Screening as part of the Queensland Film Festival, The Devil’s Candy is a highly stylised horror flick from Australian director Sean Byrne, coming some six years after his well received debut feature The Loved Ones. In many ways, The Devil’s Candy is a fairly typical haunted house tale in which a family find themselves terrorised upon taking up residence in a rural house with a bloody past. However, Byrne has turned to heavy metal music to add something different to what is an otherwise recognisable course of events. Metal infuses every aspect of the story, from the shared love of the genre by both Jesse Hellman (Ethan Embrey) and his teenage daughter Zooey (Kiara Glasco), to the foreboding power chords unleashed by childlike antagonist Ray Smilie (Pruett Taylor Vince) to drown out the voices in his head.
Byrne teases with the promise of a haunted house tale, only to steer the narrative into a story that is more akin to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre than Poltergeist. In fact, the film plays out more as a psychological thriller than it does a horror film. A pre-credits sequence introduces us to Ray when he doesn’t take too kindly to his mother threatening to send him back to hospital. Cut to sometime in the future and we meet the Hellman family, which also includes mother Astrid (Shiri Appleby), as they inspect a too-good-to-be-true bargain basement family home in rural Texas. Needless to say, they dismiss the realtor’s disclosure about the deaths that occurred in the house and, in no time at all, they are moving into what is supposed to be their dream home, complete with suitably eerie shed in which artist Jesse sets up his studio. It isn’t too long before Ray, having escaped from the facility that has housed him since his parent’s deaths, lobs on the front door and takes an instant liking to Zooey, but not in a good way.
When Jesse starts to hear the exact same voices that have tortured Ray, his work takes a decidedly dark turn and his behaviour becomes increasingly erratic, putting his family at risk. Meanwhile, a lumbering presence resplendent in a red track suit, the rotund Ray is somehow able to avoid the attention of the police, despite his history of violence and the disappearance of several local children. Sure enough, Ray returns to the house for a final bloody showdown that is well staged even if the fate of the various players is never really in doubt.
Embrey is certainly a welcome surprise, delivering an energetic performance as the toned, tattooed Jesse, while it is terrific to see the under-rated Appleby on the big screen. Having spent a long time on television (Roswell, Girls, UnReal) and often single-handedly elevating an otherwise mediocre program into something worth watching, Appleby is an actress whose ability far outweighs her profile, although that may not be the case for much longer. The real standout here though is Glasco, whose only real performance of note before this was in David Cronenberg’s Map to the Stars. Put through an emotional wringer as the object of Ray’s obsession, Glasco handles it with aplomb, presenting Zooey as both feisty and fragile. While the cinematography ominously conveys the isolation of the Hellman’s house and floods the screen with foreboding imagery that is combined with the heavy metal soundtrack to great effect, several plot holes and the lack of character development hamper what is an otherwise solid sophomore film. With a running time of less than 90 minutes, there was certainly plenty of scope for Byrne to delve into each of the characters a bit more in an effort to make us care about what happens to them. The ending is both inconclusive and abrupt, proffering more questions than answers and it certainly doesn’t offer up any insight into the fate of the characters beyond this particularly tumultuous point in their lives, which might leave some viewers feeling short changed.