Satanic Panic (2019)

Sacrifices must be made

Pizza delivery girl Samantha ‘Sam’ Craft (Hayley Griffith) finds herself fending off a suburban Satanic cult in this horror-comedy that should be more fun than it actually is. It’s got the pedigree for it — director Chelsea Stardust is a rising star in the horror field, having directed a string of well-received shorts and toiled in the trenches as assistant to modern-day Roger Corman Jason Blum for yonks, while screenwriter Grady Hendrix is an established star, thanks to his 2014 ‘haunted IKEA’ novel Horrorstör and 2017’s love letter to horror-schlock literature, Paperbacks From Hell. The cast is game, especially a cameoing Jerry O’Connell, Scream 2 (1997), and a fearless Rebecca Romijn, X-Men (2000), and the concept is robust and flexible. So why does it feel less than the sum of its parts?

‘Where the devil did I leave those horns?’

This should be right up my alley because it’s class conscious AF, positing that the wealthy aren’t just smug bastards, they’re actively, Satanically evil, practicing the sark arts and sacrificing virgins to keep themselves at the top of the temporal heap (which flies in the face of the modern, lefty, transgressive brand of Satanism, come to think of it). Sam, who happens to be a virgin, finds herself a potential sacrificial fodder for Danica Ross’s (Rebecca Romijn) upper-class coven. The original plan to offer up Danica’s daughter Judi (Ruby Modine) for impregnation by Baphomet came off the rails when Judi’s virginity disappeared in a flash of teenage lust, and so Sam finds herself held prisoner alongside Danica’s louche, lecherous husband, Samuel aka Sam (Jerry O’Connell playing hard against type and yes, there’s a running gag about the names), who has also been earmarked for the altar.

From this premise, what we get is a pretty episodic but rather plodding sequence of events with Sam getting into one little self-contained predicament, untangling herself, and then finding herself in more hot water — this happens, and then this happens, and then this happens. There are bright spots — a strap on ‘drill-do’ being employed as a murder weapon is not something you see every day — but no sense of building tension or rising action — the narrative arc is far flatter than the subject matter and target tone warrants.

Run Like Hell

The script certainly feels like it was more enjoyable to write than to hear. Hendrix is a pretty dab prose stylist, but his screenwriting seems in love with its own cleverness to a degree that borders on smug. The dialogue is overly complex and stylized in a way that harkens back not to Scream-era Kevin Williamson, but to the host of imitators we got in the wake of his early success. It’s not helped by the rank and file performers going for quick campy laughs rather than playing it straight; the constant mugging for the camera by the supporting cast undercuts the tension completely, and what we’re left with feels more like an overly long SNL skit than a more carefully balanced horror-comedy (it’s very easy to imagine, oh, I don’t know, say Rachel Dratch and Will Ferrell in the Romijn and O’Connell roles).

Which doesn’t mean the whole thing is a wash, just that you have to calibrate your expectations carefully and take your kicks where you can. The gore gags are all solid, imaginative, and appropriately squicky, and some of the class and wealth jokes land well, such as when dissention in the cultist ranks, courtesy of social-climbing coven member Gypsy (Arden Myrin), results in an attempted leadership spill. Romijn is definitely the MVP here, clearly relishing being deliciously evil in her red robes and matching lipstick, and if Griffith can’t quite top her in the ostensible lead role, well, that’s just the downside of playing the good girl — evil is so much more fun.

‘… that old Black Magic.’

Satanic Panic feels a draft or two away from being bang on target, and that’s frustrating. It’s never fun bagging out a film like this; there’s no sign of anyone phoning it in, everyone involved is clearly committed to, respectful of, and fans of the genre in play, and there’s clearly a lot of talent at work — it’s just not being guided in the right direction. The result is a film that ambles when it should gallop, giggles when it should shock, and winks when it should play it straight. I’m still looking forward to Stardust’s next film, but I can’t really recommend this one.*

*However, if you’re really in the mood for pizza-themed horror-comedy, maybe give the undeservedly obscure (in Australia at least) Bite (2015) a run, which is also a bit of a curate’s egg, but is gonzo enough to paper over the cracks.

2 / 5 – Average

Reviewed by Travis Johnson

Satanic Panic is released through Fangoria Presents