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Devil's Candy, The

Shout Factory // Unrated // September 26, 2017
List Price: $14.49 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Thomas Spurlin | posted November 2, 2017 | E-mail the Author
The Film:

Despite leaving a mark on the horror genre with The Loved Ones, a polarizing mixture of revenge cinema and torture porn centered on a rejected high-school dance invitation, it took Australian director Sean Byrne over a half-decade to follow up on the mounting cult status of his feature debut. Regardless of its controversial nature, the visual interest and challenging rawness within the film seemed like it'd nail Byrne into the commercial horror discussion, but year after year passed without hearing out of the director. Eventually, Byrne's latest, The Devil's Candy, emerged on the "midnight madness" docket at Toronto's film festival, only to vanish after its screening without gaining the same traction as his debut. Both more tonally ambitious and less viscerally provocative than The Loved Ones, writer/director Byrne's sophomore effort trades pure warped psychosis for the uncontrollable mind-twisting of demonic possession, and relying on the supernatural ends up keeping it from striking the same chord.

Times aren't easy financially for the Hellman clan, but that doesn't prevent them from considering the purchase of a home in rural Texas, reduced due to the troubling history that fills the place. They're a "metal" family: the father-daughter duo of Jesse (Ethan Embry) and Zooey (Kiara Glasco) are into aggressive rock music, which is tolerated by wife and mother figure Astrid (Shiri Appleby). Jesse's a struggling painter who resorts to somewhat flowery commission pieces to pay the bills, amount to just barely enough for them to meet their mortgage; his true artistic talent goes largely unappreciated by local galleries. Once Jesse moves into the house -- and into a sprawling new studio -- there's a presence that overtakes him as he's painting, yielding disturbing yet visually interesting pieces that he cannot fully recall creating … and oftentimes distracts him from his other obligations. As he starts trying to manage this new onset creativity, a heavy and intimidating relative (Pruitt Taylor Vince) of the previous owners starts to impose upon the Hellmans, generating fear for their safety.

The Devil's Candy never offers a glimpse at Jesse's artwork in an untainted state, transitioning from the butterfly-infused commission piece he hates making to the disturbing paintings composed under supernatural possession, which turns out to be an appropriate reflection of Sean Byrne's objectives. Joy, humor, and concern are generated by the Hellman family that lead to endearing development from the start, driven by the ups and down of father-daughter bonding amid their headbanging and Jesse's troubles in discovering financial success with his artwork. The Hellmans serve purposes without summoning more engaging traits that'd flesh them out as characters, though, notably the reasons behind Jesse's rejected creativity and, well, much of anything about his anchor of a wife beyond her concerns for the family and her skepticism for their music choices. Their poverty and edginess come across as explanations for buying a foreclosed house with a dark past instead of the traits of a nuanced family unit, each lacking an extra something to compliment the cast's universally soulful performances.

Unsettling madness and murder are what actually kick off The Devil's Candy, hinged on a large, intimidating man loudly rocking out on a Flying V guitar to drown out the voices plaguing his head. Much of the film's escalation of his demon-infused ruthlessness relies on other people getting concerned or agitated over the extreme loudness of his playing, when, really, it could've been avoided had he plugged headphones into the amplifier and quietly muted the spectral urgings. The Devil works in mysterious ways, though, so let's assume it'd worsen and provoke the villain anyway. Primetime Emmy winner Pruitt Taylor Vince offers a fiercely disconcerting presence as the dazed, disconnected brute with a violent streak, amplifying the domestic invasion dread alongside the painter's own struggles with voices in his head. The harshness of the guitar thrashin' parallels with the scraping and stroking of Jesse's artwork into a tense provocation of the senses, invigorated by Byrne's grasp on mood and discomfort.

There's a theme at play in The Devil's Candy that attempts to add layers to the horror experience, one not-so-subtly hinted at by the title: that of the distraction and pitfalls of temptation, notably involving Jesse's artistic profession. While it seems as if director Sean Byrne wants to channel this into the spark that gets the suspense roaring on a meaningful note, the vagueness of the supernatural persuasion's functionality and the unbreakable control it enacts upon its victim drains the film of those deeper possibilities. Despite the eerie, piercing presence of Tony Amendola at a crucial juncture in this side of the film's intentions, the concept of the trademarked Devil luring in the susceptible gets undercut by the enigmas of mind control interwoven into the spirit of the house itself. It's the human component of temptation, of surrendering to the rewards of ambition even when it does harm to the other facets of one's life, that make the concept work and that Byrne has obscured; see The Devil's Advocate for a more compelling representation.

Regardless of its more thoughtful endeavors, The Devil's Candy continuously swells with intensity and terror as satanic possession seeps into Jesse and deeper into his family's menacing stalker, going in some rather dark directions involving child kidnappings and murder. Again, though, so much hinges on mistake after mistake made by Jesse while under supernatural influence that it's partially distracting from the mood generated by Byrne, even if they deepen the supernatural intrigue of what's transpiring. Either way, the brutal events possess such a potent, well-executed escalation of the situation that the success of its thought-exercise becomes secondary, where the mysteries flare up into an unpredictable ending that isn't afraid to go in chaotic directions that defy common sense. Stylistically and viscerally, The Devil's Candy is a concise, admirably shocking follow-up to Sean Byrne's premiere feature, and those merits should hopefully put him in the horror spotlight; however, the ways in which the director executes and leans on the supernatural like a crutch also twist this into a lesser sophomore effort.

Video and Audio:

The Loved Ones employed vivid colors in strategic places, both relishing bright colors and subtle, rich shades when surrounded by a grim palette. The Devil's Candy operates in a similar manner, but there's less striking shades to be seen in its cinematography, mostly limited to the commission piece Jesse paints and the accents of clothing. Similarities in both can be seen in the heaviness of shadows and the harsh sunbaked aesthetic in exterior shots, which predictably look smashing through Shout Factory's 2.35:1-framed, 1080p AVC transfer of the digital material. Fine detail emerges in strands of hair, globs of paint and brushstrokes, and the myriad textures in their home, which are razor-sharp and free of distortion. Shadows are appropriately heavy and overbearing in scenes, yet supple and respective of underlying details in others, and the contrast balance always places strong emphasis on depth in the image. It can get overly dim at times, especially in the final act within the Hellman's house, but The Devil's Candy possesses raw visual personality in its high-definition presentation.

Films that center on supernatural possession often feature a lot of eerie, somewhat subtle surround effects involving the swirls of demons or voices or whatever's at play, logic that carries over into the surround treatment of Sean Byrne's film. There are other nuances to be heard in the 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track that are worth embracing, though. For starters, yes, the full sound stage gets in on the action with the presence of satanic whispers, but the distortion of an electric guitar's strums and the misting of spraypaint also tap into fine separation of the front channels and organic transportation into the rear end. Thuds of wrestling, falling, and the smashing of a rock into flesh also engage lower-end responses, alongside the hefty resonance of metal guitar playing. Dialogue is largely clear, but there are instances where the clarity and naturality gets suppressed and constrained in the center channel, yielding thin and mildly distorted dialogue delivery. Aside from those issues, The Devil's Candy plays a strong horror tune on Blu-ray.

Special Features:

The chief extra for The Devil's Candy arrives in a Commentary with Sean Byrne, who delivers a gracious, fairly standard track that switches from brief insights into the film to unfortunate stretches of describing what's happening onscreen, repeating the plot and stating the obvious about interactions. Byrne does take time to talk about his approach to exposition, his cast, and the entire angle of depicting a "normal" alt-music family. There's also a VFX Behind-the-Scenes (3:22, 16x9 HD) that covers how the film renders fire effects, with some really cool insights about how they did so and some behind-the-scenes footage of the separate elements, including a mannequin that's set ablaze.

Shout Factory have also included one of Sean Byrne's short films, Advantage Satan (10:52, 16x9), which also possesses intimate storytelling interwoven with pointed scares within a tennis court, as well as a Music Video (5:42, 16x9 HD), Goya's "Blackfire" from the soundtrack, an Art Gallery, and a Theatrical Trailer (2:13, 16x9 HD).

Final Thoughts:

Distinct haunted-house scares and a relatively endearing heavy-metal family hallmark The Devil's Candy, Sean Byrne's second feature film, but the ways in which it uses the supernatural keep it from being a much stronger, smarter horror experience. Encounters with satanic persuasion go in more simplistic directions than one would hope for from the director, and the shock-value of the antagonist's desires and the empathy felt for the Hellman family only go so far in counterbalancing that. The performance value, raw visual language, and a willingness to overstep boundaries do give it an edge, but it's just not sharp enough to cut through the on-the-rails nature of the supernatural control imposed upon those impacted by a haunted house. Shout Factory's Blu-ray delivers fine audiovisual merits and a fine collection of extras, which'll make this a worthwhile Rental experience.

Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site
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