Satanic Panic is a movie made up of so many disparate elements that it shouldn’t work nearly as well as it does. And yet, I completely, 100 percent loved it from beginning to end. Introduced at Frightfest 2019 as a flick for fans of “babes, blood, and Baphomet,” it’s so much more than even that description suggests. Director Chelsea Stardust described it, in her own filmed intro, as a “punk rock Wizard of Oz.” If I told you it was about a pizza delivery girl hellbent on revenge against the rich folk who neglected to tip her, loaded with blood, guts, and laughs, that wouldn’t be enough to capture its brilliance either.
All you need to know is a little girl shows up at one point and enthusiastically proclaims, “I’m from Hell!” and it’s not even the funniest, or wildest, moment in that particular scene.
The title is misleading, as acknowledged by Stardust herself, working here from a script by Grady Hendrix (horror hero Ted Geoghegan also gets a story credit), because the film couldn’t be further from the so-called satanic panic of the eighties. Instead, our setting is contemporary USA (the movie was shot in Dallas, TX but has an inescapably Californian vibe) where plucky 21-year-old Sam (a luminous Hayley Griffith, remarkable in her first feature film role) is starting her shift at the local pizza parlor. Eager to prove her worth and dodge the affections of a pervy co-worker (a mustachioed AJ Bowen, having a great time delivering lines like “You’re uncomfortable because I’m authentic” without even a hint of irony), Sam takes the harder jobs.
Refreshingly, the usual montage of nightmare deliveries, from a frat boy who needs help moving a couch to a bored, horny woman, are all new ideas that pay off in inventive, funny ways. Pretty much everything pays off in this movie, which is insanely impressive, from Sam’s “two fuzzy bunnies” mantra, which has a surprisingly tender origin story, to the five bucks deposit she pays for her pizza bag. Sam is such a sweet, optimistic character that the wait until she gets to kick some ass feels interminable when in reality it’s only about 30 mins or so (Satanic Panic clocks in at less than 90 — again, impressive, since it packs so much in).
After delivering a load of pizzas to the kind of McMansion where you just know some bad shit has gone down, Sam is enraged (or, as angry as a sweet young lady like her ever gets) not to be tipped and promptly barges her way inside, only to stumble upon a satanic ceremony. After discovering she’s a virgin (“that’s a very personal question” Sam demurs), the leader, a red-lipped beauty named Danica voraciously inhabited by Rebecca Romijn, captures Sam and traps her with Danica’s no-good hubby, also called Sam (there are a lot of Sams in this movie, it’s a thing). In a hilarious, yet nicely brief, cameo Jerry O’Connell makes his mark with a horrible, rapey attitude to Sam and a laughably middle age soul patch.
Satanic Panic is mostly, then, a chase movie with the satanists trying to track poor Sam down while she tussles first with the gropey Sam, then a truly horrible little boy whom she punches in the face and then apologizes profusely to (actually the second instance of this at Frightfest this year, after Ready or Not, in which yet another Sam, Samara Weaving, does the honors and is not sorry about it) and even some possessed bed sheets. There’s a ton of really gross gore on display, from a little meat grinder thing to a death-dildo that makes Se7en‘s knife-dildo look tame in comparison. This kind of thing shouldn’t be shocking coming from a female director, but of course to some (idiotic) people it still will be. Chicks can be disgusting too! Go figure!
The magic, meanwhile, is mostly rooted in reality, Hocus Pocus or Sabrina (both Teenage Witch and Chilling Adventures) style, so it’s never too crazy that it becomes silly. The imagery is very cool, detailed, and well-considered overall, from a burning pentagram to Baphomet himself, who shows up only briefly but makes for a very memorable addition to the shenanigans regardless. It’s worth noting, too, that Romijn stands out from her devilish comrades in a sexy red dress rather than a frumpy cloak, complemented by the most perfect shade of red lipstick to match. This might seem like a small detail, but when there are no women involved behind the scenes, the makeup ends up looking like poor Vanessa Kirby’s eyeliner in Hobbs & Shaw, which is distracting for those of us with vaginas in the audience.
Sam’s pizza parlor shirt is also the coolest movie shirt since Jared’s Jared-on-Jared-on-Jared tee in Booksmart and if possible I want it even more (seriously, someone please make this happen — I will pay big money to look this nerdy). Stardust described Satanic Panic as a love letter to the likes of Drag Me to Hell, Jennifer’s Body, and Deathgasm, and although those are clearly influences, it’s so completely its own thing that I’m hesitant to even compare it to anything else. The aforementioned hell-girl, for example, has a moment early on that recalls A Nightmare on Elm Street, but even it isn’t necessarily a massive reference point (side note: that kid is having a blast and isn’t in the least bit precocious, so major kudos to her).
The idea of a 21-year-old virgin is such a cool concept in itself, and one Jac Vanek would clearly appreciate, but this is a tight, and very wittily, written and executed movie overall. There are so many brilliant, quotable lines, that I actually struggled to scribble them all down, from “Fascists get things done” to the concept of losing one’s virginity having to be a “strictly dickly” situation or else it wouldn’t count to our dark lord Satan and the understatement of the century, “All you had to do was tip.” Actors like Romijn, O’Connell, and Jeff Daniel Phillips, taking a break from being Rob Zombie’s go-to stand-in but still channeling a bit of the ol’ Uncle Seymour Coffins magic (snort), Jordan Ladd, and Arden Myrin are all demonstrably having the time of their lives playing bored, sycophantic rich people looking for a good time at any cost.
See Also: Come to Daddy [Frightfest 2019 Review]
Satanic Panic belongs to Hayley Griffith, however. Stardust asks quite a lot of her leading lady here, tasking the young actor with keeping us on side throughout while also not being a pushover, but simultaneously not a complete dick either. Her Sam is the perfect modern Final Girl. She’s sweet, smart, and considerably more resourceful than even she realizes herself. If there’s any justice in the world, Griffith has a massive career ahead of her. As for Stardust, Satanic Panic is yet more proof, if any were needed, that women should get more of a look in when it comes to making horror movies. One of the best of 2019, this will surely become a staple for horror fans in no time at all.
Catch Satanic Panic in theaters, On Demand and Digital on September 6, 2019
WICKED RATING: 9/10
Director(s): Chelsea Stardust
Writer(s): Grady Hendrix, Ted Geoghegan
Stars: Hayley Griffith, Rebecca Romijn, AJ Bowen, Jerry O’Connell
Release date: September 6, 2019
Studio/Production Company: Fangoria
Run Time: 85 minutes