Moving house is one of the most dangerous things you can do in horror movies, asking for trouble as surely as having premarital sex, toking up, or going down to the basement to check the fuses. So, naturally, Sean Byrne’s 2015 film The Devil’s Candy follows the Hellman family’s move into a capacious rural farmhouse where, in the cold open, we witnessed a big man murder his elderly mom when she wouldn’t let him hammer power chords late at night. It turns out that he not only killed his mother, but his father, too, and now their beautiful, turn-of-the-century, conspicuously-cross-decorated house is going cheap, cheap enough that the Hellmans can’t say no. Buying a house is a big, big deal for the tiny family, and as a DFW homeowner myself, I can’t stress enough how little they should be able to afford this thing, even in rural Texas, even if they had to scrub blood off the hardwood themselves. They’re supported largely by mom Astrid’s (Shiri Appleby) salary, as dad Jesse (Ethan Embry) is a struggling painter working on the odd commission, but a major selling point of the cursed property is that Jesse would get a huge barn for a studio space. So often it’s economics that damn us to hell.
The Hellmans move into their new digs in a blissfully happy montage that, thanks to the soundtrack of Spiderbait’s “Conjunctivitis,” still manages to be plenty ominous, like redoing the Friends opening in a minor key. Before long, Jesse is stabbing acrylic paint onto a huge canvas in his new studio. And hearing whispers and going into fugue states. Like you do. Now, the usual way this story goes, Amityville-style, Jesse should start filling his paintbrushes with blood instead of paint. In a way, he does, but it’s a bit trickier than that. The killer from the beginning of the film is still out there, still being driven by the same demonic susurrus Jesse is starting to hear, whispers that bid him do bad things. Imbued with surprising vulnerability by Pruitt Taylor Vince, killer Ray Smilie* is actually trying very hard not to kill again, but he can’t find a place that will let him shred metal at sufficient volume to drown out the devil’s demands,** and when he returns to the family home, Jesse naturally sends him packing. And so finally, he relents, dismembering children in motel bathrooms lest he be bounced into the pokey for a noise complaint, and miles away, Jesse unknowingly documents the agony of Ray’s victims on canvas. Afterward, Jesse stands away from his work, horrified, but he’s not altogether displeased with it. When a fugue painting session produces a rendition of his own daughter burning, shocking his wife, he still can’t bring himself to destroy it. The work also finally gets him the notice of an important gallery owner. So often it’s not just economics, but grasping for dreams outside our income bracket that damn us to hell.
Or do they? One of the careful subversions of trope here is that, Jesse’s work struggles aside, the Hellmans are an extraordinarily loving and well-adjusted family, and that’s more notable because they’re not a came-with-the-frame family. They are messy and rock n’ roll on the outside, but that betrays nothing corrosive lurking in their family life, and I love that. With their conspicuous metal health, the Hellmans are a reflection of reality, not an echo of a stereotype, and that extends to their individual personalities and the richness of the actors’ performances. Sure, we have Jesse as a standard tormented artist on paper, but there’s a great deal more substance to him that doesn’t need to call attention to itself to justify itself. That is to say, he’s not complicated purely because he’s meant to be an antithesis to a stereotype. He’s just genuinely multifaceted in a horror movie. Astrid does have something of the undeveloped, smirking reliability of a sitcom wife, but the chemistry between Embry and Appleby tells of a convincing bedrock partnership, and any focus on Astrid is a bit downplayed because the story arrows to the bond between Jesse and teenage daughter Zooey (Kiara Glasco). Smart and good-humored, Zooey is clearly still daddy’s girl in her outdated Slayer shirt and timeless teen angst. For his part, Jesse is a pretty model father – down-to-earth, sensitive, constructive. Basically, he’s unshowered, tattooed metalhead Ward Cleaver sending his nervous daughter off to her first day in a new school with wise words and devil horns.
Of course, hauntings and possessions are relationships, and they don’t happen to just anyone. There has to be the chemistry of right person, wrong house. Take Eleanor in the haunted house story ne plus ultra, Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, or Jack in Stephen King’s Hill House-inspired The Shining, where latent psychological frustrations and psychic ability ignite the baleful powers of secluded, hulking monuments to evil. Jesse could probably share a few beers with Jack Torrence and do a little mutual venting over the difficulty of being a working artist. Jesse also calls to my mind Ethan Hawke’s character in Sinister (2012), true crime author Ellison Oswalt, whose pursuit of fame inspires him to move his family into the site of a horrific unsolved murder. Like Jack and Ellison, Jesse will be tempted to sacrifice his family to his art, although unlike Jack and Elliott, Jesse’s obsessiveness never occludes his love for his family. It’s true that he’s not forthcoming about the whispers he hears and is initially protective of his infernal paintings. It’s also true that the act of painting itself causes him to lapse in his commitments to his daughter, with terrifying consequences. Yet Jesse never falters once he understands the stakes. He might have the ear for the devil’s demands, but he doesn’t have the heart for them.
Jesse’s relationship with Ray is a unique twist on devil possessions and bad houses. When Ray wanders home, lost, still struggling not to kill, both Astrid and Zooey are upset at Jesse’s harshness when he threatens Ray into leaving. Whether through deception or misunderstanding, the realtor didn’t give the Hellmans the true account of the deaths in their house. They don’t have reason to suspect Ray is a murderer. (Vince portrays Ray at the perfect level of discomfiting, but not malicious.) Neither Astrid nor Zooey sees the danger in Ray that’s obvious to Jesse, who seems to recognize the man on the other side of the door as fully the threat the audience knows he is. As a hero must know his shadow. Ray’s special interest in Zooey will further underline this. Ray is a pathetic creature, still somehow innocent as he drapes himself in a makeshift butcher’s apron of black plastic, driven to feed the devil his “candy” of murdered children. When he is closing on his victims, he has the freight train determination and sick brutality of Rob Zombie’s Michael Myers, but he never loses an aura of helpless compulsion. The devil may well also possess Jesse through his painting, but that painting is a channel that goes both ways, and the stronger, more loved and loving Jesse isn’t entirely at its mercy. The symbiotic relationship between Jesse and Ray ends up being not unlike the connection between Dracula and half-vamped Mina, who helps her team of fearless vampire killers track the infamous Count, with Jesse’s painting shedding more light than darkness in a final confrontation for the souls of Ray’s victims and Zooey’s life.
And that is what I really admire about The Devil’s Candy. From the outset, it looks so familiar: family moves into murder house; grungy artist-type gets possessed by devil; more murders ensue. But at every point the story could take the easy, familiar way, it doesn’t. Even in the cold open, having Ray awakened to eerie whispering is boilerplate haunted house stuff, but having Ray pop up and start hammering away on his Flying V most definitely is not. Sean Byrne has a gift for unflinching violence and suffering that reminds me a lot of Rob Zombie, but this not a Rob Zombie film. It’s drenched in purposeful, ugly dissonance, but that only amplifies the harmonies at its heart. As much Full House as Hell House, The Devil’s Candy still resists burying the needle in either sentiment or slaughterporn. The balance it achieves is a vindication of the power of art and family to redeem the worst human frailty and not only save a life, but make a life worth saving.
The Devil’s Candy is currently available streaming on Netflix.
*Yes, the names in this are cute. Please don’t hold that against it.
**I’m just going to assume headphones don’t work for reasons Ray has explored off-camera.
Angela suggests the oeuvre of the Wiggles should you need to drown out the voice of the devil in your own life. Ain’t nothing getting those songs out of your head. Bowtiful, bowtiful.
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