NOTE: This review originally ran as part of our TIFF 2015 coverage.
PLOT: After moving into a new home with his family, a painter (Ethan Embry) falls prey to satanic forces with designs on his young daughter.
REVIEW: It's been a long wait for a follow-up to director Sean Byrne's THE LOVED ONES. Happily, it's been worth the six years it took to get his next film, THE DEVIL'S CANDY, in-front of the ravenous TIFF Midnight Madness audience that made LOVED ONES such a sensation. Strikingly different than that blackly comic, often brilliant take-off on the teen horror genre, with this one Byrne leaves his native Australia behind for Austin, Texas where he's made a deliciously over-the-top satanic horror flick with heavy doses of gore, metal and most surprisingly – heart.
More than anything, THE DEVIL'S CANDY is a major comeback for star Ethan Embry. A former hearthrob known mostly for his turn in the nineties teen classic CAN'T HARDLY WAIT, Embry's virtually unrecognizable underneath an unruly mop of metal-head hair and a goatee. Sporting tons of body art and a six-pack, Embry looks like a heavy-metal Jesus, a look that's appropriate given how he spends most of the film being tempted by satanic forces that offer him fame and fortune at the potential cost of his family.
What makes Embry so good in the lead is the dynamic he has with on-screen wife (Shiri Appleby) and daughter (Kiara Glasco). Byrne spends some time establishing a pleasant family dynamic, with Embry and Glasco both being hard-core metal-heads, while Appleby is the level-headed one who holds down the day job and supports the family. It would have been stereotypical to have Embry's metal-head dad come-off as a deadbeat, but rather he's shown to be a kind and devoted husband and a doting dad, making his potential temptation have higher stakes for the audience, as he's so easy to identify-with.
Like THE LOVED ONES, Byrne doesn't hold back in terms of violence, with a parallel plot centering around Pruitt Taylor Vince as a child-killer with designs on the daughter. Byrne's never been one to linger on violence but THE DEVIL'S CANDY is certainly far-harsher than typical studio genre fare, although by the same token it's also smarter and more emotionally engaging.
Once again, Byrne's technical chops are second to none, with gorgeous visuals by Simon Chapman and a solid score by Michael Yezerski that's also chock-ful of great metal tunes like Metallica's 'For Whom the Bell Tolls.' Bryne's also taken care filling even the smallest parts, with a very effective cameo by Leland Orser.
While it would be tempting to imagine Byrne getting to work with a studio-level budget, his films (which he also writes) are such distinct pieces of work it's not a stretch to think he'd be forced to water-down his vision. Moments such as the insane metal-video style conclusion would probably freak-out nervous studio execs so maybe it's best he does his own thing. Certainly THE DEVIL'S CANDY is a strong follow-up to THE LOVED ONES and yet more evidence that Byrne's one of the most exciting and original genre voices out there.