putting ambition before family, for example. It comes as no surprise that the Belial gallery has a larger agenda than dealing in artwork. The snake-faced woman is a dead giveaway. At the very least, Belial serves as conduit for Jesse’s temptation; Ray Smilie, the possible consequence.
This consequence is illustrated in a harrowing scene in which Ray skull-bashes a young boy with a rock; simultaneously, Jesse feverishly paints an image of the same boy screaming–though whether the art has invoked the violence or the violence has invoked the art is unclear.
By the time Jesse snaps to, it’s already dark and Zooey has been stuck waiting at a school she already dislikes, probably because the staff blithely fucks off instead of maybe ensuring the safety of their 12 year old student. Rightfully, she is every bit as hurt as Jesse is horrified. He begs her forgiveness and swears on her life that he would never forget her again. Zooey, being a shrewd lass, bargains her forgiveness in exchange of the (red and black) Flying V.
Unbeknownst to Jesse, he, too is bargaining–consciously or not, his artistic obsession “sacrifices” Zooey’s trust and welfare. Even if he is being driven by a satanic influence, he still placed more importance on his art than his child. This is the first step of Jesse’s Faustian bargain–but it is still a choice. True, Jesse’s ambition leaves him open for the devil to slither in and set events into motion, but buying the house with the studio, presenting his art to Belial, and allowing himself to focus only on his art, are all choices. No matter how strong his influence, the devil is all about free will.
As Jesse regards the painting, Ray cleans the blood of his victim–again, finished canvas and murder of the boy seem mutually invoked. Which is especially ominous, because the principle subject is Zooey in the midst of flames. Astrid is horrified and demands that Jesse destroy the painting, but an overpowering intuition won’t allow it. Yeah. I think some mothers would follow their overpowering intuition to do it for him, but maybe that’s just me.
Later, Jesse returns to the studio to destroy the canvas, but can’t quite follow through, though whether that is because of his quasi-possession or because it’s a righteous canvas is unclear Not only does he not destroy it, he continues painting. At any rate, as he stands there wearing nothing but skivvies and boots, Ray is burying his latest victim on the property.
Unfortunately, by doing so, Jesse has unwittingly chosen art over family–while he obsesses over the painting, Ray has tucked himself into bed with Zooey to reassure her that he wouldn’t “do that thing” ie sacrifice her delicious child-soul to devil’s insatiable sweet tooth…which is almost as poignant as it is terrifying. Again, Ray is a victim. He never wants to “do that thing”, but because of Zooey’s kindness, he is even willing to defy the devil himself. But Zooey doesn’t give a shit what that thing is, all she knows is there is a large, 50 year old psycho in her bed and screams. All 110 pounds of mama bear Astrid attacks, but Jesse is too late to prevent Ray’s escape.
As thug cops and anonymous storm troopers are beating down peaceful protesters, you might have to suspend some cynical disbelief to buy the kind cops in The Devil’s Candy. Who knows–maybe they’re like that in Austin. Not only does lady cop does she comfort the girls, she also reassures hang-dog Jesse that Ray is the only one to blame. Understandably but unfortunately, Zooey believes that she will be safer at school than home. Jesse promises to protect Zooey…and then returns home to meet with the nefarious Leonard, brilliantly played by Tony Amendola.
According to Byrne, Leonard, the make or break art dealer and obvious arbiter for Satan, is merely a participant in a much larger diabolical web, in which “wonderfully disturbing” art serves some nefarious purpose. At the very least, Leonard provides a distraction designed to leave Zooey unprotected and and vulnerable to sacrifice. While Leonard does not say so explicitly, the implication is clear: if Jesse cuts the meeting short, the deal is off. Which is the crux of the Faustian bargain: whether Jesse is willing to sacrifice Zooey for fame and artistic greatness. Jesse has his Jesus moment and chooses Zooey. Or I see it that way; Byrne’s position is that he never should’ve taken a 2:00 appointment in the first place. But even after he willfully chooses to sacrifice his ambition for Zooey, the devil intervenes. Not only does Jesse’s piece of shit car have a blow-out, the devil’s crypt-level creepy voice interferes with his phone reception. By the time he makes it to the school, it’s too late; Ray has taken Zooey as the devil’s newest sweet treat.
But Zooey is unique. Not only is she the rare likable cinematic kid, she’s also believably intelligent enough to pull off an ingenious escape. While trussed up in duct tape (truly 1001 uses) and readied for imminent slaughter, Zooey finds the end of the tape and, in a cool roll-y maneuver, frees herself, and barely manages to escape through the bathroom window.
At the Fantasy Cop precinct, Zooey reminds Jesse, “You swore on my life.” Jesus moment or not, that flirtation with fame almost cost Zooey’s life…which was a real dick move on the devil’s part. Empathy Cop #2 assuages Jesse’s crippled conscience by explaining that Ray had been hearing the devil since age 12…and until he was caught, it would behoove them to pack their shit and go into witness protection. Meanwhile, two members from the Compassion Cop Unit will be posted out front.
Either by instinct or conscious awareness, Jesse finally gets the link between the painting and his family; he uses a box cutter to make that decision final. As usual, he’s a little late–Ray is about to go Terminator; he is literally hellbent on sacrificing Zooey.
All due respect to theoretical nice cops everywhere, but these particular nice cops aren’t too goddamn bright, because why the holy fuck would you allow endangered citizens, under any circumstances, to go back to that house? I mean, I don’t want to nit-pick, but that seems like piss-poor witness protection management to me. And they pay a terrible price–in the lady cop’s case, with her legs–Ray rams their car, pinning lady cop and seriously injuring the other, who valiantly crawls towards his gun. But Ray left all his fucks back at the motel; he grabs the gun and shoots them both. Astrid and Zooey are reasonably batshit with fear; Jesse finally makes it in time to bring a bat to a gunfight–with predictable results.
I’m not even gonna lie–this scene fucks me up every time: even after being shot, crippled, and with a literal gun to her head, Astrid pleads for Zooey’s life. I don’t understand why Shiri Appleby doesn’t get more credit for her performance, because I get choked up every time I watch this scene. Maybe it’s the mom in me, but it’s a harrowing, heartbreaking sight. And terrifying. You damn well don’t want these people to die. At this point, happily ever after isn’t guaranteed–Jesse is shot and unconscious, Astrid can’t walk and Ray is dragging Zooey up the stairs, leaving fire in his wake. Byrne describes this fiery barrier as “destroying the bridge between mother and child”
But Jesse isn’t out; Astrid rouses him to consciousness. After carrying Astrid to safety, he climbs a ladder to Zooey’s room, whose screaming face reflects the image in Jesse’s painting.
Now it’s time to suspend some major disbelief, the first being a smokeless fire. The smoke from even a moderate fire makes visibility impossible…but here, realism would make for shitty fire scenes, so that is forgivable bullshit. But Ray and Zooey being surrounded in a wall of fire without instantaneous third degree burns…pushing it, bub. Byrne said that the wall of fire between Jesse and Ray is a “showdown in hell” and that showdown is both utter bullshit and so completely badass that all is forgiven–Jesse uses the Flying V to bludgeon Ray to death, which is Byrne’s tribute to Pete Townshend, Angus King and all musicians who have destroyed their guitars on stage.
In a final forgivable bullshit moment, Jesse persuades Zooey to leap through that totally non-lethal fire into his arms, which Byrne says represents “a rekindling a trust between father and daughter”.
After Jesse saves his family, he is able to atone for his flubbed Jesus moment. Following some instinct, Jesse drifts past his family and finds the shallow graves of Ray’s victims–the same children from Jesse’s painting. Which is a terrific, satisfying ending. It is also confusing. If the devil used the painting as an instrument of Jesse’s temptation, I’m not certain I understand why it would also be an instrument for Jesse’s salvation and the presumed release of the victim’s souls. Theoretically, destroying the painting may have destroyed its malefic power…but that didn’t prevent Zooey from suffering the fate of her painted counterpart.
I’ve given it a lot of thought and here is my theory–bear with me now: God is behind this bullshit. Trust me–I’ve actually read the bible. God pulls this manipulative crap all the time–sadistic little loyalty tests. Even you heathens out there know the story of Job–God and the devil make a bet to see who could win Job’s soul by killing his family, taking his wealth, ruining his reputation, inflicting a disgusting head to toe skin condition and making him the most miserable wretch alive…all for a narcissistic dick-waving contest. So it would absolutely be in character for God to set up a series of tests to tempt Jesse and still make his innocent family go through a literal hell to find salvation. Because God’s a prick. The end.
Haven’t decided which movie I’ll discuss next time, though I’m going to go out of my way to find one light on metaphors, so I won’t be tempted to analyze the shit out of it like this one. At least until I can clear the COVID completely. Just because you survive COVID-19 doesn’t mean there aren’t consequences. Trust me on this. Don’t be an idiot; wear a goddamn mask.