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Parents, don’t let your kids listen to doom metal. Australian writer-director Sean Byrne has some malevolent fun with the familiar perception of Satan’s music as an invitation to evil — or, failing that, a means to drown it out — in his first American feature, The Devil’s Candy. But the movie runs out of ideas after an offbeat start, losing most of its dark humor along the way. Teasing us with the promise of a haunted house only to scale back to a tale of parallel possession, and then downsize further still to restrict its principal mayhem to one crazed psychopath, this is strictly VOD fodder.
Byrne made a splash in Toronto’s Midnight Madness section in 2009 with The Loved Ones, about a spurned prom date who turns torturer with daddy’s help. That film’s crafty repurposing of ingredients lifted from the John Hughes cookbook marked the director as a subversive original in the making. But this decently acted, disappointingly generic follow-up is a more familiar beast, with very few surprises up its sleeve.
Jesse (Ethan Embry) is an unfulfilled artist, painting butterfly murals for banks on commission when he’d rather be doing darker stuff like the tattoo art adorning his hard body. (He paints shirtless, so we get to see a lot of it.) His teenage daughter, Zooey (Kiara Glasco), shares his taste for loud headbanger music, while his wife, Astrid (Shiri Appleby), tolerates it with an indulgent smile. Byrne winks at the audience by dousing the establishing happy-family scenes in songs like “Everyone Dies” and “Already Dead.”
When a dream property in rural Texas turns up on the market with a roomy studio space for Jesse to work in, the family takes the plunge. The bargain price trumps the realtor’s full-disclosure warning that two people died there.
One of those deaths has already been seen in the prologue, when hulking, jittery Ray (Pruitt Taylor Vince) and the demonic voices in his head are introduced, and his mother makes the silly mistake of threatening to send him back to the hospital. It’s not long before Jesse also starts hearing the same Beelze-babble, which breathes new life into his work. Suddenly the butterflies have the faces of terrified children, including Zooey’s, and sinister gallery owner Leonard (Tony Amendola) develops an interest after previously giving Jesse the brush-off. (Everyone knows art dealers are Satan’s minions.)
Meanwhile Ray decides he wants to come home, developing a dangerous obsession with Zooey once she shares her love of Metallica and the Gibson Flying V that he also thrashes in his moments of darkest unrest.
Naturally, all this spells escalating chaos and carnage as Jesse struggles to protect his family while increasingly falling prey to the tenebrous forces in his head. If Byrne is going for some kind of Faustian theme with the artist’s fruitful new muse, it doesn’t take root. And Ray is such a lumbering presence in his red velour jogging suit that it’s hard to believe he keeps evading the cops. In truth, they barely seem to be on his tail. This is one of those movies in which multiple children have been disappearing, but the guy in the area with the history of violence and psychiatric hospitalization appears only now to have raised suspicions.
Byrne throws in some arch fire-and-brimstone talk via a late-night TV preacher (Leland Orser), but the wit generally is in short supply. When the blood starts flowing and the flames of hell begin raging, there’s not enough character development, storytelling vigor or enveloping atmosphere to make us do much but sit back and wait until the family in peril inevitably claws its way out of the inferno.
Production companies: Snoot Entertainment
Cast: Ethan Embry, Shiri Appleby, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Kiara Glasco, Tony Amendola, Craig Nigh, Leonard Orser, O’Ryan Landa
Director-screenwriter: Sean Byrne
Producers: Keith Calder, Jessica Calder
Director of photography: Simon Chapman
Production designer: Thomas S. Hammock
Costume designer: Stacy Ellen Rich
Music: Michael Yezerski
Editor: Andy Canny
Visual effects supervisor: Johnny Han
Casting: Sarah Dowling
Sales: HanWay Films, CAA
No rating, 79 minutes
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