I know I can’t be the only one out there who likes to take horror movies seriously. What I mean by this is, I don’t like to waste my time on films with intentions set only on overwhelming the viewer with unnecessary amounts of blood and gore, bound by a flimsy story-line and characters dumber than dirt. And please, get out of my face with movies that toss in loud, shrill noises every five seconds (otherwise known as a jump scare) just to make the viewer crap their pants.
For people who feel me on this, and like to take their horror films seriously, or at least like to be left thinking what the hell did I just watch, in a mesmerized way rather than a ‘my eyes cannot unsee what they’ve just seen’ sort of way, my new series “Horror movies for People Who Hate Dumb Horror Movies” will provide you with just that–scary movies worth watching, that won’t leave you feeling like your brain cells are oozing out your ears by the time the credits role.
The most recent horror gem I’ve discovered, The Devil’s Candy, is not just another dumb, campy, or derivative horror movie. While you might generate certain predictions from a horror film that boasts a soundtrack composed solely of doom-metal, (not hating on metal, I happen to love metal!) I assure you this film will surpass any and all expectations you might have.
From Australian film maker, Sean Byrne (The Loved Ones), the independent horror film The Devil’s Candy surprised me in a number of ways. With over-arching themes of commitments vs. temptations and the fine-line between being inspired and being possessed, this story is ultimately about the trials of parenting.
At the film’s opening, Jesse Hellman (Ethan Embry), a tattooed, shaggy-haired struggling painter, just bought a beautiful house in the rural Texas countryside for his tight-knit, alternative little family. Jesse, his wife Astrid, (a hair-dresser and the primary bread-winner of the household) and his preteen daughter Zooey (a vivacious young metal-head who inherited her taste in heavy music from her father) are slightly skeptical upon hearing the house has a murder-y past, but choose to overlook this small grim detail because the price is just too good.
However, it isn’t long after they’ve moved in that Jesse starts to hear strange voices in his head and begins painting over his light-hearted butterflies with disturbing images of screaming children–the kicker being he doesn’t remember painting them. When his family starts receiving unwelcome visits from the previous owners’ unhinged son, Ray Smilie (Pruitt Taylor Vance), Jesse realizes he has made a grave mistake by moving his family into this house, as his daughter has now caught the eye of a deranged man possessed by demonic voices that urge him to kidnap and kill children.
Besides the obvious match-made-in-hell pairing of doom-sludge metal and horror, viewers will not easily forget the unconventionally child-like, simple-minded antagonist, Ray Smilie–a rather large man who wears a filthy red track suit and kills his victims with rocks while dark, ominous voices hum in his head. Whether he’s crawling into children’s beds just to watch them sleep, or chugging on his flying-V electric guitar in the dead of night (he likes to “play it loud” so as to drown out the voices), or hacking up the bodies of his victims while sermons warning against the deceptions of the devil play in the background– the writing of this character, along with the incredible acting on behalf of Pruitt Taylor Vance, set Ray up to be one of the most iconic, unsettling and unpredictable killers in horror.
This film also offers a lot of captivating visual elements for your brain to chew on, as its effective use of images, color and backgrounds help aid the overall theme and the raw, grimy atmosphere of the story. Besides there being a copious amount of crosses and upside down crosses strategically riddled throughout the entire film, The Devil’s Candy utilizes the color red in many ways to symbolize evil: Ray Smilie wears the same red track suit throughout the entirety of the film, there is a red stained-glass cross on the front door of the house we often see a sinister first-person POV shot through, and the receptionist at the art gallery Jesse sells his creepy artwork to is also dressed in red, wears red eye-shadow and red lipstick. (Was it obvious to anyone else that he was unknowingly making a deal with the devil in this scene? Thought that bit was brilliant.)
Another reason I applaud this film is how it expertly avoids all of the most infuriating horror movie cliches. For one, the characters aren’t stupid and they don’t make stupid decisions, which is one of the many reasons it also makes you care about the characters from very early on. The characters do not give in to obvious temptations for the sole sake of moving the plot along. They also do not go full-on possessed, if ya know what I mean. As in, ‘dad’s-trying-to-kill-the-whole-family’, possessed, which is predictable and has been done to death in movies like The Shining, Amityville Horror, and even more recently in films like Insidious. Lastly (and most importantly), there are miraculously zero cheap jump scares.
Like I said, I was invested in the characters from early on, (also due to the believable chemistry between Embry and his female counterparts; Kiara Glasco who played daughter Zooey, and Shiri Appleby who played the wife Astrid) but I was particularly charmed by the the father/daughter relationship between Jesse and Zooey. They not only head-bang to Metallica together, but Zooey is Jesse’s pride and joy, and you deeply sense that he would do anything to protect his little girl. So the true, tangible terror here is how his paintings can possess him to the point where he literally loses time; he’ll come out of a session feeling like only 15 minutes have passed, when in reality it’s now dark out, and he forgot to pick his daughter up from school hours ago. Parent or not, we as the audience feel that dread in a real, tangible way.
In comparison to your typical horror movie where you’d be yelling things like: “What are you doing?? Turn the light on! Don’t go in there!” the characters in The Devil’s Candy respond to situations exactly how you beg the half-wit characters of other horror movies to behave. They react to things appropriately, how real people in peril would behave. And believe it or not the film is still able to carry an interesting plot along without people making stupid, unrealistic decisions every step of the way–imagine that!
My only wish was that they spent even just a tad bit more time fleshing out the family interactions that made these characters feel so well-developed and likable. With the short run-time and overall quick pace of this film, I feel it could have benefited the story even more to have really let this family sink their hooks in the viewer, which would then allow them time to further develop the plot and heighten the fear behind the already terrifying antagonist. But this small complaint only exists if I allow myself to be picky.
The Devil’s Candy was damn near flawless in my opinion– even in its over-the-top, metal-as-fuck climax, which involved fire and someone’s brains getting smashed by a flying-V guitar. I mean, does it get anymore satisfying than that? So please, if you love horror and especially love strong, smart story-telling in horror movies, do yourselves a favor and check out The Devil’s Candy–then get back to me so we can talk nerdy.