Regretfully, we live in times where the sight of a production company logo no longer makes much of a statement about the film that follows, which is just one of the reasons why the Cannon/Vestron Video-inspired tag that adorns all Snoot Entertainment’s endeavors is a welcome change. In a short amount of time, Jessica and Keith Calder have established that if their name is on a film, a promise of a very specific kind of fun is being made, putting themselves right alongside the filmmakers they’ve championed as auteurs on such films as “The Guest,” and “Faults” that marry strong genrebending instincts with even stronger characters. This is notable in the case of their latest, “The Devil’s Candy,” written and directed by “The Loved Ones”‘ Sean Byrne, a down and dirty Texas-set thriller that bears the hallmarks of their best work.
Having virtually rediscovered Ethan Embry, the once-gawky teen of “Empire Records” fame, as a grizzled wild man in their acquisition “Cheap Thrills,” the Calders surely nudged Byrne towards the ideal leading man for the story of a painter named Jesse, who with his wife Astrid (Shiri Appleby) and their teen daughter Zooey (Kiara Glasco, another real find), is about to buy his first home. The only catch, as the smooth-talking Texan who sells them the abode has to “fess up,” is it was the site of two deaths, and as they learn after signing the lease, the man responsible (Pruitt Taylor Vince) hasn’t entirely moved on.
However, even unaware that they’ll soon be pursued by a killer, something is off about the house, at least for Jesse, who finds himself inspired like he never has been before, putting aside the commissions of butterfly paintings for banks he needs to paint to make rent in favor of portraits of downward crucifixes and hellish infernos, as if he’s possessed by the devil himself. Actually, Byrne makes no bones about this fact early on, linking Jesse and Vince’s Ray as recruits into Satan’s army through a spirit in the house, with the latter far further along in the process, leaving it to Jesse to either resist or accept such a destiny.
Set to a headbanging heavy metal soundtrack, owing to the family’s shared love of Metallica and Motörhead well before the 666 signs start showing up, you’d be surprised that how Byrne turns the screws in “The Devil’s Candy” isn’t with the flair for visceral violence he showed in “The Loved Ones,” but the amount of effort he puts in to make you care about Jesse, Astrid and Zooey a real family. Although Byrne doesn’t skimp on frightening imagery – you’ve never seen the act of painting looks so menacing – it’s Jesse and Zooey’s increasingly fraught relationship that is the most affecting as Jesse’s battle against being possessed, either by Beezlebub or possibly worse, the professional opportunities afforded by his newfound inspiration, is clearly driven by staying connected to his daughter. This primal fear makes up for the film’s weakest link being Vince, who is nothing if not dependable and imposing, but appears at times to being a little bored to be again playing a demented killer, a role he’s often been consigned to throughout his career.
However, lethargy isn’t a defining characteristic of “The Devil’s Candy,” which is lean and mean at 79 minutes, rocking and rolling all the way to a fiery finale. While it’s hard to believe it took nearly six years for Byrne to return to the big screen, it’s a return worth celebrating, displaying the stylistic flourishes that made “The Loved Ones” so memorable while plying his craft to something likely more accessible to a wider audience and though the question lingers whether Byrne will send his characters to purgatory, he leaves no such doubt about the film being fun as hell.
“The Devil’s Candy” does not yet have U.S. distribution. It will play Fantastic Fest once more on September 29th at 5 pm at the Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar.