Film Review – Satanic Panic
There seems to be small revival of cults, covens, and general demon worship in the horror genre. You have Hereditary (2018), Midsommar (2019), and Ready or Not (2019) to name a few. There was also the documentary, Hail Satan? (2019). Joining their ranks is the recently released Satanic Panic (2019) which – as the title would suggest – falls right in line with all of the dark magic, human sacrifices, and gory mayhem that comes with the territory.
The term “Satanic Panic” may jog the memory of some of you. The term became popular in the U.S. during the 1980s where moral panic struck the population when reports of physical and sexual abuse involving the occult and Satanic rituals surfaced. The paranoia reached such epic proportions that groups even targeted the popular role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons as though it were some instrument of malevolent force.
Knowing this, one may surmise that Grady Hendrix (screenplay), Ted Geoghegan (story), and director Chelsea Stardust (in her feature length debut) crafted their film with some tongue-in-cheek flair. There are plenty of recognizable images that we’ve seen from other like-minded projects. There really isn’t anything going on here that is new or innovative, but the draw is how Stardust and the rest of the production injected the narrative with undeniable energy. They have fun with the clichés and aren’t ashamed of it. There are times where I found myself thoroughly entertained – even invested – despite knowing that we’ve gone done this path many times before.
Sam (Hayley Griffith) is a young woman caught in a rut. She longs to do big things and travel to different places – most notably Australia – but is stuck in a dead-end job delivering pizzas to customers who don’t know how to tip. To make things even worse, her first night on the job has her traveling to an upper-class neighborhood that just so happens to have a group of Satanists as residents. This does not bode well for Sam, who unfortunately happens to be a virgin, which is exactly what the Satanists need for the upcoming sacrifice. The plot then kicks into autopilot, with Sam trying to escape while the Satanists use their black magic to hunt her down.
The mechanics of the story isn’t really what we are concerned with. The entertainment is in how committed everyone is, digging deep and going along with the campiness of the material. Haley Griffith is good as the lead, reacting to everything with understandable fear, confusion, and frustration. Rebecca Romijn – as the leader of the coven – is having a ball as the diabolical villain, unafraid of getting down and dirty and embracing the gory elements when needed. She recites lines such as, “Where’s my virgin?!” with complete conviction. Ruby Modine (whom I remember from the Happy Death Day series) leaves her mark as the rogue cult member Judi, who also becomes Sam’s ally. There are some forgettable performances (Jerry O’Connell’s short appearance felt unnecessary and a bit too sleazy), but overall the lead cast turned in convincing work.
Satanic Panic plays as a horror comedy, and there are nice touches of both. The bitter quarrel between Romijn’s character and Arden Myrin’s fellow Satanist works like two moms fighting over who has the better casserole recipe. In terms of horror, Stardust doesn’t skimp out on the bloodshed. One sequence has the Satanists using a voodoo doll to torture someone. The special effects and editing do an adequate job of cutting between the two opposing shots with coherency, showing us how the doll and the person are connected. Strangely, there is an ongoing theme of “penetrative” gore, as well as an odd fascination of things coming out of people’s mouths (whether it be vomit, guts, maggots, or all three). I’m not sure if there is a deeper layer going on with that, but it happens so often that it’s hard not to notice.
Within all of this is a deeper examination of Sam and her wish to make more for herself. There is an extended interaction between Sam and Judi that reveals more of who they are and how they both feel trapped within their given surroundings (literally and figuratively). This causes the pacing to stop dead in its tracks but is needed for us to better empathize with these characters. For Sam, she entered this high-class society as an outcast, but seeing how disturbed the people are gives her a better appreciation for who she is and her own aspirations. Now, this character development isn’t exactly Shakespeare’s Hamlet, but Stardust allows just enough to keep us engaged with where these people end up.
Satanic Panic isn’t a great movie – the climax and final resolution are a cheat in how contrived and convenient they play out – but there’s an ample amount of good stuff that fans of the genre may dig the overall whole. This is one of those occasions where a letter grade doesn’t really do a movie justice, regardless of what that grade is. If you watch this expecting “great” cinema, you may be disappointed. If you go in hoping for “fun” cinema, you might get what you’re looking for.