The Devil’s Candy (2017)

Heavy metal & horror seem like an obvious, foolproof combination, but mixing the two comparably macabre mediums for easy cinematic terror without backsliding into clichéd cheese is actually a very difficult balance to strike. For every successful metal-themed horror film, like the recent triumph​ Deathgasm, there’s a thousand corny hair metal & nu-metal failures that make the entire enterprise feel like a cheap, half-cooked financial ploy. As with most hyper-specific fandoms, such as superhero comics or pro wrestling or video game cultures, there’s always a sense with metal that inauthentic outsiders will be eaten alive by those in the know if they aren’t coming from the knowledgeable starting point of a true fan. The metal in Deathgasm and even Tenacious D’s Pick of Destiny feels true to the culture in ways that less successful (but enjoyably campy) features like Shock ‘Em Dead & Trick or Treat (1986) don’t and through that authenticity they build a more long-lasting, dedicated fan base. I believe The Devil’s Candy will also strike a chord (heh, heh) with true metal fandom in the same way. It makes a strong case for itself as a title worth being championed by the legions of black leather-clad headbangers out there who’re hungry for authentic metal-themed horror. It even does so without acknowledging the basic silliness of that combo the way the more comedic titles Deathgasm & Pick of Destiny do.

A young family moves into what’s quickly revealed to be a haunted house. The gloomy teen daughter struggles to find footing in her new school, but bonds with her work-at-home artist father (Can’t Hardly Wait/Empire Records‘s all-growed-up Ethan Embry) over a shared love of melt-your-face metal riffs. The mother (UnReal‘s Shiri Appelby) doesn’t share their passion for ear-shattering monster riffs, but the family functions well as an insular unit. This cohesion unravels, of course, as the demons that haunt their new home show themselves as an artistic muse both for the paterfamilias painter and for the mentally disabled man who formerly occupied their home and is revealed very early in the proceedings to be a self-conflicted murderer. The painter loses time while feverishly working on increasingly disturbing art in his new studio space, dropping the ball on his familial obligations while sinking into a hypnotic state. This leaves his wife & daughter vulnerable to the cursed home’s former resident, who’s similarly compelled to hypnotically riff on his candy red, flying-V guitar at unreasonable volumes . . . as well as to chop up children with a hacksaw. As the painter reflects on the young figures that suddenly populate his increasingly violent works, he explains, “It’s like these children are inside of me, begging, screaming to get out. And I don’t know why.” Presumably, the child killer feels the same way about his own unsavory passion, but he much less eloquently states that children “are the sweetest candy of all.” It’s an effectively creepy line.

Story-wise, The Devil’s Candy is a fairly standard haunted house creepshow, not much different from other recent low budget horrors like We Are Still Here or I Am the Pretty Thing that Lives in the House. The film is slickly edited, however, especially in scenes where Ethan Embry’s painter loses time in a trance while images of his intensifying artistic process mix with the equally haunted killer’s own mode of expression: dead children. It’s an eerie device for depicting possession, one where ghosts & demons are only felt onscreen through the artistic muse of the people they torment. The metal soundtrack that flavors these scenes is only ever disrupted by the always-creepy sounds of Catholic mass (I feel comfortable saying that as someone who was reluctantly raised in the Church), which pushes the central hauntings beyond basic artistic obsession into a religious (if blasphemous) zealotry. Character actor Leland Oser (who recently killed it as the lead in Faults) appears occasionally as a priest on the killer’s personal collection of VHS tapes to explain that Satan is very much real and that humans are His demons who walk the Earth, allowing Him to express His evil through their bodies. Sometimes this takes the form of oil on canvas; sometimes it looks like hacked-up dead children. The basic premise of the film might be an overly familiar concept, but the way it’s expressed onscreen as artistic muse is still chillingly effective.

Initially premiering at the Toronto International Film Fest in 2015 and being quietly dumped to VOD two years later, The Devil’s Candy isn’t likely to make waves outside eagle-eyed horror circles. Within these clusters of people who obsessively pick over every new horror release, however, the film’s likely to find a significant, dedicated audience, especially with folks who regularly listen to metal. The Devil’s Candy‘s haunted house premise is far from a game changer, but its slick editing style and authentic heavy metal aesthetic is likely to win over a very specific, very dedicated audience in the long run. They might award the film two devil horns way up \m/ \m/ instead of the traditional Siskel & Ebert thumbs, but the sentiment will be all the same.

-Brandon Ledet

Deathgasm (2015)

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fourstar

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At the height of heavy metal’s popularity in the 1980s there was a ridiculous mini-trend of horror movie releases that capitalized on parents’ fears & teens’ transgressive love of the genre. Films like Trick or Treat (the one with Ozzy, not the 2007 anthology) & Shock ‘Em Dead answered paranoid questions like, “What if rock & roll groups are hiding Satanic messages in their records in order to subliminally corrupt our children & turn them into murderers?” with a resounding “Hell yes! That would be bitchin’.” The only problem with these films is that they had the distinct POV of an outsider looking in. They’re fun films, but they’re lacking a self-awareness about the world of metal, playing more off assumptions about the subculture than its actual, true-life nature.

2015’s New Zealand horror comedy Deathgasm, on the other hand, openly displays the insider knowledge of a true metal nerd’s overactive imagination. Not only does it continue the Kiwi traditions of films like Peter Jackson’s classic splatter fest Dead Alive, but it uses that gore-soaked past to deepen & improve 80s heavy metal themed horror schlock like Shock ‘Em Dead. This is the kind of film where D&D jokes fit snugly among casual discussions about metal’s endless list of subgenres– sludge, grind, death, black, etc. Deathgasm holds an obvious reverence for metal as both an artform & a lifestyle, but it’s also more than willing to poke fun at the subculture’s peculiarities, like the incongruity of ultra macho types wearing corpse paint (make-up) & metal nerds’ tendency to pine after potential love interests  from afar rather than, you know, actually talking to them. It also has a metal head’s sense of gore-soaked humor, going way over the top in its cartoonish violence & brutality.

At the beginning of the film, metal mostly serves as a form of escapism for miserable teens with social anxiety. At school & in public the central crew of nerd protagonists are constantly bullied into feeling like shit, but metal transports them to a mythical world (imagine the abstract mountaintop album art from the genre’s typical record covers) where they’re powerful & adored. Metal’s transcendent source of power becomes more literal as the nerds pull together to form a band called DEATHGASM (“all capital letters because lower case is for pussies”), playing a formed of blackened thrash with song titles like “Intestinal Bungee Jump.” Through their idolization of a defunct band wickedly named Haxan Sword they discover an ancient scroll of sheet music for a doom metal song that magically summons The King of Demons (a supernatural force bent on world domination) when played on a guitar. Instead of accepting the resulting gore-drenched apocalypse that ensues, DEATHGASM fights back, destroying The King of Demon’s loyal army of . . . demons with everything at their disposal: axes, chainsaws, drills, car engines and, of course, sex toys.

On the surface, Deathgasm has a lot more in common with the chaotic 1980s horror franchise Demons than it does with zombie fare like Dead Alive. It’s just that the films’ eye-gouging, throat-slitting, head-removing, blood-puking mayhem is played almost entirely for grossout humor instead of the discomforting terror inherent to films like Demons. This is especially apparent in the gore’s juxtaposition with rickroll gags & the goofy image of kids in corpse paint enjoying an ice cream cone. The horror comedy of Deathgasm is far from unique, though. What truly makes the film stand out is its intimate understanding of metal as a subculture. It’s easily the most knowledgeable movie in that respect that I’ve seen since the under-appreciated Tenacious D road trip comedy Pick of Destiny. I mean that as the highest of compliments. The difference there is that Pick of Destiny (besides being relatively violence free) got a lot of the attitude right, but didn’t have bands with names like Skull Fist, Axeslasher, and Beastwars on the soundtrack. Deathgasm not only looks & acts the part; it also sounds it, which is a rare treat. \m/

-Brandon Ledet

Shock ‘Em Dead (1991)

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threehalfstar

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Traci Lords has had one of the strangest careers in Hollywood. How often do you hear about a person transitioning from porn to an actual acting career? Sure, Ron Jeremy may be a household name (in certain households, anyway), but he never became a legitimate actor, and his appearances in films and on television are usually in cameos or roles that reference his fame as one of the most prodigious and well-endowed performers in the realm of “blue” movies. Recently, porn actor James Deen attempted to make the transition to mainstream(ish) cinema in director Paul Schrader’s The Canyons, a terrible erotic thriller penned by shoulda-known-better novelist Bret Easton Ellis, a movie that is only differentiated from poorly plotted direct-to-video softcore erotic thrillers of yesteryear by the presence of a nude Lindsay Lohan (and whose sole redeeming feature was three minutes of Nolan Gerard Funk in a glistening Speedo). But Traci Lords is something altogether different; after being one of the most sought-after porn actresses of the eighties, it was discovered that a great deal of her work had been made while she was underage, resulting in an infamous scandal that saw the adult film industry spending millions of dollars on recalls and withdrawals. Lords then enrolled to study legitimate method acting at the Lee Strasberg Theater Institute, before establishing herself as a legitimate actress by appearing in John Waters’ Cry-Baby in 1990, although I will always remember her as a late addition to millennial sci-fi series First Wave, having been born in 1987 and having no real frame of reference for her career before that.

That’s a bit of a long-winded introduction, but it does help explain how Traci Lords came to be in the schlocky 1991 love(?) letter to metal that is Shock ‘Em Dead (aka Rock ‘Em Dead), a horror comedy featuring some of the best examples of the worst sartorial mistakes in music history. I’m not here to pass judgement on Metal as a genre—after all, as far as devotees to a particular musical style are concerned, metalheads are some of the most aggressive, fanatical, defensive, and insular, and I’m not looking to get my head bashed in by a guy (and let’s be clear, it would be a guy) who has willingly and purposefully refused to listen to anything that came out after the demise of Vinnie Vincent Invasion. Metal fandom is a mostly misogynistic miasma of guttural throats, thrashing, and toxic masculinity, devoted to a musical subculture that was most successful during a decade where everyone was coked out of their fucking minds, but it’s also the genre that features some of the most amazing and mindboggling musical feats ever performed on guitar, and that fact is not lost on me. Still, even the most devoted headbanger has to admit that the metal of the 1980s was performed by talented dudes who all dressed like they had wandered away from the saddest gay pride parade in the history of Marion, Iowa—all jeweltone lycra and neon jungle prints. It was a time of great musicianship, but at what cost?

Shock comes to us from 1991 as the directorial effort of Mark Freed, cofounder of StarLicks, a video production company that released instructional musical videos in which notable musicians detailed their personal stylings, which amateurs and interested parties could learn to imitate or build upon. According to the cover of the VHS tape (and the cast list on Wikipedia), the film stars Traci Lords and only Traci Lords, but this is not the case; the main character is villain protagonist “Angel” Martin, a “hideous,” mouth-breathing “young” nerd turned guitar god played by handsome, almost-40 Stephen Quadros, and the protagonist of the movie is actually uberbabe Greg Austin (Tim Moffett), boyfriends of Lords’s Lindsay. Aldo Ray and Troy Donahue, both in the twilight of their careers, make appearances as well, unfortunately, and Michael Angelo Batio makes a brief appearance as the Lord of Darkness playing a double-headed guitar as well as acting as hand double whenever the script calls for Angel to do something stunning.

Marty (Quadros) is a nobody, a terrible person going nowhere in life. He lives in a trailer park, where his shitty and never-improving guitar practicing is the bane of his landlord (Yankee Sulivan)’s life. His boss at a nondescript pizza eatery, Tony (Ray), is a verbally abusive micromanager, but Marty is also lousy at his job, licking his fingers before spreading cheese and spying on his nude female co-worker through a locker room peephole. Across town, metal band Spastique Kolon, fronted by Johnny (Markus Grupa), is having trouble finding a decent guitar player at an audition. Johnny’s getting impatient, because there’s a “big showcase” in just two days, and they have to have a guitar player by then! And, as we all know, most bands form and sign up for showcases before they have a guitar player. The band’s manager is Lindsay Roberts (Lords), girlfriend of Greg Austin (Moffett); she thinks it might be time for him to hang up his bass and take a job working construction for her dad in some backwater. Greg’s understandably not thrilled about that potential future, but he goes on a douchey ramble about how he knows he’s going to be somebody and he has the talent and “believe in me, baby,” etc. Johnny asks some random guy who happens to be there (I can’t figure out the character or actor, as less than a third of the people in this movie have photos on their sparse IMDb pages) if he knows any guitarists, and he mentions that his dad is always complaining about a guy living in the trailer park that he manages.

After getting the phone call from Random Guy, Marty ditches work and is fired by Tony. He auditions, performs terribly, and is laughed out of the studio. When Tony refuses to take Marty back and the trailer park manager evicts him from the property, effective at sundown, Marty is approached by the neighborhood “Voodoo Woman” (Tyger Sodipe), who offers him his heart’s desire in exchange for his soul. He agrees, and wishes to be the most technically proficient and famous guitar player in the world. She does some magic with an athame and potion and stabs him in the chest, leading to a dream sequence featuring zombies and the King of Hell himself, and when he wakes up, he’s got an over-sprayed mane of jet black hair, cowhide bedding, a boringly suburban McMansion, and a closet full of black leather vests, pants, and strategically ripped cotton shirts. He’s also got a “family” of hot ladies to tend to his every whim, and they are by far the best thing about this movie. Every single one of them has more character and understandable motivation than Marty, and they also have some of the best lines.

All three also sold their souls for something, with a price (other than being Marty’s reward, that is). Michelle (Karen Russell) was born disfigured and Marilyn (Gina Parks) was scarred in a horrible fire; they see their mangled visages in every mirror, and others can see them when reflected in silver. Monique (Laurel Wiley) had cancer, and she went to the Voodoo Woman for a cure, but the Voodoo Woman took her life immediately and turned her into a ghoul (as she has done to Marty), forcing her to kill and feed upon the green life forces of victims to stay alive, as normal food is toxic. Marty auditions for the band again and, naturally, gets a spot, ultimately pushing Johnny out of the band and getting Spastique Kolon a record deal, all while murdering his former tormentors and innocent groupies alike to feast on their souls. He becomes obsessed with the idea of possessing Lindsay and making her a part of his harem, which involves a Voodoo baptism ritual, but her love for Greg and Greg’s possessiveness of love for her ultimately saves the day. So, yeah, metal music + misremembered elements of Dracula + wish fulfillment for proto-MRA dorks = Shock ‘Em Dead.

This is a fun little movie, although it could have been much funnier if there had been more focus on some of the likable (if evil) supporting characters and less on the rechristened Angel Martin, guitar superstar. Lords’s character, who exists almost entirely for no other reason than to be a living McGuffin for Martin and Greg to fight over, would seem like more of an afterthought than a character in a better movie, but she and the demon girlfriends are the most interesting characters here, with backstories and desires that make sense, especially when compared to Marty’s motivations. I can’t tell if that’s part of the joke or not, but I tend to lean towards “not,” if only because Marty is too much like a real metalhead, with delusions of sex and guitar godhood in spite of reality, and this seems to be more of a spoof than a satire of that mindset. The two major songs performed by Spastique Kolon in this movie are “I’m a Virgin Girl” and “I’m in Love with a Slut,” which is pretty much a textbook case of the Madonna/Whore Complex, and I just can’t force myself to conceptualize the creators of this movie as deserving credit for that level of self-awareness. At the end of the day, that subculture and that era were dominated by socially irresponsible sexism and misogyny, and that comes across more clearly and overtly in this movie than anything else, if for no other mitigating factor than the number of undulating breasts displayed throughout. Still, it got a decent number of laughs from me, and it’s definitely worth watching on a rainy afternoon.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond