So, look: this is the kind of review that's the hardest to write.
On the one hand, I love virtually everyone involved here. I'm a fan of this cast, which includes Pruitt Taylor Vince, Shiri Appleby, and Ethan Embry. I'm a fan of Sean Byrne, whose first feature, The Loved Ones, is one of the most criminally-underseen horror gems of the past decade. I'm a fan of the subject matter (horror of the Satanic variety). I'm a fan of the fact that they shot this thing just up the road from where I live in Austin. I'm a fan of swinging for the fences, which I think that The Devil's Candy does. And yet, I did not love The Devil's Candy*.
Byrne's latest begins in an isolated farmhouse on the outskirts of Austin, TX, where Ray (Pruitt Taylor Vince) is trying to fall asleep. He's having a rough go of it, though, as he's tormented by a voice only he can hear. It's a dark, slithery, unquestionably evil voice, and it seems to be emanating from the walls of the house itself. Ray's only means for drowning out the voice is a Gibson Flying V, which he plays at full volume through a Marshall amp to blot out...well, everything, really: the voice, the world, anyone who might come into his room and ask him to turn it down.
We soon learn that Ray has a troubled history, and before the title even hits the screen we've seen what he's capable of. Ray is childlike and troubled, but mostly he's just very dangerous, possibly operating on orders from the Devil himself.
Flashing forward a bit, we meet another family: Jesse (Embry, looking like the most ripped Jesus of all time), his wife Astrid (Appleby), and their daughter, Zooey (Kiara Glasco, who you might recognize from Cronenberg's heavily-debated Maps To The Stars). Jesse and Astrid are looking for a new home, and soon they're touring the same farmhouse we were introduced to earlier in the film. Despite the real estate agent's warning that the house once played home to two unfortunate deaths, Jesse and Astrid decide to buy it. They move in, and it's not long before someone's knocking on the front door.
It's Ray. He'd like to move back in.
At this point, you would be forgiven for thinking The Devil's Candy is another "house under siege" film; that certainly seems where things are headed at the twenty-minute mark. But Byrne (who also scripted) is playing a different game here, and soon enough we're following Jesse and Ray down a rabbit hole as they struggle to gain control of the demons that plague them. For Jesse, that's a lack of artistic inspiration and the need to keep his family safe. For Ray, it's...well, Ray just wants some peace and quiet and to keep his violent urges at bay. Eventually these characters' struggles erupt in a nightmarish confrontation at Ray/Jesse's house, and it's a doozy.
On paper, this sounds like it'd be right up my alley, and the film contains moments that certainly got my blood pumping. One sequence, wherein a character being held captive in a bathroom needs to escape before another character returns with a hacksaw (sorry for the vagueries; I'm trying to keep this spoiler-free), works like gangbusters, and the final showdown between Ray and Jesse's family is particularly well-executed. There's also some shadowy stuff involving Jesse's attempts to be picked up by a local art gallery that I enjoyed, and I liked the family dynamic shared by Embry, Appleby, and Glasco. You root for these characters, and want them to live; that right there's an improvement on most horror films.
But for whatever reason, the whole thing just didn't gel for me. On the whole, I found the film a bit uneven, and the tricks The Devil's Candy does have up its sleeve just didn't wow me much. I wanted to like this one more than I did, and I can't help but wonder if it didn't suffer from being the third film I saw at Fantastic Fest on a day where my first two screenings blew me away.
The Devil's Candy is by no means a bad film. It's handsomely-shot and well-acted, and - if nothing else - it should be supported because Byrne is a talent I want to see in the game more often. Here's hoping this one hits for him where The Loved Ones didn't, because I think Byrne's got a truly great movie or two in him.
* = Also worth mentioning: I am clearly in the minority on this one. The response to The Devil's Candy following its Fantastic Fest premiere was overwhelmingly positive, so much so that I'd like to give the film another shot and see if that makes any difference.