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Satanic Panic
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by Jay Seaver

"The things people will sacrifice for an ugly McMansion."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2019 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: "Satanic Panic" is horror comedy for people who know the genre and can poke fun without being entirely flip about it - it has a loopy premise on which the filmmakers hang a lot of jokes, but the people involved know this doesn't work if everybody involved is taking it for granted. It manages to avoid being cynical despite that being the default mode for both horror and this kind of satire.

After an opening bit where parents chase their daughter through their McMansion because they're even more upset than usual that their little princess and her boyfriend had sex, the film shifts to Samantha Craft (Hayley Griffith), a sweet 22-year-old on the first night of her first job, delivering pizzas. A lot of people try and take advantage of her good nature one way or another, but things don't get truly weird until she makes a big delivery out to posh Mill Basin and not only doesn't get a tip, but runs out of gas. She sneaks into the house to try and get some gas money, and it's kind of weird in there, with everyone in red robes and Danica Ross (Rebecca Romijn) leading they in some sort of weird role-play. Eventually, they figure out that this girl no-one recognizes is a virgin, and what luck that is, because, if you remember, the teenager they had planned to sacrifice to the Dark Lord kind of fell through.

It's a fun set-up and gives director Chelsea Stardust and screenwriter Grady Hendrix the chance to throw Sam into a bunch of weird situations as she proves to have better survival instincts than one might expect, aided by how devil-worshipers by their nature have difficulty working as a team. Things really click into place when Sam runs across original sacrifice Judi (Ruby Modine); that's when the movie becomes a sort of buddy comedy pairing an innocent who is nevertheless not a fool and a girl who (having been raised in this Satanist household) knows the score but is, maybe, not as corrupt as she thinks. Seeing it evolve into that is probably the movie's best surprise: Genuine friendship isn't exactly what movies like this are usually made of, as they are usually too busy skewering the rich who will do anything to get ahead, but it happens almost before the viewer is aware of what's going on and without the filmmakers obviously building it up as the force that can counter the evil - it would not, after all, work if this were a calculated action.

As the film slips into that groove, the pairing of Hayley Griffith and Ruby Modine becomes a surprisingly solid core - they may be playing opposite types, but with something the other can admire, once they get past how weird the other seems. They both lean into the bits that make their characters kind of unusual but each get good moments to just be young people who don't get why the world is so stacked against them. They're surrounded by a whole crew of actors who get to dive into the chance to indulge in their cultists' gleeful lack of morality, amplifying common selfishness up a few notches, doing their gags, and often exiting in bloody, absurd manner. A lot are the sort of character actors one almost recognizes, seeming to have a blast pushing their personae just a bit further than usual, most notably Arden Myrin as a sort of squeaky-voiced pest who probably sees herself as Lady MacBeth. The character probably thinks she's capable of stealing a scene from Rebecca Romijn, who is not clearly having a blast suffering no fools, her Danica having long ago embraced both the absurdity and malevolence that this situation represents. A special guest appearance by Jerry O'Connell may be the film's most perfect performance, though - he makes his suburban Satanist the final evolution of the guy who never thought he could or should be held accountable, with just the right combination of arrogance and panic to give just the right sliver of humanity to what is clearly an awful person.

Everybody gets to play in the crazy, absurdist slapstick, with Stardust and her crew making a great big mess with gallons of fake blood and effects that, by and large, seem to be done on the set so that everybody can get good and covered and occasionally have to work around the knife sticking out of them. It's not particularly scary - the filmmakers know their audience won't be easily shocked and they'd rather have a joke land cleanly than undercut the rest - but it is great fun. It sneaks a little bit of sting in there every once in a while as well, from a surprisingly tense scene where Judi has to lead Sam through witchcraft to the constant sneer it directs toward its upper-middle-class villains. That they're selling their souls for this level of success seems both true and pathetic.

"Satanic Panic" played Fantasia a few days ahead of "Ready or Not", and that one gets to open wide in theaters while the other is mostly relegated to video on demand despite doing a lot of the same things and hitting the same themes at least as well shows how screwy and random the entertainment business can be. This movie is sharp, bloody, and funny, focused in its modest ambitions but pretty successful at everything it tries.

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originally posted: 09/07/19 03:49:17
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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  06-Sep-2019 (NR)



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