The Devil’s Candy (2015) Review

devilscandy1The Devil’s Candy (Australia/USA, 2015)
Dir: Sean Byrne
Starring: Ethan Embry, Kiara Glasco, Pruitt Taylor Vince

UK Première FrightFest Glasgow 27th Feb 2016

Plot: Things seem to be looking up for struggling artist, Jesse (Embry). Having just bought his first home with wife Astrid and daughter Zooey (Glasco), life is good. That is until Ray (Vince) shows up at the door, asking if he can come home to the house where he killed his parents before being locked in a mental asylum. Hearing the voice of the devil in his head and unable to drown out the noise without upsetting people, Ray has decided to act out the devil’s plan and has his eyes on Zooey.

The final film of this year’s Glasgow FrightFest was The Devil’s Candy from Tasmanian director, Sean Byrne. Byrne follows up his Aussie shocker, The Loved Ones with this tale of Satanic influence. The Devil’s Candy takes us far away from Australia to the US of A, although it still shares a small town setting. We are introduced to Jesse and his family and immediately become aware that they aren’t your typical family as Jesse and Zooey headbang to heavy metal tunes as they drive to see their new house.

devilscandy2Heavy metal permeates this film but unlike films like Deathgasm, it’s not central to the plot. This is a film about heavy metal fans, not about heavy metal. The villain, Ray, strums his flying V guitar with the amp turned up to 11 to drown out the voice of the devil, yet in other films it would be the music itself that would be telling Ray to kill. It feels like this is a film that is trying to subvert the heavy metal/devil worshipping stereotype, with Jesse as the metal head who’s going to save the day.

The Devil’s Candy is more of a character film than it is a spectacle film, moving from set piece to set piece. The characters are generally likeable, even the villain. Jesse and his family are sweet and fun and you want them to succeed, while Ray has puppy dog qualities, even though he’s also committing horrible atrocities. It probably helped that I couldn’t help but see Ray as Kyle Gas from the band Tenacious D, who he shares a visible likeness with and also plays the guitar.

Zooey is the film’s main victim and you can’t help feel sorry for her. There’s been other films where a child is the main victim but they come across as whiny and unlikable, especially if through their frustration they lash out at the parents that are failing to help them. Zooey and Jesse’s chemistry helps negate that, making it easy to care for both of them. It’s a fun and unique film, but I can’t help but notice something in the plot that would make the whole “satanic influenced killings” avoidable.

It seems a little absurd that nobody in the film ever tells Ray to put some headphones on, rather than blasting his guitar through his amp. That way nobody would have to die. That being said, this is far from the first time a simple bit of logic could fix horror movies from happening but where’s the fun in that. Here’s hoping that Sean Byrne never listens to logic and he keeps bringing us interesting horror.

Late Phases (2014) Review

FF bannerLate_Phases_poster.1Late Phases (2014)

Dir: Adrián García Bogliano
Written By: Eric Stolze
Starring: Nick Damici, Ethan Embry, Lance Guest, Tina Louise

95 mins.

UK release: Frightfest 2014

Grumpy war vet Ambrose (Damici) moves into a sleepy retirement community, only to discover the place is besieged by werewolves.

It’s sadly rare that a blind person takes centre-stage in any film, let alone in horror, which requires so much to be glimpsed around dark corners. But such is the case with Late Phases, a blackly comic, heart wrenching, incredibly poignant portrayal of a stubborn man, his fractured relationship with his son, and a pack of werewolves who are running riot in the retirement village in which he’s just reluctantly taken up a spot.

In less capable hands, protagonist Ambrose could’ve been a horrible, bitter asshole but the talented Nick Damici (who’s becoming something of a genre staple, following scene-stealing turns in We Are What We Are and Cold In July) makes him an incredibly nuanced, likeable character in spite of his obvious stubbornness. A man who is all-too-aware of his own mortality, Ambrose flatly tells nosy neighbours “I’d see you out, but I’m blind” and has impassioned discussions with a local priest (played by the wonderful Tom Noonan) about the meaning of life and the supposed existence of God.

It’s a difficult role – not least because Damici has to remain bug-eyed for the entirety of the flick – made near impossible by the looming presence of bloodthirsty lycans. Played straight, as a simple father-son conflict drama, Late Phases could’ve been great, but with the inclusion of the mythical creatures, and the scare factor that comes with them, it’s outstanding. Where similarly-themed genre offerings might shy away from showing everything, utilising clever cuts to make the transformation sequences seem more viable, here director Bogliano gives us the money shot in a gloriously extended sequence that shows every contortion, every hair, every split piece of skin.

Late_1.1Late Phases actually boasts some of the most effective werewolf transformation sequences in horror, even if technically its protagonist doesn’t get to see them. And it’s scary as hell, too, with the first, particularly brutal, kill dropped on Ambrose’s very first night in the village. Stuck having to listen through the walls, his neighbour’s blood-curdling screams are terrifying, and when his beloved guide dog – his only real friend – falls victim, too, the threat becomes horribly real. There’s an element of sameness to werewolf movies and, particularly in recent years with the rubbishy CGI creations of the Twilight franchise, they seem to have lost their bite. Late Phases is inventive with the subgenre, even with something as simple as one of the beasts darting past a window or when a group of them crowd around a body.

Director Bogliano, who has several no-budget genre credits to his name including the B short in ABCs Of Death, has truly created something wonderful here. The script, by Eric Stolze, who penned Under The Bed, straddles a careful line between melodrama and genuine pathos, with a streak of perfectly-judged, pitch-black humour running underneath. However, major kudos must go to Wojciech Golczewski, for a superb score that is omnipresent, yet not invasive.

From the opening moments to the final, bloody, brutal battle, it trundles along, championing Ambrose and signalling something sinister is afoot but never overstaying its welcome. Much of mainstream, modern horror relies on signalling a scare is coming with a shriek of violin or a shock of piano keys, but Golczewski is cleverer than that. He weaves his notes in until they become one with the film, until they are part of Ambrose’s journey.

Speaking of whom, Damici gives a revelatory performance as Ambrose. Empathetic, resourceful and relentlessly cranky, his deadpan delivery is a joy to behold and a voicemail he leaves his son is disarmingly poignant. When he explains that, by the time he went blind, he “couldn’t stand to look at the world anyway” it’s difficult not to agree with him, and the amount of fight he puts up in the final act is truly remarkable, not just in spite of his disability.

Late_3.1Late Phases is that rare surprise in horror – smart, poetic, funny and very scary, it serves as a much-needed reminder that sticking to a formula isn’t always the best idea, and that sometimes, even the most seemingly overdone creatures can be given life to feature again.

Gorgeously shot, beautifully scored, with a pitch perfect lead performance from Damici and arguably the best werewolf transformation sequence since John Landis’ seminal creature feature, Late Phases is a genre masterpiece with more depth, more scope and more vision than much of the current landscape combined.

Rating: 9/10

The Guest (2014) Review

FF bannerguest1The Guest (2014)

Dir: Adam Wingard
Written By: Simon Barrett
Starring: Dan Stevens, Maika Monroe, Ethan Embry, Joel David Moore
99 mins.

UK release: September 5th 2014

A family, grieving for the loss of their son, has their quiet home life turned upside down when a mysterious ex-soldier turns up on the doorstep, claiming to be a friend of the deceased and offering a shoulder to cry on.

Pitched, by director Adam Wingard, as an ode to the classic John Carpenter flicks he and writer/collaborator Simon Barrett adored growing up, The Guest is as far removed a follow-up from last year’s slasher smash hit You’re Next as one could hope to get – although it is still, technically, based around a home invasion.

Charting the exploits of ex-soldier David (Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens, in a career-making lead performance) as the titular guest, the film follows the grieving Peterson family, who unknowingly let him into their home after he turns up out of the blue, claiming to be a friend and ex-comrade of their dead son, recently killed in combat.

At first, David seems like the perfect house guest and is welcomed into the family with open arms, almost to fill the void in a way, but before long things take a sinister turn and it is only when daughter Anna (Maika Monroe) starts to investigate his claims that the truth is revealed.

Guest2The Guest is an impressive departure for regular collaborators Wingard and Barrett, whose output, both separately and as a team, tends to deal mostly with the slasher-orientated, often very gory, side of horror. First and foremost, there’s a well-judged streak of black humour present throughout the flick, particularly in son Luke’s reactions to David’s matter-of-fact and violent method of problem-solving for otherwise normal issues, such as school bullies.

Most of the action takes place in daylight, a bold move for a film of this nature that epitomises how brave and inventive it is. The gore is minimal, and the scares rooted in tension rather than shocks. It’s also one of the most original genre offerings in years, in spite of the debt it owes to classic eighties horror, and Carpenter’s celebrated work with Halloween, in particular.

Stevens’ performance is astonishingly revelatory. Charming, terrifying and almost robotic in nature, David slowly assimilates himself into the unsuspecting family, thereby proving that Stevens can more than hold his own as both a leading man, and a villain. He does sly American better than an actual American, which is quite an achievement for a guy from Surrey, who up until this point was known mainly for playing a posh type on Downton. Everyone falls madly in love with David, almost instantly, and it’s easy to understand why – if this role doesn’t launch Stevens into the stratosphere, nothing will.

THE GUESTThe supporting characters more than hold their own opposite him, too, in particular newcomer Monroe who wisely straddles the line between sexy ingénue and suspicious rebel. Brendan Meyer is equally effective as her too-trusting brother, who thinks nothing of David letting loose on a bar full of underage kids in a bloody, awe-inspiring and hilarious set-piece that forms the centrepiece of the film. Likewise, their tortured parents, who could easily have been grief-stricken zombies, instead are desperately struggling to keep everything afloat in the wake of their loss, while also remaining relevant to each other.

Boasting a much wider scope than Wingard’s previous offerings, The Guest manages to be strangely funny, nail-bitingly tense and wonderfully thrilling – often all at once. The normal, almost boring, family routine that David so easily disrupts is punctuated by sharp bursts of the classically rough, very bloody violence for which Wingard is already well-known. However, The Guest keeps its fear rooted firmly in the realistic, and the everyday. There are no masks or unknown presences, save for two, blink-and-you’ll-miss-’em references to its predecessor that are wisely slotted into the narrative.

Robby Baumgartner’s cinematography is breathtaking, particularly in capturing the wide, expansive New Mexico countryside. Otherwise, the camera is kept tight on the characters’ as they react to the steadily stranger occurrences, creating a sense of claustrophobia that is particularly effective in a sequence set entirely in a school gym, decked out as a haunted maze, which is incredibly tense, with each corner twisting to make escape seem virtually impossible.

Guest 4However, it’s Steve Moore’s mind-blowing, synth-heavy score that is the real star of the show, eclipsing even Dan Stevens’ buff torso. A character in itself, it gives The Guest its pulse, rumbling along constantly to establish tension, fear, joy, sorrow and everything in between. It’s a remarkable piece of work, from the gothic strains filling Anna’s headphones, to the loud, pulsating bass notes that build gradually as everything goes to hell. The Guest’s soundtrack is certain to be the must-have of the year – it makes Drive sound dull in comparison – and it’s impossible to imagine the film without it.

Halloween itself is a key feature of the narrative, with the first shot of a pumpkin establishing the time of year in spite of the sunny weather, while the aesthetic is firmly eighties, in the best possible way. Although it’s different to Wingard’s previous work, The Guest follows a similar trajectory to You’re Next as the carnage comes hard and fast in the final act, rarely letting up once it’s begun. It’s undoubtedly Carpenter-esque, and yet it’s also a fascinating meditation on the state of modern horror, with Wingard explaining that the premise is almost like imagining Michael Myers living in one’s own home – in fact, if Carpenter were to make Halloween nowadays, it may have turned out a lot like this.

The Guest may not be to everyone’s tastes, and horror fans, in particular, might turn their noses up at it, as not only does it not play like a typical genre flick, but it harks back to a time long since past, one that we may look upon fondly but not necessarily want to revisit in a modern context. However, this is destined to be a cult classic, if it doesn’t make big bucks at the box office like You’re Next (although it deserves to be a hit, even more so than its predecessor).

Guest 5Funny, inventive, engaging, thrilling and with a killer central performance from Dan Stevens, The Guest will reaffirm your faith in mainstream horror, and with nary a torture device or an unsteady GoPro in sight.

Rating: 9/10