Written by: Ted Geoghegan (story) and Grady Hendrix (story & screenplay)
Directed by: Chelsea Stardust
Starring: Hayley Griffith, Rebecca Romijn, and Ruby Modine
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
“ Are you by any chance, a virgin?"
"That's a very personal question."
"She's a virgin."
"That's a very personal question."
"She's a virgin."
Satanic Panic occupies a critical space on the horror spectrum, one that’s been crucial to the development of many a Monster Kid: the inappropriate sleepover movie. You know the sort: those outlandishly gory and gratuitously sexy fits of nonsense every kid craves when they want to punch above their weight class. No right-minded person would think that they should watch something that involves such heathen nonsense; however, no right-minded person who actually watched it would consider it legitimately dangerous or transgressive enough to fuss over it. I think we should officially name this the Kevin S. Tenney division of horror movies, and, while I think Chelsea Stardust’s feature debut stumbles in some regards, its demented heart is definitely in the right place. If it had been released 30 years ago, I’m sure legions of kids would have plucked it off the shelf, gleefully identifying it as “the one where the pizza delivery girl runs into a Satanic cult” before eagerly showing it off to their friends.
The pizza delivery girl is Sam (Hayley Griffith), whose first day on the job couldn’t have gone much worse. Not only does her route bring her face-to-face with an assortment of weirdoes, but their complete lack of tips has her riding back to the restaurant on fumes. Desperate to at least recoup of the cost of gas for her Vespa, she takes one last delivery out to the wealthy Mill Basin community. Her friend Duncan (A.J. Bowen) warns her it’s a waste of time: these people notoriously don’t tip, and it’s so far out of the way that it’s destined to end badly. He doesn’t know just how right he is: when these rich fucks do indeed stiff Sam on the tip, she becomes incensed enough to barge right into the mansion, only to stumble upon an honest-to-Satan blood ritual. Even worse, they need a virgin to complete their sacrifice, and Sam is the perfect candidate.
Despite its obvious implications as a class warfare allegory, everything about Satanic Panic just screams nonsense. A true horror comedy in the sense that its laughs are arguably more abundant than its terror, it’s about as harmless and good-natured that a film with this title can possibly be. Ted Geoghegan and Grady Hendrix aim just above the tenor of YA literature: basically, you could easily imagine this tale unfolding in the pages of Goosebumps or Fear Street, only it wouldn’t do so quite as outlandishly (or as inappropriately) as it does here. Satanic Panic is unmistakably meant to be silly from the get-go, when it’s obvious Sam is surrounded by quirky co-workers who laugh at her twee attempt at becoming a Youtube sensation with her acoustic guitar.
The script dares you to keep a straight face from there, as the developments become increasingly ludicrous, even within the confines of a story where a pizza delivery girl runs afoul of Satanists. Upon waking up after being drugged by said Satanists, Sam encounters Sam Ross (Jerry O’Connell), the disgruntled husband of coven leader Samantha (Rebecca Romijn). After explaining the situation, Sam comes up with the only logical solution: if he takes her virginity, then she’ll no longer be of any use to the coven, a suggestion that sends the exchange spiraling completely out of control and ends with the dope shooting himself in the neck. Nobody can reasonably say they don’t know exactly what to expect from Satanic Panic from this point on, as it escalates into a wicked comedy of errors that sends Sam perpetually fleeing from the frying pan into the friar. Her escape from the coven’s mansion reveals it to be simply one layer of a fucked-up onion when the entire community proves to be just as a perilous and offbeat.
Satanic Panic thrives on that sustained, offbeat quirkiness that naturally arrives whenever a film zigs where it should zag. Likewise, the colorful personalities generally play against type for this sort of thing. Instead of a genuinely sinister cult, this bunch mostly just feels like the country club from hell, full of affluent assholes angling to get over one another as they conjure Baphomet to secure even more wealth and power for themselves. Romijn vamps as leader Danica Ross, often coming across more as a bullshit motivational speaker than lord of the damned. Foiling her—often in every sense of the word—is Arden Myrin as Gypsy Neumieir, a bubbly airhead with designs on leading the coven herself. The two constantly squabble like a pair of rival coworkers trying to undercut each other on their way up the corporate ladder.
It makes for a Satanic cult unlike any ever glimpsed on-screen before, especially when Sam encounters a pair of babysitting sisters who prove the demonic apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree. She also crosses paths with Danica’s daughter, Judi (Ruby Modine), who understandably emerges as something of a wild card as the night wears on. You want to believe she’s actually broken free from her mother’s Satanic grip and is genuinely forming a bond with Sam, but there’s something a little uneasy about this alliance, at least for a little bit. Nevertheless, Modine is arguably the secret weapon here, as she spits out Hendrix’s silly dialogue with aplomb and perfectly dials into the film’s sassy, smartass wavelength. Satanic Panic certainly doesn’t lack for the feeling that it bustles with silliness at every turn.
And yet, the pacing doesn’t exactly bear that out. Despite the insanity unfolding in the breakneck, zigzagging script, Satanic Panic sometimes feels unexpectedly languid. It’s just missing the little bit of urgency that would make the film pop. It’s largely shot and cut as if it were a conventional horror film when it needs a little bit more visual or editorial flash to find the proper, offbeat energy to match the material. While this is mostly just a nagging sensation, I often found myself thinking that Satanic Panic really just didn’t feel as gonzo as it should. Recounting its myriad bonkers developments on page would lead you to believe that it’s a nonstop laugh riot, propelled by a manic, sugar rush sort of imagery. On screen, it’s still amusing enough but never quite roars to life. Toss in some janky, sometimes low-rent production values (the climactic orgy, which is literally set in a backyard, is kind of lackluster), and Satanic Panic sometimes feels like a missed opportunity at true greatness.
Instead, we’ll have to settle for what it is: a perfectly entertaining and often puerile attempt at recapturing an era where we didn’t allow those nagging shortcomings to completely sink the ship. In hindsight, we could all lob barbs directly at our own cherished sleepover classics we enjoyed; however, we kept them holstered at the time either because we didn’t know any better or because we just appreciated the opportunity to watch some wild, gory shit when we had no business doing so.
Satanic Panic earns the benefit of that doubt, especially when it gets so much right that it needs to: Griffith is sweet and plucky as Sam, who emerges as the dogged heart and soul lurking beneath all of the film’s glib nonsense. She’s a sincere counterbalance to the film’s ironic posturing, almost as if she’s trying to prove she can make audiences give a damn about a film with such a silly premise. By the end, you’ll not only be able to say you have seen “the one where the pizza girl runs into a Satanic cult,” but you’ll also find yourself quite smitten with the pizza girl, who steals the movie from right beneath the Satanic cult.
Plus, it should come as no surprise that Satanic Panic is gory as hell. As the latest Fangoria production, it aims for the type of splattery outbursts and bizarre creature designs that have adorned the magazine’s pages for decades now. It might be more accurate to say that this one would have been more fit for sister publication GoreZone, which specialized in the genre’s nastier, gorier underbelly. If Satanic Panic and Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich are any indication, then this might be the revived magazine’s brand as a film production arm: silly, outlandishly bloody, and difficult to take too seriously. Not that they want you to, of course: as we all know, there is definitely a place for this specific flavor of horror, even for those of us whose sleepover days are long behind us. Besides, now that I'm older, I can take an increased pleasure in watching a movie where a bunch of rich assholes get exactly what they deserve.
Satanic Panic is now available on DVD and Blu-ray from RLJ Entertainment and Image Entertainment.
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