A young family is tormented by what may be a satanically possessed serial killer in Sean Byrne's taut, sometimes lovely-to-look-at horror/thriller The Devil's Candy. The film debuted in Toronto in 2015 and is now being distributed by IFC's Midnight division. It opens Friday at the Capitol Theatre.
The serial killer, a track-suit-wearing gentle-giant type named Ray Smiley (Pruitt Taylor Vince, who played the vessel for the multiple personalities in 2003's Identity) may also just be severely mentally ill. That's never quite clear. The man spent two decades in psychiatric care after killing a young girl at 12. And now that he's out, his eyes skitter — they almost vibrate — when he hears the droning voice of what is presumed to be Satan himself, to whom he believes he still must sacrifice children, the "candy" of the film's title. Smiley has returned home to his rural Texan farmhouse, and in a dark opening scene he strums absently on an electric guitar before his bedroom's cross. He then kills his parents.
Boy, can an incident like that really tank a home's asking price!
Enter the Hellmans, a happy, if anti-mainstream, family of three. Ethan Embry plays Jesse Hellman, and he's never looked more like a mashup of Matthew McConaughey and Josh Lucas. He's a painter and a disciple of heavy-metal music and its attendant lifestyle. As such, he sports elaborate floral-skeletal tattoos. We need not specify that he is often shirtless. Jesse is attracted to the new house because it's got a giant barn which will double as his studio. Lately, though, Jesse has been painting butterflies on commission for local banks to help pay the mortgage.
"So not metal," decrees his purple-haired daughter, Zoe (Kiara Glaso), who has inherited her father's proclivities. She plasters her new room with posters of Metallica and the like. Astrid Hellman (Shiri Appleby), who has one charming early scene with her husband, is woefully underwritten. She works at a salon?
While Jesse, Astrid and Zoe acclimate to their new digs, Smiley continues his twisted ritual rampage, dismembering children with a hacksaw in a seedy motel and burying them in suitcases — the grisliest portions of which, mercifully, happen off-screen. Meantime, Jesse begins hearing a voice in his head, too. He channels its perverse influence into disturbing paintings, paintings which nonetheless secure him representation from the area's top art gallery. I guess? The vaguely Faustian artist subplot was pretty weak, to be honest, as was the arbitrary tension created around Jesse's inability to pick Zoe up from school on time. The narrative key through all this is that Smiley has reluctantly pegged Zoe for sacrifice.
There are some elegantly shot and conceived sequences, no doubt, including an intercut murder and painting reverie in which the blood splatter is anything but gratuitous. Likewise the righteously metal finale. Props to sophomore writer/director Sean Byrne for not relying on gore or cheap thrills. He takes his time to build a pervasively creepy mood and is judicious and inventive (and often arty) in his use of violence.
My biggest hangup is that the script fails to explore what I thought was the most interesting friction inherent in the premise: the idea that metal, as a genre, is associated with Satan. So is satanic possession an affirmation of metal-hood or what? Can you be pro-metal and anti-devil even if you rock out to bands like Nunslaughter and Electric Hellfire Club? Even if your top two albums from this decade are Blood and Vomit and To Hell with God?
Though The Devil's Candy doesn't seem to be interested in that question, the answer would seem to be yes.