A malevolent, droning chant has invaded the mind of Ray Smilie (Pruitt Taylor Vince), his only respite to drown it out in the loud strumming of his electric bass. That is, until he discovers a second remedy: the sacrificial slaughtering of innocents. His homicidal spree ultimately coincides with a family who has just moved into his old home, a possessed Texas farmhouse where he took the life of his sister. "The Devil's Candy" is the sophomore effort of writer-director Sean Byrne, whose wickedly great 2010 Australian feature "The Loved Ones" was mishandled and buried by Insurge and Paramount Pictures with a middling 2012 Stateside release. While that sorely under-the-radar film continues to be one of the best horror debuts of its decade, his follow-up is cut from a slightly more conventional and familiar cloth, albeit with a welcome twist: the tattooed, heavy-metal-loving family at its center are close, loving, respectful, and altogether the antithesis of the caricatures such individuals are usually portrayed as in the media.
Jesse (Ethan Embry) is a struggling artist hoping for a new start and fresh inspiration when he moves his familywife Astrid (Shiri Appleby) and teenage daughter Zooey (Kiara Glasco)into the country. The realtor (Craig Nigh) discloses up front the farmhouse was the location of a recent murder-suicide, about which they seem to be unconcerned. Almost immediately, Jesse begins hearing the same insidious chant and is overcome with daytime blackouts in his makeshift art studio, losing track of time and coming to just in time to discover he has painted a chilling new piece. Torn between dangerous supernatural powers he does not understand and the professional success this new work could bring him, he faces no less than alienating the people he cares about most. A more immediate threat, however, arrives in the form of former owner Ray Smilie (Pruitt Taylor Vince), who has set his sights on Zooey as his next victim.
"The Devil's Candy" is smart genre filmmaking, a taut juggling of the menacing and the character-centric. Sean Byrne understands the value in developing the tight-knit familial unit of Jesse, Astrid and Zooey; not only do they feel like real people, but when their fates are put into jeopardy viewers have a reason to root for their survival. Performances are unforced and committed all around, with Ethan Embry (2014's "Cheap Thrills
") and Kiara Glasco (2014's "I'll Follow You Down
") building a particularly affecting relationship as father and daughter Jesse and Zooey, and Pruitt Taylor Vince (2014's "13 Sins
") embodying intimidating, laser-focused malignance as the psychologically possessed Ray Smilie.
At 80 minutes, there is little fat to the narrative of "The Devil's Candy," but also not enough time to fully dig into themes of obsession and the interpersonal costs of one's craft. What the picture carries in spades is a queasy, sustained tension that only escalates during the fiery third act. Even if this climax doesn't add up to as much as one might be hoping, it is thoroughly successful on a visceral level. Take away the horror elements and Jesse, Astrid and Zooey would still be interesting enough to have a slice-of-life made about thema tell-tale sign that all involved are doing a whole lot right.