Satanic Panic: Chelsea Stardust, Hayley Griffith and Grady Hendrix on making a future cult classic

The team behind horror comedy Satanic Panic talk cults, practical gore, horror heroines, double feature suggestions and inspiring future filmmakers

It’s a golden rule in horror films that the rich people in that big house up the street are up to something weird, and pizza delivery woman Sam (Hayley Griffith) is about to find out just how true that is in crowd-pleasing horror comedy Satanic Panic. When she’s stiffed on her tip by the snooty residents of Mill Basin at the end of a seriously crappy first day, she decides to head inside to claim what’s rightfully hers…only to discover that the locals are summoning the demon Baphomet and they need a virgin to bring their dark lord into the world.

The movie is a wickedly funny and surprisingly heartfelt throwback to 80s sleepover horror classics with a gooey John Waters/Society-esque twist, and director Chelsea Stardust tells us that the script was impossible to say no to. “First off, the fact that I saw Grady Hendrix’s name on it!” she remembers. “I’m a huge fan of his novels, I love My Best Friend’s Exorcism, Horrorstör, Paperbacks From Hell, and it had Fangoria’s name on it as well.”

“When I read the script, there were a lot of things in it that I thought were really cool and especially seeing that the whole movie is basically run by women,” she continues. “All the men take a backseat in the film and I loved seeing this incredible story about women who are both good and evil, and that’s something I hadn’t really seen too much of. We never really see covens and cults run by women. I also loved that it was a commentary on classism and that it has this high fashion upper class twist to everything. Most of the time we’re seeing Satanic rituals in a basement or in the woods and I loved that it was basically in a suburban back yard, so I was really excited when I was the one who got to bring it to life.”

There’s definitely something in the air with horror movies about cults at the moment, and Hendrix tells us that he relished the opportunity to reflect real-world fears through an over-privileged Satanic coven who will sacrifice whatever they have to in order to cling to their lovely lifestyle. “There has always, always, always been this really long-lasting, carved in stone, we can’t seem to shake it, conspiracy theory going back hundreds of years which is that an elite group of people secretly run the world and the rest of us are just sheeple in their feeding pen, and they get all the good stuff and we get all the pig slop and they’re stealing our children and having weird sex and doing drugs,” he explains. “Nowadays, on one side it’s the deep state and the new world order and pizzagate and on the other side it’s the one percenters and the global elites, so it’s just this evergreen conspiracy theory that we just can’t seem to let go of and so it was really fun to literalise that.”

This cult, led by Rebecca Romjin’s gloriously glamorous Danica Ross, has just lost its virgin sacrifice, which is very bad news for Sam Craft. However, Sam has no intention of being their victim and we find that there’s an incredible strength to this kind, optimistic young woman. “I loved the character because she’s so sweet and kind-hearted and pure but she has this sense of badassery,” Griffith enthuses. “She still kicks some ass when she needs to stay alive which I really loved.”

“She doesn’t have a traditional arc,” adds Hendrix. “She starts out as a really nice person who doesn’t want to hurt other people and she ends up as a really nice person who doesn’t want to hurt other people, but it’s that thing that keeps her safe.”

In order to survive the night, Sam teams up with Danica’s sentenced-to-death daughter Judi (Happy Death Day’s Ruby Modine), who was the original sacrificial lamb before finding a way to opt out, and who doesn’t initially have a lot of faith in this blue collar woman’s ability to keep them away from the clutches of the coven. “I was just very lucky with my actors, I think they did a lot of the heavy lifting for me,” enthuses Stardust. “Hayley Griffith and Ruby Modine didn’t know each other before this movie and I watched their friendship grow and blossom throughout the film both onscreen and off and they just genuinely cared about each other and took care of each other in these very stressful scenes. I had the girls watch Jennifer’s Body because the relationship that Jennifer and Needy had, we were sort of mimicking a little bit in Satanic Panic between Sam and Judi. Where they come from doesn’t matter, it’s all about their friendship and their getting to know each other and that relationship.”

Anyone who’s read Hendrix’s novels knows that he’s someone who can find the balance between wickedly funny dark comedy and gut-wrenching horror, and Stardust absolutely nails that tone on screen. The sequences with the coven, who are quite literally cooking up monsters to hunt down Sam and Rubi, are great fun, but we’re never allowed to forget that they are a very real threat with a very horrible plan. It’s also a film that really loves its heroine, and we discover that there’s a very good reason why Sam is the way that she is.

“It’s hard with horror comedies,” explains Stardust. “Tonally, I wanted to lean into the campiness of it but it also has so much heart to it. And I loved that balance, and so I was looking at so many things from Drag Me To Hell and Evil Dead 2 and Jennifer’s Body, and obviously Society.” “Grady Hendrix is such an amazing writer, so it’s very clear when you read his script what parts are the comedy, what parts are the more dramatic horror moments,” adds Griffith. “So there’s a lot of figuring all that stuff out but Grady’s writing is just phenomenal and really helps to give you those hints of what you should lean into more, which was just really helpful because it is a tricky balance to find what you want to push more in the moment, and it’s a comedy as well so you’ve got to keep the lightness.”

And then, of course, there’s the blood. There’s some fantastically inventive gore on display in Satanic Panic, from home-cooked hellish creatures to a race-against-the-clock battle against a voodoo doll curse, and Stardust tells us that she always knew that she wanted to do everything practically. “Yeah, that’s part of the Fangoria brand, they’re all about the practical effects,” she explains. “And the actors I think appreciate that because it’s not like they’re acting against a green tennis ball, they’re acting with something real and the audience can see it’s real. And they’re just really fun, the team did a great job and they had to create things they’d never seen in horror cinema before. So creating these crazy things like the soul sack and making a Baphomet, they had a lot of fun doing all of that and I loved working with them.”

Sam certainly faces more than her fair of gory madness and Griffith tells us that she couldn’t wait to get stuck into the fake blood. “Yeah, oh my god, it was a dream come true,” she exclaims. “I have always loved horror and as a weird little kid I was always like ‘God, I want to be covered in blood and run around!’ It always looked so fun to me to get to do that stuff. And nowadays a lot of it is CGI or animation or whatnot, so to have a film that is doing everything practical and have that be my first movie, it was unreal. It’s so much fun, I loved it. They were like, ‘Hey do you mind if we put you in blood again?’ ‘Go on, do it, I’m ready!’ I had a blast.”

Satanic Panic has been a hit on the festival circuit and Stardust, who has already got another project in the works, has made one hell of an arrival with her debut feature. “She’s the greatest, I cannot express how much I love Chelsea,” enthuses Griffith. “She’s just the greatest director, she’s so kind and she has so many brilliant ideas, she just brings so much to the table and she also is really open to stuff you want to bring as well so she’s extremely collaborative which is so nice to have on a set and she’s just so supportive and her work process is very encouraging, especially in these moments of crazy gore and special effects, she’s so with you through the whole process that she’s just a dream to work with and she’s so cool. I just love her!”

“I’ve gone to as many festivals as I could because I love interacting with the fans and I wanted to make a movie that I wanted to watch and that I was a fan of,” Stardust tells us. “I want to make what I love, so for me with this movie I would love for a group of teenage women to rent this at a slumber party and watch it and say, ‘Oh man this is so cool, I want to make a movie like this someday.’ So that’s kind of my goal with it, I hope to inspire another generation of filmmakers. I’m a fan of the genre and I wanted to make a movie for fans of the genre, because without the fans we are nothing as filmmakers. So I was very conscious of that and getting to talk to fans and hear people’s reactions was actually very magical for me. I was in heaven!”

DOUBLE FEATURE SUGGESTIONS

We asked the filmmakers to pick the second half of a Satanic Panic double bill

CHELSEA STARDUST – There are two movies that come to mind. Jennifer’s Body is one of them, the other one I actually curated a double feature at the Alamo Drafthouse up in Houston and I paired it with The House Of The Devil, the Ti West movie, because for one thing it’s the first movie I saw AJ Bowen in, and also I feel like House Of The Devil and Satanic Panic are sort of different sides of the same coin, there are a lot of similarities between the two. If you watch those back to back it’s kind of amazing how well they play together, because House Of The Devil feels like a very dramatic perversion of Satanic Panic in a way so I very much encourage people to go watch the two of them back to back, you’ll see quite a few fun similarities in the movie.

HAYLEY GRIFFITH – I’d say either Society because I know they have very similar themes, or if you want a more recent one, I’d do Ready Or Not, I hear a lot of people have been doing that and I kind of want to do it too. I think they’re very similar in that sense that they’d be a good ‘Fuck the rich!’ night!

GRADY HENDRIX – You can go one of two directions, right? You can either lean hard into Satanic cults in movies and do something with Race With The Devil, that Peter Fonda Warren Oates movie when they’re driving around in their Winnebago and robed Satanic cultists are after them. Also there’s a movie from Hong Kong called Bio Zombie which has nothing to do with Satanism at all, it’s a zombie movie set in a shopping mall about working class stiffs trying to make a living and they just happen to run into the zombie apocalypse and it’s a really funny ridiculous stoner comedy and then it takes a really dark moving turn at the end, and that’s a movie I saw probably when it came out in like ‘98 and it’s always stuck with me because it sticks the landing so well.

Satanic Panic is available on Blu-ray and DVD now.