This is not about candy. Certainly not about Hi-Chew despite my feelings on the matter. Nor is it, exactly, a movie review.
Here’s the thing. I love horror movies. (No! Really? Tell me something I don’t know!) But so many movies come out every year that it’s impossible for me to watch all of them.
And let’s be honest–there are a lot of bad horror movies out there. And even among the good ones, there are certain sub-genres that I don’t care that much about. For instance, it takes something special for me to watch a serial killer movie. And I have no interest in torture-porn. But I keep up to date–watch a lot of trailers, read a lot of reviews & synopsis. Been that way for ages.
So, The Devil’s Candy has been on my radar for a while.
The writer/director Sean Byrne is getting a lot of buzz as a young genre film maker, and his film The Loved Ones was something of an indie darling when it came out in 2009. Not that I watched it. Despite the good reviews, it leans into the serial killer/torture porn direction, and while that’s great for some people, I just don’t need it in my head. But The Devil’s Candy, his long-awaited follow-up got my attention.
For one, it looks great. And I love the cast. Ethan Embry doesn’t get the love he deserves, typically, and Shiri Appleby should really get cast more. Plus, it features Pruitt Taylor Vince, one of my favorite character actors out there. Combine with a story about art & artists, Satan, and flavored with a dose of heavy metal music and it tics a lot of boxes for me.
The movie works so well in so many ways. Nice, crisp pacing, good sense of dread, great performances across the board. Sean Byrne is really good at what he does, and I eagerly await his next project (though IMDB doesn’t show him working on anything–hope I’m wrong). I really wanted to love this movie. Few things make me happier than being able to recommend an indie horror to someone who might not otherwise see it.
But herein lies the rub, and why this is not really a review.
The Devil’s Candy, for all it does right, relies on a trope that has a long history in horror cinema, and that is the demonizing of mental illness and mental disability. While there is ample evidence that the killer, Ray Smilie (played to perfection by Pruitt Taylor Vince) is hearing the voice of Satan, driving him to kill children, this is muddied by the decision to make him both somewhat mentally challenged and suffering from mental illness. And I get it. I do.
And that’s the problem. Horror movies aren’t typically meant to portray the real world. At their best, they’re fun house mirrors, reflecting our world back at us, warped and frightening. They help us process our fears of the world in a safe space, but in doing so, they can colonize our consciousness, helping to subtly inform us of what to fear in our regular lives as well.
And just like the movie Jaws made people unreasonably terrified of sharks, movies like this and tragically so many others work by selling us a fear of the other. Not of ghosts or zombies or vampires, but of people who fall outside the narrowly defined box we call “normal.” The truth is, there is no “normal.” The more painful truth is that people with mental illness and mental disadvantages are significantly more likely to be the victims of violent attacks than the perpetrators of said violence. Not that you’d know it by watching horror movies.
It’s especially hard for me to overlook when the conceit of the film isn’t “deranged killer” so much as “the devil is real and making people do shit.” You need look no further than Ethan Embry’s Jesse Hellman tortured artist, visually coded as heavy metal loving white Jesus, and his artistic journey to say with confidence that real supernatural evil exists under the skin of this world.
By way of example, one of my favorite horror movies, Session 9, is also about “the devil is real and making people do shit.” Part of what makes it work so well, what makes it especially chilling, is that the killer turns out to be just so goddamned average. He could be in line behind you at the bank, or sitting next to you on the bus, and you could have a conversation with him and never in a million years realize what he’s capable of. In The Devil’s Candy, you are given no room to doubt that Ray Smilie is dangerous. He radiates a dangerous fragility from his first appearance. And again, amazing performance.
Anyway, The Devil’s Candy was a well made movie. There was stuff in there I really liked. I just wish it, and by extension the genre I love, would make more informed choices.