Director: Chelsea Stardust
Writer: Grady Hendrix, Ted Geoghegan
Producer: Dallas Sonnier, Amanda Presmyk, Adam Goldworm
Stars: Hayley Griffith, Ruby Modine, Arden Myrin, AJ Bowen, Jordan Ladd, Jeff Daniel Phillips, Michael Polish, Hannah Stocking, Jerry O’Connell, Rebecca Romijn
A cash-strapped pizza delivery girl inadvertently intrudes on a satanic coven determined to turn her into a virgin sacrifice.
I was hugely hesitant about reviewing “Satanic Panic” for the same reason I avoided covering “All the Creatures Were Stirring” in 2018. Both were made by prominent members of L.A.’s unofficial horror community, which also includes filmmakers and actors involved in indies like “Southbound” (review here), “Beyond the Gates” (review here), and “Tales of Halloween” (review here).
Now, although I don’t know any of those people well enough to ask for a ride to the airport or anything, I do run in social circles that occasionally overlap with theirs. That’s a dicey position to be in when your professional responsibilities as a reviewer may require being critical of their work.
I’m already wary of wearing a Culture Crypt t-shirt to Burbank’s monthly Dead Right Horror Trivia ever since I realized I’ve panned movies made by multiple people in that room. I don’t want to invite additional death stares when I’m out enjoying a screening at The Egyptian from anyone who can associate my identity with a negative review. I’d rather skip their movies altogether to minimize potential headaches leaking into my personal life.
And yet cautious curiosity continued compelling me to reconsider “Satanic Panic.” “Satanic Panic” also continued entering my orbit via coverage opportunities for Overlook, Fantasia, and other genre film festivals.
But I couldn’t get a handle on whether the risk might be worth it because everything I’d read was unreliable. “Satanic Panic” director Chelsea Stardust is an adored fixture in the West Coast horror scene, and that’s a fiercely protective clique that proudly champions “one of their own” making good in the industry. Posts perused on social media and several website reviews were positive, but many came from people I’ve personally seen pal around with Stardust. I’m not implying collusion, but I’m not discounting friendships favorably coloring critiques.
At the same time, two unenthusiastic reviews I found came from writers whose career paths crossed in complicated ways with brands Stardust can be associated with, such as Blumhouse and Fangoria. I finally accepted that the only way to parse a straightforward slant on “Satanic Panic” was to bite the bullet and evaluate it myself. So if you want to cut through the crap of critics who have odd axes to grind or vested interests in promoting the people involved, here’s an unbiased review from someone who has neither.
Seeing as I’ve already exhausted 400 words framing my POV, I’ll preview the bottom line. “Satanic Panic” encounters unevenness by balancing conflicting objectives of being a broadly appealing camp comedy yet simultaneously sharpening an edge of adults-only irreverence. But energetic editing mostly maintains a snappy pace while an overwhelmingly fantastic cast commits to kookiness that provides the film with an unusually appealing personality.
Relative newcomer Hayley Griffith doesn’t quite break out with her leading lady performance, but she stakes a strong claim as a fresh face to keep tabs on. Griffith plays Sam, a scrappy pizza delivery girl struggling to find two nickels to rub together. Sam almost finds them in a posh neighborhood, but inadvertently ends up targeted by murderous cultists who want to make her a virgin sacrifice. Thus begins a domino series of Looney Tunes chases where Sam fights for her life against a strange society of suburbanite Satanists.
Hayley Griffith earns endearment almost immediately. Her role is a largely expressive one that also requires her to act under her age. Griffith easily wins the audience’s attention with mixtures of sweetness, spunkiness, even sarcastic snark and some naivety purely through natural screen presence.
“Happy Death Day” (review here) fans will be pleased to see Ruby Modine spreading her acting wings further as the wicked-tongued defector who sort of becomes Sam’s sidekick. Modine successfully swings toward seriousness too when scenes call for a tearful confrontation with her treacherous mother or barfing up worms during painful voodoo torture. Ensemble energy fuels much of “Satanic Panic” since so many moments feature at least two people playing off one another. Modine provides a prime example of how each actor elevates to his/her A game because everyone sharing the screen refuses to be a weak link.
Filling out the roster with friends is a warranted worry at this tier of indie filmmaking, and Stardust can’t say no to putting a few of her offscreen buds onscreen. Luckily, she limits these inclusions to lesser functions of facilitating one-off jokes. Favors fulfilled, Stardust smartly stocks the supporting cast with proven pros including Arden Myrin, Jeff Daniel Phillips, and Rebecca Romijn, who advances gracefully into Geena Davis-like shrewishness as the purse-lipped coven leader wearing a conspiratorially cocked eyebrow.
Even the more critical cameos go to the likes of Jerry O’Connell and AJ Bowen, both of whom really put in the work to sell silly side characters. Bowen legitimately gives perhaps his most entertaining effort to date playing against type as an overage slacker sleazeball. His shtick should be slimy, and it is, but it’s also amusing due to the juxtaposition of Bowen’s inherent amiability against his character’s boorish offensiveness.
Even though actors operate at different settings for comedic intensity, I’d contend that Chelsea Stardust delivers strong directing. No one turns in a subpar performance no matter how minor the part. Evaluated in a vacuum, everyone stays consistent within individual characterizations.
“Satanic Panic’s” tonal disconnects come more from ambitious writing aiming to cover more ground than a restricted budget can accommodate in 85 minutes. The lightheartedly cheeky setup involving bumbling babysitters, virgins, and cartoony cultists frequently butts heads with the harder humor of golden showers, dildo-induced death, and a grand finale that could make Caligula climax. I can’t say it would be better off picking one lane, but “Satanic Panic” weaves between the two on sudden whims.
Grady Hendrix’s script also gets carried away with commentary that isn’t as cutting as it wishes it were. One exchange starts with Rebecca Romijn asking, “what do you have to offer her but plastic shower curtains and Walmart sweatpants?” She receives the reply, “all I see are a bunch of Martha Stewart wannabes who drink white wine and smoke medical marijuana and listen to 80s playlists.” Some of the screenplay’s class status satire is suitably stinging. This example isn’t.
Dialogue flies by fast, and frequently loads up on Hawkeye and Honeycutt banter straining to make pop culture references that are almost as awkward as that one. But even when a gag twists its ankle, “Satanic Panic” rarely hangs there long enough for thuds to echo. A little dithering trips up the back half a bit. Otherwise, the story keeps clipping at a spry stride that stops hiccups in humor from becoming a belch.
Crisp colors and characters always earmark the film for laughter so satanic symbology never takes on an insidious tone. If its sense of humor held more personal appeal, I’d give “Satanic Panic” a more confident vote of approval. Regardless, what comes out in the wash is a sharp looking horror-comedy that working class weirdoes can smirk along with. An inebriated ending feels like it comes from a compromised schedule as opposed to creative intention. Yet through all the bumps in its road, “Satanic Panic” stays consistently offbeat enough to be enjoyably engaging.
Review Score: 70