'Hard Candy'

For all the insight and wonder it places at our fingertips, the internet is also a dark and dangerous place. It provides anonymity behind which very real monsters can hide in order to prey on the innocent, the lonely, the desperate or the naive. Online, we can be whomever we choose. We can pretend to be someone else, or no one at all.

As the parent of an 8-year-old girl for whom the internet is ubiquitous, I worry constantly about what the future holds for how she meets people. I can only hope that she’s careful, smart, even paranoid.

Those are just some of the thoughts that ran through my mind as I watched “Hard Candy,” a truly cringe-worthy horror movie in which the tables are turned on a would-be predator. Ellen Page, the old-soul pregnant teen in “Juno,” is shockingly violent and vicious as 14-year-old vigilante Hayley, who has allowed smarmy everyman Jeff, played by Patrick Wilson, to believe he’s been grooming her for sex via online chat rooms.

But Hayley is no victim. She is the one who’s been grooming Jeff, whom she believes is responsible for the abduction of a local missing girl. Hayley’s role reversal has her drugging Jeff to make him confess not only his intentions with her but also what happened to the missing underaged girl.

It’s a hard film to watch, especially for anyone with children. There are no real heroes in “Hard Candy.” While Jeff is despicable and undeniably a pedophile with evil in his past, the lengths to which Hayley goes to make him talk – self-justified as they may be – are every bit as sinister as the past sins of her captor.

Do the ends justify the means … and what cost will those ends exact from Hayley? Those are the moral dilemmas at the center of “Hard Candy,” and part of what make the film so riveting. While at times the film feels like wish fulfillment for any parent who’s watched “To Catch a Predator,” the true payoff is the psychological standoff between Hayley and Jeff.

It’s also done with very little trickery – no scare tactics or unnecessary gore. But the end result – in fact, the ending itself – is terribly engrossing. You can’t look away … no matter how much you may want to.

“Hard Candy” will make you wonder just who’s lurking in the darker corners of the internet, and whose side they’re on.

Brett Buckner is watching a horror movie every night in October for #StarHorrorfest. Follow along on Twitter @bbuckner32 or AnnistonStar.com/Horrorfest.