THE DEVIL’S CANDY has a lot going for it. A stellar cast including the star of my favorite show on television Shiri Appleby, (Unreal), Ethan Embry so good at playing between good and evil and newcomer Kiara Glasco all shine as a family who buys a house with a history. Also the film has probably the best source music and score of any film playing Fantastic Fest this year with a double shot of Metallica and the demonic drone metal of Sunn O))). Unfortunately the story of The Devil’s Candy, written and directed by Sean Byrne, falls victim to too many ideas and not enough follow through.
The family moves out of downtown Austin for somewhere ‘two bus routes away from the nearest salon’ as the mother complains in search of peace and inspiration. Dad is a painter who specializes in dark metal infused work but has lately been painting butterflies on commission, much to the amusement of his daughter. They both share a love for metal music, which mom puts up with. When they purchase a luxurious house in a large piece of land, they are told, as law stipulates, that two people had died there. Of course, they ignore that warning. As soon as they move in, Dad start hearing strange voices and painting really dark material that he does not remember painting. Then the son of the former owners (recently released?) from a mental institution shows up, saying he has to come home.
This all works reasonably well, as a set up. The look of Embry as a Jesus clone is a little over the top, as is the countless scenes of him painting by himself half naked in the shed. The problem is the director never really decide decides who exactly the bad guy is, and what he wants. Actually it’s fairly obvious that the bad guy, from the title, is the devil. But who is his servant on earth to carry out his will? Is it Ray – who can only keep the voices at bay by playing loud chords on his Gibson Flying V, but in the end succumbs to the commands of his master to kill small children and feed them to the ground? Is it Embry – whose paintings taking on a new demonic tone and look freaking awesome? It might even be the mysterious art dealer played by Tony Amendola, who shows up and asks Embry to make a deal with the devil by abandoning his daughter at school.
Embry creates an amazing painting which seems to be giving him clues, but nothing really comes of it and in the end he destroys the painting. The art dealer appears to be the devil on earth, and at one point the theme seems to be embracing greed for success, but that storyline never really plays out. It’s also cartoonish (to be kind) – It almost seems as though the film gets hijacked to become a condemnation of the art scene.
If Embry is the devil’s servant on earth, then there is no real moment where he shifts and defeats the devil so that he can go in and save his family. If it is a story about a man who falls victim to his own sins, then we never see him turn back to righteousness.
Ray’s story is even more complicated. He seems to be fighting the devil with music, but then for no reason gives up his guitar, his only weapon against the voices. His backstory, as we learn from a really poorly written late in the movie expositional scene delivered by a cop, is that he had to feed the devil children. To do so, he has to kill the children cut them up, and bury them in the ground in suitcases. So much wrong with this. Why suitcases? Does the devil like his children with a side of luggage? Why cut them up? Is the devil on a small portion diet? Why only children? Why can’t the devil just eat any child that has died? What does this have to do with the music that Ray is playing to stop the voices? And most importantly why then is the final sequence about burning the daughter for the devil as this seems to have nothing to do with the previous way he disposed of children? Does the devil like his children well done? Oh, and WHY THE HECK IS RAY NOT STILL IN THE MENTAL INSTITUTION? How could anyone have possibly let him out into the world?
The problem with THE DEVIL’S CANDY is that it never really decides what it’s about, so it can’t focus on a story to tell, or a set of characters to carry that story, or any one particular character to have an arc. Other than moving from happy to nervous and then terrified, no one in the family grows much during the film. We hear that the daughter had the worst day at school but we never get to see it. Such a big deal is made out of what happens at school, it seems like we should get to see a little bit of that. In fact we don’t see anybody’s life outside of the house, other than the one trip Embry makes to the very over the top art agent. We have no idea what Appleby even does as a career. In fact, she could have been written out of the film entirely and no one would have been affected.
There’s also giant a plot hole or oversight in the film, which is that while Embry is painting the second of his inspired devil paintings he loses track of time and forgets to pick his daughter up. This is obviously a big deal, but no mention is made that this must have happened the day before as we saw him drop her off at school then get lost in his work and not comie out until his wife goes to get him. So who got the daughter that day?
It’s this sort of sloppy attention to detail that’s so frustrating about a film that is playing a major festival, and actually just played Toronto. During the Q&A the producer mentioned that the director has been working on the film and its script for years, producing countless rewrites, often changing plots entirely. What that tells me is that he never really knew what his story was. If you can do a page one rewrite and change pretty much everything, then what is the core of the film? I cannot find the core of THE DEVIL’S CANDY. The part that I find most interesting — metal music being used to fight the devil — is left fairly undeveloped until being thrust back into the spotlight at the end of the film. Everything else is a bunch of characters with murky past and murky development and murky goals. It’s not a terrible movie, but it’s certainly not a movie that should be playing as an example of the best genre filmmaking in the world. This is the kind of movie that goes on your Netflix queue and stays there for over a year because there’s nothing to distinguish itself to make you want to watch it.
In the end The Devil’s Candy has a greatly underutilized cast and some really kickass music. I would love to see somebody make a movie about metal music fighting the devil. This film unfortunately did not live up to that.