“I have to do that thing I don’t want to do now.”
Writer-director Sean Byrne milks terror and tension for all it’s worth in his quick, nasty The Devil’s Candy. There’s entirely too little meat on this carcass, but the last act of this film is so nerve-wracking; so gut-punching; so goddamn unsettling that it almost doesn’t matter. You’re willing to overlook the flaws and praise Byrne for being able to mount such dread.
The Devil’s Candy opens with the mentally disturbed Ray (Pruitt Taylor Vince) playing his red Gibson Flying V guitar at ear-shattering levels late at night. When his elderly mother tells him to turn that darn racket down, the consequences are deadly.
Jumping ahead slightly into the future we meet some much nicer people than Ray. Jesse Hellman (an unrecognizable Ethan Embry) is a lean, long-haired metal-head with a gift for painting. He lives with his wife Astrid (Shiri Appleby) and teen daughter Zooey (Kiara Glasco). Jesse’s own personal art doesn’t exactly pay the bills, which is why he’s willing to sell-out, so to speak, and paint murals of butterflies for banks (and a paycheck). The Hellman’s move into a new house, and wouldn’t you know it, it just happens to be the house where Ray used to live.
As if on queue, Ray returns right after the Hellman’s have moved in, and begins acting abnormal. Jesse eventually is able to shoo Ray away, but it’s not long after this night that all hell breaks loose, literally. Jesse begins hearing an eerie, droning chant and begins conjuring up spooky, disturbing paintings — paintings he has no memory of creating. He loses time, putting him in Dutch with his family. Meanwhile, Ray is still out there somewhere, partaking in unspeakable acts.
Writer-director Byrne does a great job of setting all this unpleasantness up. A prevailing feeling of uneasy blankets The Devil’s Candy, and we watch, rapt, waiting for all the pieces to come together. The problem is they don’t. Much of the Satanic hints that Byrne drops throughout the film never really get addressed. Much is made of Jesse’s chilling paintings, but the film never quite bothers to explain how they tie into the overall narrative. It almost doesn’t matter, because by the time The Devil’s Candy launches into its conclusion we’re too stunned to care about that stuff. Byrne creates a home invasion sequence that’s almost ludicrously nerve-jangling. You’ll hear your heart pounding in your ears and and feel your pulse quickening as one terrifying moment leads to another.
Embry, a million light years removed from his Can’t Hardly Wait days, is wonderful here, in a constant state of confusion or alarm. The actor deserves a lot more work after this performance, and hopefully he’ll get it. The rest of the cast is strong also, but Appleby and Glasco, as Embry’s wife and daughter respectively, really don’t have much to work with. Appleby’s character in particular is almost non-existent and could’ve used a lot more fleshing-out. Pruitt Taylor Vince has played this type of mentally unhinged character before, and can likely do this in his sleep at this point, but that doesn’t make his Ray any less disturbing.
The Devil’s Candy moves at a steady clip, almost to the point that you wish Byrne would slow things down and let the film breathe a little. With more breathing room, and some strengthening of characters and plot points, The Devil’s Candy might have been a new horror classic. As-is, though, it’s still plenty horrifying, which is more than can be said for a lot of recent films in the genre.