The Devil’s Candy is less Pantera and more Parenthood.
Heavy metal and scary movies are two peas in a pod. The relationship dates back to Geezer Butler and Ozzy Osbourne naming their band Black Sabbath after the Mario Bava movie that was screening across the street from their practice space, effectively cementing the cross-section of metal heads and horror hounds for a generation and counting. For his sophomore feature, The Devil’s Candy, Australian filmmaker Sean Byrne (The Loved Ones) checks in on this tried and true relationship, and he asks a unique if admittedly farfetched question: What happens when the macabre make-believe of metal and horror becomes terrifyingly real? Byrne pushes this fear further by focusing on parenthood, a large and largely unrepresented facet of both genres’ fanbases, but like the goth teenager rolling their eyes at their lame parents, you’re likely to find the film’s contrived melodrama and sentimental undertones exasperating.
Jesse Hellman (Ethan Embry) is a tattooed metalhead and family man who makes a meager living as a painter. His spunky teenage daughter Zooey (Kiara Glasco) has inherited his metal madness, while wife Astrid (Shiri Appleby) is more straight-laced by comparison, although her underlying fierceness and physical nature suggests she’s no stranger to mosh pits. The family jumps at the opportunity to move into their dream home on the furthermost outskirts of Austin, Texas, a major bargain due to the recent deaths that took place on the property, to which, of course, they pay little mind. Jesse turns an adjacent barn into his brand new studio, and after a spooky encounter with an inverted cross he finds singed into one of the wall’s in Zooey’s bedroom, he undergoes a creative (perhaps demonic?) possession. He quickly churns out a series of ghoulish tableaus of dead children—including one that depicts his daughter engulfed in flames—that he can’t recall painting but nevertheless appeal to the prominent art dealer who’d previously spurned him.
The sudden onset of Jesse’s newfound artistic prowess, not to mention the otherworldly droning—courtesy of experimental metal stalwarts Sunn O)))—heard in the darkest recesses of the house, suggests a supernatural encounter is inevitable, but the film abruptly pivots to a sort of home invasion thriller after disturbed serial killer Ray Smile (Pruitt Taylor Vince), the adult son of the previous residents, shows up on the family’s doorstep and demands to “come home.” Before Jesse shoos him away, Ray develops a quick obsession with Zooey, leading him to make unwelcomed repeat visits. Byrne utilizes this domestic threat to explore the film’s core fear: A parent’s inability to protect their child from evil. But he also never fully abandons the supernatural element, implying that Ray’s murderous tendencies are driven by the same power that’s now fueling Jesse’s artistic awakening. Rather than coalesce into a complete whole, these conflicting elements—the real and the supernatural—circle each other before mashing together during the film’s awkward and confusing climax.
Despite the film’s miniscule plot, The Devil’s Candy is overstuffed with ideas. Byrne spends the scant 79-minute runtime throwing everything at the wall and hoping it sticks. There are direct references to Metallica and the demonic Swedish metal group, Ghost; allusions to pagan ritual and the Faustian myth of Robert Johnson; Satanic images of goats and inverted crosses; themes involving toxic ambition, selling out and the perils of rural life; stylistic strategies that encompass southern Gothic and backwoods hicksploitation; a thick, burnt orange color palette that imparts the sweaty, sticky intensity of the Texas heat; shots that recall the likes of Tobe Hooper, Roman Polanski and Michael Haneke; and a final image that’s either a religious allegory, an homage to the transcendent potential of heavy metal music or a cynical twist meant to set up a potential sequel. It’s every bit as overwhelming as it sounds, but there is a certain kind of fun to be had in keeping up with it all.
In focusing on all the big picture stuff, though, Byrne lets a series of small and easily fixed issues slip by and build up, eventually detracting from the overall film. His most fatal flaw might be trying to affix metal iconography to conventional dramatic characterizations. Jesse and Astrid struggle with growing older, especially amid an economic climate devoid of upward mobility and opportunity, and these feelings are compounded by their own personal doubts as parents and role models. Meanwhile, we’re told but never shown that Zooey is being bullied for wearing all black and listening to rock and roll, despite the fact that the faux-vintage metal t-shirts sold at H&M and Urban Outfitters are currently all the rage in high school. The film too often feels like a horror-tinged episode of a network television drama, and while this might be Byrne’s way of suggesting that even metalhead families face the same everyday issues as “basic” families, the familiar approach betrays the metal milieu, which, in its purest form, actively rejects and confronts familiarity. In other words, The Devil’s Candy is less Pantera and more Parenthood.