Sean Byrne Talks ‘The Devil’s Candy’ and Its Dark Spin on Occult Horror

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The director opens up about how his fears inspired the heavy metal infused homage.

It’s hard to adequately describe The Devil’s Candy, Australian director Sean Byrne’s follow up to 2009’s The Loved Ones. The film, which premiered at the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival and was eventually picked up by IFC Midnight for U.S. distribution, is a pastiche of occult horror, demonic possession, and religious mania, while also offering viewers a truly poignant family drama. It’s a pure treat for horror fans but above all else, it’s metal as fuck – literally.

The Devil’s Candy follows the not-so-ordinary Hellman family who move into an isolated but spacious Texas farmhouse, which may be a gateway to something sinister. Ethan Embry stars as Jesse, a struggling painter, who bonds with his daughter, Zooey (Kiara Glasco), over their shared love of heavy metal music. Shiri Appleby rounds up the family as Astrid, the straight-laced wife and mother who holds the family down financially, while Jesse works from home on commissioned paintings and takes Zooey to and from school. Although Zooey struggles to fit in at her new school (it must be said that her first day of school ensemble is badass: purple streaks in her hair, a red Flying V stick-on tattoo and a Slayer t-shirt), Jesse provides her with the encouragement she needs to stick out the rough transition. In just a few short scenes, we sense a truly deep admiration and love between the two that transcends music.

The use of heavy metal was an obvious choice for Byrne. “I’m a big metal fan. It’s adrenalin-charged and heroic and in my opinion incredibly cinematic and emotionally cathartic. So just on a sensibility level, I tend to gravitate toward metal because I like my films to have an edge and metal helps sharpen that edge. But it’s also used in an ironic sense in that the hero and his daughter listen to what’s often referred to as ‘the Devil’s music,’ so I wanted to subvert that antiquated idea. I wanted to show that being true to who you are and sharing your passions with your family can be a wonderful, bonding thing.”

As we get to know Jesse and his family, we’re also introduced to Ray (Pruitt Taylor Vince), a troubled man hearing voices – voices he attempts to drown out by blasting chords on his Flying V guitar – who once lived in the Hellman family’s new home. Unbeknownst to them, but seen in the film’s opening scene, the elderly couple they were told died peacefully in the home, were in fact murdered by their son, Ray. Inevitably, the two stories intersect as Ray turns up at the house and eventually fixates on Zooey, while the same voices driving Ray on his dark mission start speaking to Jesse. The voices gives him a sinister new inspiration for his work, transforming his work and attracting a lucrative and exclusive art dealer in the process. But the new work also disturbs Astrid and Jesse, who is unaware he is painting both the past as well as a very dark future, which hints that his daughter’s life is at stake.

For Byrne, the idea was also borne out of his experience with fatherhood, particularly the fear he felt when his wife became pregnant with twins and the world instantly felt like a more dangerous place in light of this new responsibility. But in addition to this, The Devil’s Candy was influenced by horror classics and by Byrne knowing the kind of horror film he didn’t want to make. “I didn’t want to make a film about zombies or vampires or any of the more overt horror sub-genres. My references were more quasi-religious, films that depicted a kind of hell on earth, like The Omen, or a seemingly inexplicable hell within, like Rosemary’s Baby, but treated in a modern, metal-injected way. There are echoes of The Shining in the way a location can wreak havoc on the mind and the twist owes somewhat of a debt to Poltergeist. Nick Cave’s “Red Right Hand” planted the seed we could all be “designed and directed” by a higher, dark power.”

We certainly see these seeds being planted in The Devil’s Candy, in both Ray and Jesse, although their experiences are different albeit dark in their own disturbing ways. While the voices each man hears seem connected to their shared address, lending the film a “haunted house” vibe akin to The Amityville Horror, Byrne takes this one step further. “The idea some humans can be vessels, called upon to carry out the darkest of deeds in the name of a higher power is more possession movie in nature. Ray’s inability to function in the world makes him an easy target for manipulation as does Jesse’s burning ambition to be the best artist he can be. Even the act of painting itself is a kind of a possession. I’ve always been fascinated by dark artists like Goya and Francis Bacon. Where does this compulsion to expel a nightmare from the system come from? What are they tapping into?”

Whatever Jesse does tap into inspires him to create dark new art that attracts the head of a mysterious art gallery, who offers Jesse a Faustian deal but at the expense of neglecting Zooey, whom he has already forgotten to pick up from school once due to his fevered painting. “One reading is the gallery exploits Jesse’s weakness – his ambition, and serves as test of his allegiance and finally a time-consuming distraction to ensure Zooey is exposed and ripe for the taking. In a less literal sense, the gallery’s interest in Jesse’s paintings could be seen as genuinely self-serving and indicative of a wider satanic web. Anton LaVey, founder of the Church of Satan used to send elegant notes to those, like Marilyn Manson, he thought were furthering the cause. The note would randomly arrive in the post and simply say, ‘Satan Approves.’ So there’s the possibility the gallery seeks to recruit Jesse right up until the moment he chooses family over ambition, light over darkness. At that point all bets are off and Satan conspires though all available means to ensure Jesse can’t reach his daughter in time.”

When Jesse fails to pick up Zooey, she falls into the hands of Ray, who has decided to offer her up as a sacrifice to the voices in his dead. But underneath the demonic voices and the creepy serial killer vibes, The Devil’s Candy offers a new twist on an old trope. While horror movies often show a mother’s love overcoming the odds and vanquishing evil, Byrne flips this to explore the bond between Jesse and Zooey, offering viewers a chance to see a father fight the odds to protect his daughter, even at the cost of his own career. “Daughters look to their fathers as protectors so I wanted to take that inherent trust and expectation and put it to the test. The father-daughter relationship may be the emotional cornerstone of the film but career versus family is a universally relatable theme. We all think we have our priorities right but professional ambition is a hard thing to suppress and despite what we’re told it’s borderline impossible to have it all. In many ways Jesse’s arc mirrors the classic crossroads mythology: would you sell your soul for personal gain even if it meant jeopardizing all that you hold dear? So the story’s a warning parable about the dangers of losing sight of what’s important.”

Although it’s been eight years since The Loved Ones, Byrne has made the wait worthwhile with The Devil’s Candy, which has something for every horror fan. It’s a superb nod to the genre’s classic films, while still offering a fresh story that, without spoiling the origin behind the film’s title, is rooted in a truly creepy exploration of occult possession. Embry truly shines as Jesse, disappearing behind the character’s tattoos, long hair and beard and giving off serious True Detective/Matthew McConaughey vibes. His chemistry with Glasco invests the audiences in the father-daughter relationship and helps the film’s fiery climax completely pay off. It’s shaping up to be quite the year for horror already and The Devil’s Candy only continues this solid streak.

The Devil’s Candy hits theaters and is available on demand beginning March 17.

Jamie Righetti is an author and freelance film critic from New York City. She loves horror movies, Keanu Reeves, BioShock and her Siberian Husky, Nugget.