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

Demon (2016)

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Weddings can be overwhelming, dizzying affairs. This is especially true of the larger productions where a few cases of hard liquor & an overly-expansive list of guests mix to create an emotional powder keg of celebration & exhaust. Think back to the wedding scene in Goodfellas, lines of happy Catholic Italians lining up to dispense money & kisses to Henry’s new bride to the point where her head is spinning. The Polish horror film Demon turns that nauseous energy into a full-blown nightmare. Demon is ambitious in its themes, playing the past atrocities of WWII as a ghost that haunts Poland, a country-sized burial ground, and building its story around the undead spirits of traditional Jewish folklore. At the same time, though, it can be easily understood as a very conventional haunted house ghost story, one that plays out over a single night of the celebratory Party Out of Bounds mania of High-Rise. Audiences more in tune with the history of Poland’s tragic WWII horrors or the intricacies of the dybbuk in Jewish folklore might get a lot more out of Demon than I did as an outsider, but the film is still effective enough as a traditional ghost story without that insight. Its dizzying wedding setting in particular helps set it apart in that regard.

A young outsider joins a community of Polish Jews by marrying into the fold. While clearing the grounds of an old property his bride-to-be inherited from her deceased grandfather, he uncovers a literal skeleton from the past. It’s a discovery that changes him & his relationship with his new homeland in profound & disturbing ways. As a wedding ritual increasingly devolves into drunken, celebratory madness, our protagonist also loses hold of his own stability, both physical & spiritual. Strangers party in slow motion to an eerie score while the groom continually returns to the burial site he mistakenly uncovered. In his obsession with the grave he gradually becomes something new, something very ugly & very dangerous. Demon plays off the Body Snatchers-esque fear of never truly knowing your spouse as well as traditional genre film hallmarks like demonic possession, haunted spaces, and body horror. However, it avoids any clear cut, straightforward resolutions that usually accompany that territory. The mystery of what, exactly, is happening might in fact be too slow of a reveal, to the point of distraction, even if it never actually reaches a clear destination. Still, the film’s mix of otherworldly dread with manic, drunken celebration & Old World superstition is enough to make it an arresting experience overall.

There aren’t a lot of specific elements in Demon where I can say you won’t find its genre thrills anywhere else, but I do believe the lead performance by Itay Tiran as the doomed groom is one that required a lot of ambition and a lot of naked bravery. The only other performance in the horror genre I can liken it to is Isabelle Adjani’s iconic turn in the cult film Possession (which was also helmed by a Polish director, appropriately enough). Both roles ask their performers to play several different people in one: the unsuspecting spouse, the inhuman raving lunatic, and the in-transition middle state of the body contortionist. The tunnel scene in Possession is a rare moment of dramatic physicality that you won’t find in many other performances, horror or otherwise, no matter how vulnerable. Tiran somehow approaches that same naked, savage, maddening vulnerability in Demon, no small feat, and his starring turn is a lot of what makes the film feel special, if not entirely unique.

Representing Jewish folklore in horror cinema dates as far back as The Golem in the early 20th Century, but it’s still somewhat of an infrequent occurrence. The way Demon weaves its ancient narrative into modern Polish anxieties over the ghosts of past wars is fascinating and open-ended enough to be engaged with as an art film rather than a formulaic genre picture. Still, the film works just fine in a conventional horror context as well, telling an effectively unnerving ghost story against the Party Out of Bounds structural backdrop I have such a soft spot for. The film’s real world & fantastical horrors clash with the celebratory fantasy of its wedding setting remarkably well, represented visually in the mixture of its crisp formal wear with the grime of its natural forces: dirt, mud, rain, wind. The cheery visage of a wedding ritual is cinematically transformed into the eerie nightmare of demonic ritual, one that seemingly summons an overwhelming force of Nature & an inescapable ghost of the past to tear down the national façade of healed wounds & a guilt-free future. Demon might not be the most original or the most terrifying horror film you see all year, but its thematic ambition, the distinctive mania of its setting, and Itay’s lead performance all are sure to haunt you well after you leave the theater, maybe even for longer than the more eccentric films it casually resembles.

-Brandon Ledet

Episode #7 of The Swampflix Podcast: Daredevil Cinema & Possession (1981)

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Welcome to Episode #7 of The Swampflix Podcast! For our seventh episode, James & Brandon discuss the Marvel character Daredevil’s humble beginnings on the silver screen in the early 2000s with illustrator Jon Marquez. Also, Brandon & James discuss the art house romance horror masterpiece Possession. Enjoy!

Production note: The musical “bumps” between segments were provided by the long-defunct band Trash Trash Trash.

-Brandon Ledet & James Cohn

La chiesa (The Church, 1989)

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Following the completion of my Dario Argento project, I felt myself suffering from a distinct lack of Argento in my life. As such, I had to try and fill this lack with some of his other work. Upon beginning the retrospective, I decided not to include films that Argento had written but not directed, as this would have included a large body of films that were never released in the U.S. and would thus have been nearly impossible to track down. Most of the films to which he contributed a story or script idea in the heyday of his career did cross over, however, and I was able to track down a DVD copy of La chiesa (The Church). La chiesa was intended to be the third film in the series and is considered to be an official sequel according to some sources, but it’s unclear how it fits into that series.

Lamberto Bava (son of director Mario Bava) had previously served as the assistant director on Argento’s 1982 film Tenebrae, and the two collaborated again on Demoni and Demoni 2, the latter of which was the film debut of a very young Asia Argento, with Bava directing and Argento contributing to the script. However, a film originally titled The Ogre (directed by Bava and written by Dardano Sacchetti, who contributed to the scripts for Demoni and Demoni 2) was released as Demoni 3: The Ogre in 1988, with La chiesa following in 1989. 1991 saw the release of yet another film titled Demoni 3, directed by Umberto Lenzi, who had previously directed 1969’s Legion of the Damned from a script by—you guessed it—Dario Argento. Adding to the confusion, Bava did not direct La chiesa; it was instead directed by Michele Soavi, another member of that generation of Italian horror directors. All of this also fails to note that there were at least three other films that had the name “Demoni” applied to them as a marketing strategy; simply put, it’s ultimately unclear whether or not this film should be considered as a text which is part of an official ongoing narrative or simply as a text to be discussed in relation to the other texts made by its creators.

Regardless, the film works well as a standalone horror movie, and has Argento’s fingerprints all over it even if it was directed by someone else. Long ago, Teutonic Knights came upon a village that was supposedly inhabited by witches. An inquisitor damned the village when he saw one of the inhabitants with crucifix-shaped scars on her feet, and the knights slaughtered the entire population and buried all of the bodies in a mass grave; the location was then consecrated with a giant cross, and a church was built atop this grave to seal the great evil inside. One child (Asia Argento) almost escapes, but is simply the last victim—or so it seems. In present day (1989) Italy, Evan Altereus (Tomas Arana) arrives at the titular church, where he is taking over as the librarian. He meets art restorer Lisa (Barbara Cupisti), who is working to revitalize a mural that shows the image of souls being tormented by a giant demon and his smaller attendants. Evan also meets the Bishop (Feodor Chaliapin, Jr.), who is obsessed with the maintenance of the church, and Father Gus (Hugh Quarshie), who spends a great deal of his time practicing archery and imagining that he is either a Teutonic Knight or shooting at one. Lotte (Asia Argento), the preteen daughter of the church groundskeeper, lives in the church as well.

Evan becomes fascinated by the gothic cathedral’s history, talking incessantly to Lisa about the designs of gothic churches and the oddness of the fact that no royal or high clergyman had ever been buried there. Renovations in the basement lead to the discovery of a scroll that becomes the focal point of Evan’s obsession, ultimately leading him to find the cross/seal; he breaks this seal and becomes the first person possessed by demonic spirits. Ultimately, as the groundskeeper and others fall under the influence of evil, the church’s built-in failsafes, designed by the alchemist architect, seal the church’s doors, trapping the aforementioned characters inside along with a field trip group of about twenty nine-year-olds, an argumentative young biker couple, an elderly couple, and a small bridal party. As the hand of evil closes around them, Father Gus races to save himself and Lotte.

First things first: this movie, like a lot of Argento’s directorial work, doesn’t hold up narratively or logically. The opening scene, featuring the slaughter of an entire village, raises a lot of questions from the first moments. Are the inhabitants of this village actually witches? Is Asia Argento’s character immortal, or is she reborn in the present day? I want to say that the backstory would have a stronger impact if it was made clear that the villagers were innocent and that the possessing entity was created out of the evil of slaughtering so many innocents, but there’s not enough evidence against that reading to definitively state that is not already the case. Even if we accept that (a) the villagers were witches, and that (b) the witches were in league with demons, and thus (c) the demons are entombed evil who escape and begin to possess the church inhabitants, there are still so many things left unexplained. Why does the demon-capturing failsafe only take effect after possessed Evan returns from ripping out his own insides and stalking Lisa at home? He could have never come back, in which case a demon made it into the real word beyond the church without consequence. Why does Father Gus have flashbacks about Teutonic Knights, and is he the knight in that sequence or the knight’s killer?

So much is left unexplained that the film fails under minimal scrutiny. That having been said, this is still a very effective and scary film. The gore here is shocking because so much of the terror comes from slowly-building tension of watching possessed people act in eerie and creepy ways toward the unsuspecting innocents they have infiltrated. Evan’s full on demonic appearance is deeply unsettling in all of its practical effects glory, and it’s only one of the haunting images on display throughout. There are visuals here that I don’t think Argento would have been able to realize with his own skill sets, and there’s a writhing mass of dead bodies at the end that’s truly glorious in all its grotesque hideousness. Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like the film ever got a DVD release in the original Italian, and the dubbing work here is notably bad; Lotte and an adult woman even have the exact same voice in the dub, which is really distracting. Overall, however, if you’re suffering from a lack of Argento in your life, like I was, it’ll help to fill that void, and is an interesting experiment in collaboration for Argento fans.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Possession (1981)

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Let’s just get this out of the way: Possession is a masterpiece. It’s a cold, incomprehensible film that confidently unleashes cinematic techniques like deadly weapons. Filmed in Berlin in 1980, Possession occupies harsh, uncaring architectural spaces, but populates them with passionate characters that remain in constant, violently fluid motion. The camera moves with them, rarely allowing the audience to settle as it chases its tormented subjects down sparse rooms and hallways like a slasher movie serial killer. In one shot the central couple undulates back & forth in front of a blank white wall, constantly swirling around each other during a bitter argument, but seemingly going nowhere as if trapped in a void. The film feels like a visual manifestation of madness, inertia, and heartbreak all rolled into one dizzying package. It captures the cold horror of divorce & separation and transforms it into an unknowable evil. It’s one of the scariest movies I’ve seen in quite some time, but finds its horror in ambiguity instead of a tangible, comprehensible threat.

That’s not to say there aren’t the typical on-screen genre-signifiers of horror in the film. There is gore. Characters bleed at the impact of sharp instruments and are confronted by humanoid demons, but these aspects serve more as exclamation points than the main attraction. With a title like Possession and the heavy synths in the opening theme, it’d be reasonable to expect a straight-forward 80s zombie or vampire flick, but the film refuses to be pinned down so easily. If Possession were to be understood as a creature feature, the monster in question would be the coldness of romantic separation. When a character supposes early in the film, “Maybe all couples go through this” it seems like a reasonable claim. The bitterness of divorce, loneliness, and adulterous desire then devolve into a supernatural ugliness. The main couple frantically move about Berlin as if drunk or suffering seizures, downright possessed by their romantic misery. Their own motion & inner turmoil is more of a violent threat than the film’s most menacing blood-soaked monsters or electric carving knives.

For a taste of the film’s fascinatingly bizarre sense of movement, the Crystal Castles music video for “Plague” samples key scenes and repurposes them as demonic, Kate Bush-style interpretive dance. It could possibly spoil some striking images, but the film’s plot is mostly spoiler-proof in its intentional obfuscation. The Berlin setting, the sound design in the final scene and the protagonist’s confession that he’s “at war against women” all allude to the possibility of a war allegory subtext, but it’s not explicit or concrete. If anything, characters are at war with themselves and the uncaring nature of the world they occupy. When Sam Neill’s protagonist confesses “For me, God is a disease” it’s easy to empathize. Whoever created the cruel, heartless world of Possession and brought life into it must have at least been as callous as a disease. With its brutal momentum & inevitable bloodshed it’s a terrifying hellscape, especially if it’s something that “all couples go through.”

-Brandon Ledet