Australian director Sean Byrne might only have two feature films to his name, but it's certainly a matter of quality over quantity. His 2009 debut The Loved Ones is Ozploitation at its finest. Making able use of a single location, the story of a spurned young woman seeking revenge on the classmate who turned down her prom invite is a potent mix of physical violence and mental manipulation that still manages to shock a decade after its release. That said, The Loved Ones has a sense of humor that one might not be clued into at first. The film's poster - with Lola (Robin McLeavy) in a prom dress and paper crown, holding a portable drill - seems to indicate that this is more torture than humour, but there are undoubtedly some laugh out loud moments in Byrne's script, with the audience gasping just as much at the absurdity of the situation as they are the brutality. Thus, when Byrne's follow-up, The Devil's Candy, finally saw wide release in early 2017, audiences thought they were ready for it.
That's not to say the response to The Devil's Candy wasn't positive, because it certainly was, but while The Loved Ones was a pastel palette, soundtracked with candy floss pop songs, The Devil's Candy is a blood-red satanic heavy metal nightmare. Just a glimpse at some of the musical acts playing in the background and foreground of the film is a who's who of classic headbanging jams: Metallica, Slayer, Pantera, Ghost, Sunn O))), and Machine Head, to name but a few.
Maybe it's because Byrne's film played festivals and then ended up heading to VOD, without much of a big theatrical push, but the surprising thing about The Devil's Candy is how much of a proto-Mandy the film is. Certainly, the soundtrack plays a big part in the comparison, as Sunn O)))'s Stephen O'Malley played guitar on the Mandy score, and the work by musician Vivek Maddala in the opening scene is sure to ring familiar to anyone who's played Jóhann Jóhannsson's score for Panos Cosmatos' 2018 film.
The respective plots for The Devil's Candy and Mandy differ substantially in the details, but a short gloss of the plot of each reveals similarities. For example, the official plot summary for Byrne's film from IFC Midnight is as follows:
A not-so-average family wrestles with Satan in a house from hell in this heavy metal-charged shocker from the director of The Loved Ones. Diehard metalhead and struggling artist Jesse (Ethan Embry) moves with his wife (Shiri Appleby) and daughter (Kiara Glasco) to a middle-of-nowhere Texas town, unaware that the new house they got for an unbelievable deal comes with a grisly history. Disturbing demonic goings-on culminate with the appearance of Ray (The Walking Dead’s Pruitt Taylor Vince). He’s the home’s former resident, and he’s here to do the Devil’s bidding.
Let's see: there's artistry, a mysterious man invading the home located out in the middle of nowhere and attacking a loved one, revenge, big doomy metal riffs, and a lot of red light, fire, and evil imagery which may or may not be hallucinations. That's certainly something. However, while the plot of Mandy is about one person's love for another, The Devil's Candy is definitely a more multifaceted film. In Cosmatos' movie, Red (Nicolas Cage) has a pleasant existence, his girlfriend Mandy (Andrea Riseborough) is murdered by Jeremiah Sand's (Linus Roache) Children of the New Dawn, and then he goes on a revenging rampage. There's a lot of psychedelic imagery, but it's otherwise a pretty straightforward revenge film.
For The Devil's Candy, however, there's Jesse's attempt to make a living as an artist, which requires doing butterflies on a field for a bank, when he really wants to be accepted by Leonard (Tony Amendola), the owner of an Austin art gallery named Belial. It's only when Jesse and his family move into the house where Ray murdered both of his parents after hearing the voice of someone only known as ‘Him’ that Jesse's art transforms into something more.
Possibly Jesse is hearing voices - maybe it's Him, perhaps it's madness, maybe it's the visions of the children Ray is murdering and burying in suitcases in the woods, but there's something going on. When Jesse's daughter, Zooey (Kiara Glasco), is kidnapped by Ray, who then attacks their home after Zooey escapes, it becomes a fight for survival amongst the flames.
In an effort to make sense of it all, we reached out to Jesse himself, the actor Ethan Embry, who was kind enough to talk about his vision of The Devil's Candy, and some of the behind-the-scenes decisions that went on. He was pretty clear about how the location of where The Devil's Candy was filmed had an influence over the making of Sean Byrne's movie. “You have the major cities of Texas - Houston, Dallas, Austin, and San Antonio - and then, as soon as you get out of those, the vibe, the legal system - everything - changes,” Embry explained. “And we were just a few miles outside of Travis County, which is where Austin is, and it was completely different. It changes quickly, there.”
It effected more on the production side than it did for Embry's role as Jesse, however. The film was shot under the name Babylon, due to the fundamentalist nature of the area in which it was being made. “You go, 'We're making a movie, and it's called The Devil's Candy,' you're going to get some resistance and people are going to want to read it,” offers the actor with a laugh. After some discussion regarding the many, many tattoos Embry sports as Jesse, wherein the actor said that a good number of ‘biker-looking’ ones were his (although the spine tattoo from next to lower back had to be applied every day), we get into the nitty gritty of the film's plot. Depending on how one views The Devil's Candy, it can either be seen as madness borne out of a location, or it could be actual devils and demons wreaking havoc. Either way, Satan never makes a physical appearance. “I would talk to Sean a lot about that while we were doing that,” Embry says of his initial impression of the storyline. “I was like, 'I still don't know if you're saying Satan's real or if I'm crazy and if Ray is crazy,' and Sean would say, 'Yeah, do that, because I like that tone.'”
Byrne would go on to point out to Embry that, when Jesse discovers the children, whose agonised faces he's been painting, buried in suitcases that obviously meant something spoke to Embry's character. That was a real, concrete connection, and that's Byrne's interpretation, but Embry leans more to the take that Jesse and Ray were just crazy. “That's what I believe, but then, you do have that thing, where the buried kids were crying out to me and I find their buried bodies,” Embry admits, however. “Then the Lord parts the clouds and I cry with the infusion of the Holy Spirit.” Embry continues, saying that while he doesn't know what our beliefs might be, his are that religion is just a really strong mental conviction: “I've felt what people say is the Holy Spirit flowing through you, and what it probably was is just a flush of chemicals imbalanced in my brain.” It's similar to the idea of Jerusalem Syndrome, wherein people visit the Holy Land and become convinced that they're the new embodiment of Christ, and therefore God's chosen prophet on Earth. When Embry hears about it, he's right there. “I bet it feels really good,” exclaims the actor. “I bet it feels really good; imagine feeling that you're chosen. Like, fuck - of course you're going to have to tell everyone.”
However, for the most part, Embry's portrayal of Jesse was borne out of a desire to make his character someone who was real. Metal is a big part of Embry raising his son, so he wanted to show some of that non-satanic version of the metal crowd. Unlike films such as Deathgasm, wherein metalheads have a certain Bill and Ted comically exaggerated aspect to them, he wanted Jesse to normalise ‘that metal guy’. “Family man, regular dude, loves his daughter - he just loves metal,” Embry explains. “It's kind of what I was in my 20s. My son, when he was a baby, he would only sleep when I put him the car seat in the back of the Chevy Suburban and drove around listening to Master of Puppets. The metal aspect and the father/daughter relationship is what made me really excited about it, because I always wrote, 'It's a love story' on my pages. It's not a horror movie, it's not a metal movie - it's a fucking love story between a dad and his daughter.”
THE DEVIL’S CANDY is on Horror Channel May 20th at 9pm, tune in via Sky 317, Virgin 149, Freeview 68, Freesat 138.