(SATANIC PANIC premieres in theaters July 9th)
SATANIC PANIC, the feature debut from Chelsea Stardust, is a hell of a ride. Shot with a minuscule budget in just eighteen days, it’s as inspired as anything from early Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson. Blending pratfalls and body horror with sexploitation, Stardust finds the satire in Satan. But, even more hilariously, it suggests something equally demonic brewing in suburbia: Mommy cults. While broad as hell, Satanic Panic is as funny as it is gleefully violent.
Sam (Hayley Griffith) is a minimum wage delivery girl working her first day for a low-rent pizza place, hoping to save money for her journey to Australia. Reality soon kicks her in the face as a montage of increasingly awful clients consumes her day. Her final round, delivering to a wealthy gated community, finally breaks her. With no tip and out of gas, Sam breaks into the McMansion demanding compensation.
Inside, she discovers a coven of one-percenter satan worshippers hell-bent on summoning the demon Baphomet. To achieve that, they require a virgin, and Sam happens to fit the bill.
What follows is eighty minutes of near non-stop hysteria, as Stardust mines the dated material for a wealth of giggles and gasps. The jokes fly fast, and not all hit the mark. Everything from using devil worship as a self-help seminar to soccer mom fights over who leads the coven this week are bangers. Others, like a repeated gag about virgins, less so.
It’s satire by buckshot, so the scattered reception is expected. Some dialog lands with a thud regardless who delivers it. Other zingers could do with an extra bit of editing.
But when Satanic Panic connects, prepare for fireworks. There’s a set-piece involving some fantastic body horror that’s so striking it could pass as the work of a seasoned horror maestro.
Once the hijinks kick off in earnest, I found myself saying “oh, that’s clever!” almost every scene. The sign of a good filmmaker is finding your limitations and then breaking them. It’s here that Satanic Panic delivers in spades.
One of its biggest successes is casting Rebecca Romijn as Danica Ross; the evil head of the coven. She relishes the deliciously hammy part, whipping out zingers left and right. (“Death to the weak, wealth to the strong!”). Trading barbs with her is the equally hysterical Arden Myrin as Gypsy, a would-be usurper to the throne. Together, they share some of the movie’s funniest bits, and Stardust wrings every bit of the satire from the situation.
None of this would work if the lead wasn’t up to the task, which Griffith most certainly is. She’s disarming in her quiet charm. A natural guide for the audience into the lunacy ahead. It’s a surprisingly delicate balancing act, and Griffith nails it. She’s grounded the same way other great straight-men in the genre are, but with a streak of snide humour and a masterfully utilized side-eye.
Another reason why Satanic Panic works so well is that it’s not made for the usual suspects. It’s a film not only aware of its genre tropes, but its limitations as well.
Under Stardust, Satanic Panic is still very funny, gory, and even oddly sexy, but it isn’t leery. There isn’t the scuzzy feeling lesser exploitation films leave behind. The kind where even the celluloid feels sweaty.
Instead, Stardust and company keep the atmosphere light, even at its darkest moments. There’s a scene where a barely dressed Jerry O’Connell tries to force himself on Griffith, and how Stardust makes it work is a miracle in itself.
I see hundreds of films every year, almost one a day. It’s so easy for good and even great films to get lost in that mix. So whenever something surprises me, I take note. When something does that, but also delights and makes me squirm, I’m an instant convert. Whatever Stardust does next, I’ll be first in line. Her debut isn’t perfect, but it is the kind of calling card fans will point to in years to come as her first classic.