By Peg Aloi
Satanic Panic is a crazy ride, managing along the way to poke fun at the lifestyles of the rich and bored, reminding us that decadence among the upper classes is very scary indeed.
Satanic Panic, directed by Chelsea Stardust. Streaming on Amazon Prime, On Demand, and screening in selected theaters.
Comedy and horror mix pretty well, as it turns out. Of course, there are horror films that are unintentionally funny because they’re so bad. But I’ve always enjoyed horror that includes elements of satire, parody, or just plain off-beat humor. One of my favorites is the 1980 cult classic Motel Hell. Some of Romero’s “living dead” films contain tongue-in-cheek references that are quite funny. One recent example is a sexy horror movie that is more or less soft-core porn, Zombie Strippers (2008): it’s over the top, hilarious, completely outrageous, and often quite clever. More recently, The Love Witch (2016) is full of funny homages to 1970s crime procedurals, including intentionally stiff acting, not to mention goofy situations that inject humor into the protagonist’s horrifying actions. Terror’s adrenaline rush can be very effectively balanced by the cathartic release of laughter.
Satanic Panic, the new feature debut from director Chelsea Stardust, starts with a plot point right out of a cheesy porn film: a young pizza delivery driver has to go to a fancy house in the suburbs, whereupon she stumbles on a coven of devil worshipers. Sam (Hayley Griffeth) is new at her job, having gone through personal and financial hell, but she has a sweet disposition and is determined to succeed. Her co-workers tease her, warning her that the neighborhood she’s headed for is trouble. One of them hits on her relentlessly, too arrogant and clueless to see that she is rebuffing him. The characters are fairly one-dimensional; they are just around to set up humorous situations or one-liners. The script, by Grady Hendrix from a story by Ted Geoghehan, is uneven and a bit disjointed. But Satanic Panic isn’t attempting brilliance; it’s just trying to be funny. Along with the occasionally grating humor comes some witty dialogue and intriguing social commentary.
Sam heads out confidently on her Vespa scooter with a big order, looking forward to good tips. She rides down a street lined with huge well-lit mansions. The vibe is a bit creepy: the implication is that disturbing things happen in rich peoples’ houses (of course, with the recent horror show revelations about Jeffrey Epstein, we all know this). At first, Sam’s just trying to collect a decent tip from a cheapskate who ordered over a hundred bucks worth of pizza. She’s anxious to have the deadbeat pay for the gas money she spent to trek out to the ‘burbs. (More hints of class warfare: rich folks don’t know how much it costs poor people to work a shitty job.) She bursts in on what looks like a fancy dress party. The hostess, Danica Ross, actually the high priestess of a Satanic cult, (Rebecca Romijn in a role she seems born to play) takes a special interest in her.
Pretty soon Sam is drugged, tied up, and waiting to be the virgin sacrifice in an elaborate ritual. Danica’s husband is being kept in the same room (a nice cameo from Jerry O’Connell, Romijn’s real life husband). He’s resigned to his fate, but he tries to help Sam by, well, removing her virginity. Despite his claim that sex will save her life, it looks a lot like assault. Sam effectively fights him off. Then, in a wildly bloody scene with excellent special effects, Danica somehow crafts a demonic sentinel from someone’s . . . liver? Spleen? I don’t know, but the visuals are fascinatingly gross. The golem flies off to do her bidding while the coven plots their virgin sacrifice. Meanwhile, there’s unrest in the group, with priestess-in-waiting Gypsy (the excellent Arden Myrin, seen in Insatiable and Shameless) jockeying for leadership.
Sam then finds herself in a room with another young woman, trussed up like a Thanksgiving turkey and about to be sacrificed. Sam unties her, loosens her gag, and we meet Judi, Danica’s daughter. Her profanity-laden, pop-culture soaked stream of dialogue is dizzying and delightful. Played by Happy Death Day’s Ruby Modine, Judi is a badass, an angry girl who bonds with Sam, the de facto babe in the woods. The two decide to do their best to escape the clutches of the bloodthirsty devil worshipers. We are expected to accept without question that Danica has decided to sacrifice her own daughter. I found myself thinking of The Witch and its complex mother-daughter struggles, but the implications here are far less thoughtful. Satanic Panic stays true to its trashy horror vibe.
The film’s visuals are enjoyable, from the top notch gore effects to the wonderful costumes. I found the makeup a bit garishly done, but bright red lipstick is apparently what fashionable Satanists are wearing, I guess. I couldn’t help but notice a resemblance to ritual scenes from The Love Witch, though the witches portrayed in Anna Biller’s campy art-house flick were into sex magic, not killing virgins. And the over-the-top content in the earlier film served a solid narrative purpose. Satanic Panic lacks any such focus. Still, it’s a crazy ride, managing along the way to poke fun at the lifestyles of the rich and bored, reminding us that decadence among the upper classes is very scary indeed.
Peg Aloi is a former film critic for The Boston Phoenix. She taught film studies in Boston for over a decade. She writes regularly for The Orlando Weekly, Crooked Marquee, and Bloody Disgusting. Her blog “The Witching Hour” can be found at at themediawitch.com.