You only have to look as far as last year’s Deathgasm, Brutal Legend or even just anything Motörhead have ever touched to know that heavy metal stereotypes and demonic possession have walked hand in hand in horror fiction for what feels like eternity.
Sean Byrne’s latest, the long-awaited follow-up to his 2009 Australian cult hit The Loved Ones (if you know, you know) tries its darnedest to just about un-marry all of these lazy assumptions and obvious links and for the most part, delivers something deeply original and dare I say it, totally far out.
Just as demented, but a whole lot less funny than his debut, Byrne’s sophomore horror kick is a very different beast entirely. Which is understandable considering the much acclaimed Aussie had been out of the game for pushing six years when he finally managed to shed the curse of the follow-up. And whilst it’s not quite as playful or even really that as well-rounded as his fans might expect, The Devil’s Candy is still a viciously grim and really rather grisly little film with a surprising amount of heart tossed in for good measure too.
In fact, rather surprisingly, it’s this emotional undercurrent that really helps to anchor this one in a very unfamiliar place for bloody genre releases of a similar breed. A lot of the reason why the horror here works as well as it does is that there’s genuine fear at the centre, brought on by a phenomenal team of leads. The core family dynamic, whilst offering a few neat little subversions on the usual haunted house myth itself, is terrifically held together thanks to a hefty-helping of very natural chemistry from Embry, Appleby and Glasco; you’re really rooting for them throughout.
It seems silly to highlight something that should be so inbred into thrillers like this, where so much of the central suspense is dictated by strong character relationships, but so often is it done poorly that Byrne’s film really shines in this department. He’s clearly a filmmaker that cares about the smaller and more subtle aspects of making a horror film, and it’s this much more minute attention to detail that makes him such a dependable force within the genre.
As an obvious example, the staple elements of the horror world are all very much in place here. From the brooding prologue to some troubling and seriously dark side quests; Byrne has each and every familiar beat planned and reigned in brilliantly. Yet The Devil’s Candy somehow still feels so incredibly fresh. Some of this is down to a clever spot of editing, and Byrne’s own dynamite script that flat-out refuses to ever spoon-feed, but a lot of it’s just simple switch-ups here and there. A less-than-nuclear family; a paired-back central plot, and a villain who’s intentions forever remain divided between psychopathy and genuine demonic possession.
Of course not all of these threads work quite as well as others, and in wrangling them all together by the final explosive act, Byrne sacrifices a little of the careful character work he had laid out on the lead up. There’s certainly space for more here; a bigger rabbit-hole for one thing, but in many ways, leaving certain aspects of his film with a quiet little ellipsis over the expected crashing exclamation mark, again shows a level of maturity in Byrne’s style that is so often left off of, not just much anticipated follow-up efforts like this, but genre-driven horror releases in general too.
It might not quite elicit the same, timeless cult appreciation as The Loved Ones, but this much more sobering affair is by all means well worth chasing. Deeper, darker but never purposefully bigger, The Devil’s Candy is a fascinating insight into keeping the standard dynamics of genre fresh, adding a clever spin to some worn out stereotypes and piling on the focus purely where it matters most: the characters. It marks Sean Byrne as much more than a one-trick pony and will hopefully pave the way for many more happy returns for the fan-favourite Aussie.
The Devil’s Candy is out in the UK now.