Gorily Goofy Satanic Panic a Magically Bloody Hoot
One of the best horror-comedies of the year, it’s likely most have sadly not heard of director Chelsea Stardust’s Satanic Panic, a gorily flighty hoot that tickled my funny bone and sent shivers buzzing up and down my spine with fiercely demonic enthusiasm. Featuring a delightful performance from newcomer Hayley Griffith and a scene-stealing supporting turn from Happy Death Day’s cupcake murderess Ruby Modine, the film is nonetheless dominated by a bit of magnetic scenery-chewing villainy courtesy of X-Men and “Ugly Betty” star Rebecca Romijn. Together, these three women are a trio of energetic magnetism who leap off the screen, Stardust utilizing them to chant an incantation of blood, guts, friendship and feminism I openly adored.
Pizza delivery driver Samantha “Sam” Craft (Modine) is having a terrible night. Her first day on the job and she’s been sent on all the worst assignments, her tip total so minuscule she hasn’t even made enough to fill her scooter’s tiny gas tank. But things take a potential turn for the good when Sam lucks into a plum delivery in an upscale neighborhood. But in place of a tip she instead gets singled out for satanic sacrifice, these pizzas heading to a coven of posh witches who need a virgin to complete their latest moonlight ritual. Now Sam is forced to run for her life as she sprints through a nightmarish evening in the homes of the wealthy elite who apparently keep their largess intact by selling their immortal souls to the Devil, her only ally as she fights for survival the disgraced daughter, Judi (Modine), of the coven’s leader Danica Ross (Romijn).
Working from a script by Grady Hendrix, which was in turn built from a story he co-wrote with his Mohawk collaborator Ted Geoghegan (We Are Still Here), Stardust infuses the material with a feminist spirit that’s unbridled in its gonzo enthusiastic joy as well as in its patriarchal-dismantling ferocity. What could have been a somewhat endearing (if still massively misogynistic) ‘80s-style low budget horror throwback in her hands instead becomes a raucously endearing, character-driven descent into madness, mayhem and motherly misbehavior that only grows in entertainment value as Sam’s nightmarish journey goes on. The film is a total hoot building to a climax of blood-splattered mania that had me chortling in enchanted glee as I also held back a number of genuinely shocked shrieks as the dismembered body count began to slowly rise.
The movie’s opening minutes aren’t great, an extended cameo from You’re Next and I Trapped the Devil star A.J. Bowen massively overstaying its welcome. Also, as exuberantly over the top as the finale might be there’s still something about what transpires that left me slightly cold, and whether the fault lies with Hendrix’s script, Stardust’s direction or potentially some mysterious bout of indigestion brought on thanks to a kernel of rancid popcorn stuck in my front teeth I cannot say. Seriously, though, there are a few bumpy bits sprinkled throughout that keep the film from greatness, and unlike August’s somewhat thematically similar Ready or Not there’s a minor lack of creative consistency that’s more than a little noticeable.
And yet, none of that matters, none of it at all. Griffith is a likably plucky heroine who’s awe-shucks demeanor is façade for a can-do attitude that’s far more cutthroat and resolute than initially meets the eye. As for Modine, she brings a wearily non-plussed bourgeois attitude to the proceedings that’s like something out of a “Real Housewives” spin-off that would focus on those women’s entitled children. Together, the two actresses develop an effortlessly engaging chemistry that augments both of their respective characters in some rather surprising ways. There is real emotional growth taking place that only gets more interestingly complex as the film goes on, and what starts as a wary, untrusting partnership elegantly builds to full-blown selfless friendship by the time things near their end.
But it is Romijn who steals the show, galivanting with such vivacious glee it’s a wonder she’s never been allowed to cut it loose with such carnivorously craven abandon before now. Her matriarchal coven leader is one of the year’s best villains, the actress dripping venom with a blasé impunity that’s as big an indictment of the self-entitlement of the wealthy 1% towards all of those they see as beneath them (especially the beleaguered working class) as any I’ve ever seen. Yet Romijn augments her character with a feminine grace that fearlessly flies in the face of a masculine privilege that keeps trying to subjugate it into browbeaten insignificance, Danica refusing to bow down to, safely secure in her knowledge that’s she’s unquestionably the smartest person in whatever room she might be standing in.
Stardust’s liberal use of gore is to be expected considering this is a Fangoria production. At the same time, most of the nastiest bits of guts and viscera are surprisingly important to the overall narrative, and much like Mission: Impossible – Fallout or any of the first three Jason Bourne films used action to further their stories and their characters, the director does the same here with her ingenious utilization of these sickening practical effects. Her film is also expertly shot by cinematographer Mark Evans, while costume designer Rachel Wilson’s rapturous modern-day ensembles are nothing short of perfect. All of this and more helps make Satanic Panic the giddily enjoyable sensation it proves to be, Stardust and her ragtag team of actors and creative artists weaving a magically bloody spell that had me seeing a marvelous shade of red I can’t wait to bear witness to again.
– Review reprinted courtesy of the SGN in Seattle
Film Rating: 3 (out of 4)