Horror is one of those genres that never goes out of style. It draws inspiration from the things which we fear collectively and gives it form. 1978’s Halloween was born out of the move from city centers to suburbia. 1954’s Godzilla came to be out of the horrors of Hiroshima. 1915’s Birth of a Nation, though not technically a horror film, utilized a fear of African-Americans, creating stereotypes that would follow this maligned group for decades. If there is one area that’s been mined more than most, it’s the occult. Rosemary’s Baby, This Is The End, Ready Or Not, The Void, The Witch, Susperia (1977), The Evil Dead —these films are but a few which take advantage of a global fear of punishment in the afterlife, or, worse, punishment in this one. Channeling a little punk-rock energy into the established genre is director Chelsea Stardust’s (Seeing Green) Satanic Panic, released through the might of RLJE Films and Fangoria. Utilizing imaginative special effects and a killer twist on a familiar concept, Satanic Panic is a midnight movie built for a mainstream audience.
Samantha “Sam” Craft (Hayley Griffith) is having a shitty first day as a delivery person for Home Run Pizza. The guy who helped get her the gig keeps hitting on her, she got zero tips on her entire day’s run, and her last five dollars served as the deposit on her warming bags. As far as initiations into pizza delivery go, her day ranks about the worst. When an opportunity to make up that lost coin appears in the form of a delivery outside their zone to the wealthy neighborhood of Mill Basin comes up, Sam jumps at the chance and hightails it out the door, excited at the prospect of turning things around. However, despite the promise of changing her luck, getting stiffed on the tip once more plus an out of gas Vespa inspire Sam to sneak her way into the house to try to convince those holding a meeting inside to make things right. Things go from bad to worse when the group inside turns out to be Satanists in dire need of a virgin to raise the demon Baphomet and Sam fits the bill.
First, let’s address the elephant in the room: the obvious similarities to another recent release, Ready Or Not by Fox Searchlight. Though the basic foundation is the same (final girl hunted as a sacrifice), the narrative, set design, and approach to socio-political themes are tackled in vastly different ways. For example, Ready Or Not features a high-class family who takes little pleasure in the violence they must enact whereas in Satanic Panic, the Type-A occultist revel in it. There’s far more different than you’d expect from a simple summary and that’s what would make the two films a perfect double-feature. Frankly, given the approaches of both films, to suggest anything other than room for them both in theaters would exemplify the kind of gate-keeping in which the characters within Satanic Panic engage.
The good stuff with Satanic Panic begins with the story from Ted Geoghegan and Grady Hendrix, which Hendrix then turned into a screenplay. There’re layers and layers of good stuff which make Panic a deep source of conversation. It’s more than the class and age conflicts which permeate the film, though that alone does offer some of the more entertaining moments as character lash out at each other over K-mart and Wal-Mart brand products, as though there’s something horrible about shopping there beyond the treatment of the workers. Rather, it’s the blatant skewering of misogyny and twisted feminism which creates the jumping off point for everything Sam endures. In the scene after Sam is captured by the Satanists, she’s locked in a room with Jerry O’Connell’s Samuel Ross, husband to leader Danica (Rebecca Romijn) and father to Judy (Ruby Modine). Samuel tries to fill Sam in on everything the cultists have planned for her and offers to “save” her by sleeping with her, even going so far as to self-identify as a feminist willing to save her against her will. Losing her virginity make her worthless to the cultists, but that’s not the point of the scene. It’s to highlight a gross corruption of consent. Sam deserves autonomy, something which we see her struggling to preserve before she gets to Mill Basin, and the notion that her chastity should be protected via forced corruption is some twisted male bullshit. Thankfully, the men throughout Panic are comparatively dimwitted relative to the women, presenting them more as a necessary means of procreation than useful parts of the coven. This comes into play later when a character’s fate is made less certain thanks to the idiocy of a father who can’t follow orders. This isn’t to suggest that the women are above reproach either. As head of the coven, Danica calls the shots and it’s proven time and again why she’s in charge; however, that doesn’t stop another from trying to undermine her at every opportunity. This shouldn’t surprise as the first words coming from Danica in the whole film sound like a marketing scheme full of “self-actualizing” and “paradigm-shifting” catchphrases, so her coven would be like-minded in the “kill or be killed”/ “greed is good” mentality Danica’s words evoke. By definition feminism is about equality for all, not about a tiered-system of governance. So, even though the women are the ones to fear, there’s nothing good about their leadership.
Some form of social commentary is, as mentioned previously, a part of what makes horror creep under an audience’s skin. When the film really wants to get under your skin, though, the murder and mayhem kick in. Frankly, Satanic Panic utilizes some of the best practical effects used all year that are literally shudder-inducing and full-body cringe-worthy. CG does wonders in making fiction seems real, but nothing beats practical effects in bridging the gap of reality as if it is real. In one incredibly inventive scene created through the craftsmanship of Ill Willed Productions, a particular scene I had the poor timing of freeze-framing on screen as I ran away from on-screen events, one character seems to reach through another’s throat and yank something out from the torso. Rather than being a quick sequence, Stardust lets the camera linger, the actor committed fully to the moment, requiring the audience to watch in disgust and morbid fascination as the surgery is performed. This is but one of several moments which evoke the timelessness of practical effects in their ability to mangle an audience’s comfort while simultaneously instilling a feeling of admiration in a “how did they do that?!?” way.
To its credit, Satanic Panic isn’t all social commentary and disquieting uses of FX applications. It’s also a really fun flick with twists and turns that cleverly defy expectations. It certainly helps that the main characters are smart, the whole cast is dedicated to the premise, and the direction wonderfully maintains the punk rock energy Panic opens with. Griffith is leading material, able to handle the final girl responsibility with believable ease. A fantastic scene partner for Griffith, Modine manages to make the perverse natural and the average horrifying. Individually, the actors are fantastic with performances which may help them breakout with general audiences. Together, their scenes are some of the best in the film, enabling the narrative to progress naturally even when dealing with the supernatural. As the head of the coven, Romijn’s role is particularly juicy and she commands every moment, frequently stealing the light from her scene partners. On the whole, Satanic Panic delivers everything you want as part of the kick-off to the Halloween season, despite a few noticeable moments in continuity errors from one angle of a scene to another, one scene set-up which seems to serve the actor more than the story, and questionable ending. All of this can be overlooked easily because Satanic Panic is so resoundingly self-aware and fun that any issues are glossed over by the strengths.
In theaters and on VOD September 6th, 2019.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.