It’s always pretty exciting when a filmmaker namechecks Brian Yuzna’s Society in their introduction. While the skin-stretching 80s classic was just one of the movies given a shout-out in Satanic Panic director Chelsea Stardust’s pre-filmed FrightFest intro, her feature debut is a gleeful love-letter to a wide range of genre classics past with a thoroughly modern sensibility of its own.
Sam Craft (Hayley Griffith) hasn’t had the best first day as a pizza delivery person. She’s been relentlessly hit on by over-confident colleague Duncan (AJ Bowen), she’s had a string of weird, unpleasant and entitled customers, and she’s had to hand over her last five bucks to her boss as a deposit.
So, when she’s stiffed on a tip after heading all the way out to super-rich enclave Mill Basin, she’s had enough. She marches right inside and asks that everyone chips in…but this isn’t your typical mantra-heavy gathering. These one-percenters are a Satanic coven led by the ruthless, imperious Danica (a wonderful Rebecca Romijn) intent on summoning the demon Baphomet, and they’re in need of a virgin to do so.
It would have been so easy to set this film in the 80s, but horror fans suffering from nostalgia fatigue can rest assured that while this absolutely feels like a movie from the “something monstrous and weird is happening in that giant house across the street” era of Tom Holland, Fred Dekker et al, Grady Hendrix’s sharp and self-aware script (from a story he cooked up with Ted Geoghegan) roots everything firmly in the present day, from its monstrous wealthy elite willing to do whatever it takes (and sacrifice whoever it takes) to cling on to power, to the technology (yes, there are even cell phones).
It’s also smart enough to not waste any time, as Sam finds out very early on what these lunatics are up to (even if she doesn’t believe it) courtesy of a heads-up from Jerry O’Connell’s hilariously resigned sacrificial husband (“They’re going to render my fat into candles” is such a wonderful line). From then on it’s about keeping the energy up and the laughs and shocks coming, and Stardust dives in with relish. She shows a real gift for balancing horror, humour and heart, proving to be more than capable of delivering outrageous comedy and gore moments (the practical effects are glorious) while making sure that we are fully invested in Sam’s journey and are never allowed to forget the dire consequences of her failing to escape.
Because while she’s initially presented as a likeably naïve goof, over the course of the film we learn where Sam has come from and what she’s had to deal with, and as much fun as watching the coven bicker, cook up monsters and stab each other in the back, there is a real sense of peril and we’re rooting for our heroine every step of the way. Griffith is fantastic in the lead and Ruby Modine (Happy Death Day) is excellent as Danica’s wayward daughter Judi who becomes Sam’s unlikely ally. It’s also worth noting out that most of the coven scenes are stolen by Gina Hughes as the silent but hilariously expressive acolyte Danielle.
While it’s perhaps not as tightly constructed as it could be and there is perhaps a bit too much time spent with the coven, this is a fun and funny horror comedy that knows when to go for a gag and when to hit hard, and a strong choice for your next Friday pizza and movie night.
Satanic Panic was seen and reviewed at Arrow Video FrightFest 2019.