(SATANIC PANIC premieres in theaters July 9th)
SATANIC PANIC, the feature debut of Chelsea Stardust, is one hell of a ride. Shot with a minuscule budget in just eighteen days, it’s as inspired as anything Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson made in their day. Blending pratfalls, body horror, and sexploitation into a satire about devil worship and suburban mommy cults, 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, starting her first day in the hopes of saving money for her journey to Australia. Unfortunately, what starts as a menial gig soon turns nightmarish, as Sam goes from horrific client to the next. Finally, on her last round, delivering at a wealthy gated community where, after she’s stiffed again, Sam enters one of the McMansions 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 director Chelsea Stardust mines the dated material for a wealth of giggles and gasps. Everything from devil worships as a self-help seminar to catty soccer mom fights over who gets to lead the coven is fair game.
Unfortunately, it’s satire by buckshot, and not everything hits the mark. Some dialog lands with a thud no matter who delivers it, and some jokes could have used with an extra bit of editing to really be funny.
But when Stardust hits the mark, there are fireworks. There’s a set-piece involving some fantastic body horror halfway through that’s so striking and well executed it could pass as the work of a seasoned horror maestro.
Once the hijinks kick off in earnest, not a single scene went by where I didn’t find myself going “oh, that’s clever!” The sign of a good filmmaker is knowing what your limitations are, and then how to break them, and SATANIC PANIC delivers in spades.
One of its biggest successes is casting Rebecca Romijn as Danica Ross, the evil head of the coven. Clearly relishing the deliciously hammy part, (“death to the weak, wealth to the strong!”) Romijn is on fire every step of the way. 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.
And 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, easily allowing the audience to follow her into the lunacy ahead. It’s a surprisingly delicate balancing act, and Griffith runs with the part. She’s grounded the same way other great straight-men in the genre are, but with a streak of snide humour and a side-eye that kill every time she uses them.
Another reason why SATANIC PANIC works so well is that it’s not made for the same audience these films usually are. Which isn’t to say it won’t play just as well to them, but there’s an inherent difference in the approach.
Under Stardust, SATANIC PANIC is still very funny, very gory, and even oddly sexy, but it isn’t leery. There isn’t the scuzzy feeling lesser exploitation films leave behind. You know the films, 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 search for in years to come as her first classic .