Saturday, April 29, 2017

"THE DEVIL’S CANDY" IS HORROR THAT ROCKS


How many metalheads have been warned in their youth by their worrywart parents that nothing good can come from listening to blasphemous tunes that mock authority and defy deities? I once knew one such fretful mother that she warned her children that if they listened to any songs by Alice Cooper, Metallica or Ozzy Osborne, they were inviting evil into their lives through Satan’s "siren songs.” There are legitimate satanic metal bands, but it seemed to me that most heavy metal I heard was merely rock n’ roll pushed to one end of the extreme. Nonetheless, when such music is heard today, it’s hard for most ears to disassociate it with angry, anti-establishment leanings, overt calls for hedonism, or even the suggestion of something wicked this way comes. 

Thus, it is with how music is used in the new horror film THE DEVIL’S CANDY and what it means in all kinds of ways to the lead character of Jesse Hellman. He's not a youth in revolt exactly, but much of his character arc resembles such a storyline. In the film, his struggle is between not only good and evil, but youthful irresponsibility and mature parenting. Jesse may be in his late 30's, a man with a mortgage, and a father with a family to take care of, but that doesn’t mean he wants to readily conform to societal norms. Quite the opposite. He does his damnedest to avoid becoming too staid and respectable, and in doing so, he leaves his ego open to a susceptibility from no other than that dastardly Beelzebub himself.

Jesse (Ethan Embry) makes a living as a painter, and he's finishing up a big commission from a bank. He's embarrassed that he's required to paint butterflies and other commercially minded claptrap on the canvas, but it pays the bills and allowed him to purchase a new home. Still, despite his own misgivings, as well as teasing from his wife Astrid (Shirt Appleby) and teen daughter Zooey (Kiara Glasco), Jesse refuses to wholly grow up. He still wears his hair long, along with a scruffy beard, and his Bohemian look comes off as one part Jesus, one part Charlie Manson, and two parts Matthew McConaughey from his bongo playing, nude in public days. Most evident of his rocker past and inclinations is the elaborate tattoos all over his torso which is fit and youthful, and he clearly likes to show them off as he parades around shirtless for much of the movie.

It gets dangerous when he treats his daughter more like a peer, and gives her too much rope to exert her independence.  Worse yet, is his self-absorption which leads him to forget the time and fail to pick up his daughter one night from her new school. She's quietly furious, and he kowtows to her. He blames it on the new painting he's started since they moved into their new home, and indeed, it is preoccupying him in more than a few dangerous ways.  

The painting is a huge, six-feet-tall, blood red collage of exploding evil that he's slashing away on his canvas. Without realizing it, he's painting the faces of screaming children that suggest murder and terror. Worst of all, he's unwittingly painted one of the faces to resemble his own daughter. What's led him to do so? Is it is some evil in the house that somehow is inspiring him, or is it the influence of his narcissistic rocknroller lifestyle that is manifesting itself in such a satanic way? 

Indeed, it is both. The house does have a specific horror vibe to it as the devil seems to be dwelling in it. That would explain not only the painting, but also why there was a horrific murder there before the Hellman's moved in. The real estate agent fudged the truth when he sold Jesse the house for a song, but Ray Smilie (Pruitt Taylor Vance), its previous resident, killed his wife and blamed it on the influence of Satan. That confession landed him in an asylum, but now Smilie is out and is being called back to the house by Satanic whisperings in his ear once again. 

When the devilish gibberish overwhelmed Smilie before, he'd crank up the rock tunes or grind on his electric guitar to try and drown them out, but it would seem that the heavy metal vibrations only served to increase the satanic power pulsing through the house. It would seem that Mr. Smilie did not have a worrywart mother warning him about dancing with the devil to such music.

Ethan Embry in THE DEVIL'S CANDY
With the threat of this warped killer, Jesse has even more to worry about. Will he conquer his own devilish disturbances, or will they push him to the same type of violence that led Smilie to attack his loved one? In particular danger is daughter Zooey. Not only does her death seem foretold in Jesse's painting, but Smilie brags about the work he's doing for the devil and how the master of the underworld has instructed him to concentrate on killing children. They are like candy to the devil, he declares, as such innocence being sacrificed is sweeter than any other victim. 

The first two acts of this movie concentrate on Jesse's inward struggle. Will he rise to the occasion and become more of a mature and functioning adult? Are his insecurities leaving him open to being led by the evil aura in the house? As his painting consumes him more and more, it appears he's losing the battle. But then in the third act, Smilie's story converges wholly with the Hellman's, and Zooey is snatched. Now, Jesse must man up and put away his childish things, and become a stronger parent and a hero or else his daughter will become another morsel in that devilish Whitman sampler. 

THE DEVIL'S CANDY is thick with mood and dread, another terrific horror movie to grace screens in 2017. Still, at the end of it all, it might really be more of a character study. The narrative is really about the arc of a struggling man to meet his responsibilities as a husband, father and grown-up. It's also wonderfully witty of director/writer Sean Byrne to suggest that parenting is literally hellish, even though most parents may never have to battle with the devil for the preservation of their family. 

Pruitt Taylor Vance and Kiara Glasco in THE DEVIL'S CANDY
Ethan Embry gives a great performance here and is one of the better character actors working today. He’s found quite a niche in indie horror and other genre pieces, and his work here is one of his most accomplished efforts yet. In fact, I think he's as good as he was in the 2013 horror/comedy CHEAP THRILLS (2013). Here, Embry manages to be terrifying, vulnerable, sympathetic and roguish, sometimes all in the same scene. His big eyes can convey uncertainty and confidence with equal aplomb, often changing on a dime, and the only criticism I can find in what he does as Jesse is that the wig he’s wearing occasionally dips too low making for an inconsistent hairline from scene to scene.

The two female leads here are terrific as well. Appleby and Glasco add real grit to their scenes battling Smilie. And Vance does a marvelous job of keeping his villain terrifying, even though he's costumed in a bright red track suit that is almost too funny to be ironic. The production values are all top-notch, and even the poster (shown at the top of this blog) is a stunner. 

Filmmaker Sean Byrne directs Ethan Embry in THE DEVIL'S CANDY.
Is it a bit too on the nose to have Jesse's surname be Hellman, as he is literally and figuratively a man here battling the devil in his home? Sure, but it's also witty as hell to give him that moniker. This whole film is clever like that; it's a very shrewd frightener, full of twists, turns, and characters we care about. It's a sweet thrill ride for genre fans and general moviegoers alike.   

(THE DEVIL'S CANDY opened Friday, April 29th at The Music Box Theater in Chicago, and across the country at other theaters. It is also available for VOD in various places as well. )

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