★★★★ out of ★★★★★
FANGORIA continues its reputation for bringing fun, low-budget elevated B-movie fare. Their new feature, Satanic Panic, has a look and production quality that belies its minuscule budget, and stars charismatic newcomer Haley Griffith.
Directed by Chelsea Stardust
Satanic Panic made its world premiere at the Overlook Film Festival, marking the second year in a row in which FANGORIA provided a debut, having last year introduced Puppet Master The Littlest Reich at the La Petit Theater. The world of low-budget horror cinema comes in a variety of flavors, and it appears that FANGORIA has found its comfort zone with fun, blood soaked productions that un-self consciously elevates B-movie fare into enjoyable horror comedies.
This is a fantastic spot for the production company to occupy, as there should be plenty of space between the sloppy but entertaining idiot schlock like Sharknado, and the heady but perhaps less purely entertaining intellectual indie fare like The Witch or for a low budget feature like Satanic Panic to occupy. All are mini-budget horror films, and all have the lanes that they need to occupy.
The Story (with minimal spoilers):
Delivering pizzas for a living requires good tipping in order to make it worth the effort. Enter our protagonist, Sam Craft (Haley Griffith), a young folk-singer who is on her first day of delivering pizzas, and discovering the hard way that your customers can be real jerks about tipping. After a long day of hustling pies to an ungrateful local population, she jumps at the chance to deliver a large order to Mill Basin, the ritzy part of town, with the promise of rich people who can afford to tip well.
She arrives at a gargantuan manor, and the whole trip turns out to be a bust. The man receiving the pizzas gives her a flat cup full of nothing for tips, and being a girl of gumption, she realizes that there is a gathering at the house and manages to sneak in to the gathering to demand what’s hers. Because, she worked hard for this, dammit! The problem is, this is more than just a gathering of wealthy elites, it’s a gathering of SATANISTS! (Hail, Satan!) And, what’s more, they are in need of a virgin sacrifice.
Sam, however is slow to pick up on the ritual in progress, as she makes a daring sales pitch to the gathered cultists to help out a girl in need… in exchange she would spread the word that the people of Highland Park are not so stuffy and actually pretty cool folks. Danica Ross (Rebecca Romjin), the stunning and statuesque cult leader, is trying to orchestrate a summoning of Baphomet, a winged, goat-headed demon of Hell. Unfortunately their originally intended sacrifice was Danica’s daughter, Judi (Ruby Modine), who lost her virginity in the opening scene of the movie. (Whoops! Sorry mom!) And, the timing is critical for the summoning, so the whole cult is getting rather agitated, with some, including Gypsy Neumeier (Arden Myrin) seizing on Danica’s moment of weakness to try and siphon the power from her.
But, it appears that the cult has been gifted with a new sacrificial candidate. When questioned about her virginal status, Sam fires back “That’s a very personal question!” Which, of course, is a dead giveaway that, yep. She’s a virgin alright. The ritual now can commence! The cultists capture Sam, and lock her in a room with Danica’s husband, Samuel (Jerry O’Connell) who is also scheduled to be part of the sacrificial rite. When he finds out that Sam is destined to be the virgin sacrifice, he proposes a solution to save her by liberating her from her virginity… and needless to say, Sam isn’t game for that dubious choice, and the movie kicks into full gear.
So, the sacrifice is ready. The stars are right, and the moment has arrived. But not if Sam can help it. It helps that the cult is a house divided, and really they are just rich bumbling hedonists, so the chances are good that Sam can get away, and the rest of the film opens up the the full toy chest of horror tropes necessary for a good horror chase. This is, without question, a horror ROMP from the moment Haley steps into the room full of cultists. For those who like their horror full of screwball moments, madcap action, and good old fashioned practical gore effects, this will be your kind of film.
This isn’t a deep thinker piece, like Hereditary, but it doesn’t aim to be. It knows what it is, and it gleefully embraces the role. Well constructed fun horror movies like this, Extra Ordinary, and One Cut of the Dead, all of which were screened at the Overlook Film Festival puts joy into watching horror films. At times these films were necessary palette cleansers after enduring some of the more grim and serious fare in the festival. Go watch The Lodge, and you’ll want to find something light and fun afterwards, even though The Lodge was EXCELLENT.
Satanic Panic was made in 18 days, and cost right around a million dollars to make, but the production values and the quality of the finished product felt like something more expensive and time consuming. To use some boxing parlance, this movie is fighting above its weight class.
The willingness of local wealthy homeowners to allow the Dallas based FANGORIA to shoot a movie in their mansions for a relatively modest cost came at fractions of the cost of creating a new soundstage set or using a home in Los Angeles. The gore and creature effects are practical, and the legacy of FANGORIA really shines through here, with traditional gross-out gags and hydraulic/pneumatic props in play that FANGORIA the magazine has always celebrated, are utilized to great effect. I particularly enjoyed a bit with a transformed roast. You’ll see what I mean when you watch it. But this is how you keep costs down… digital effects are often either expensive and great, or cheap and awful. Save the money, and go old-school Romero!
The film’s comic horror pedigree is bolstered by the writer, Grady Henrix, the author of Paperbacks from Hell, We Sold Our Souls, and Horrorstör, has always exhibited a deft touch in blending light horror and comedy together, and the director, His one-man book lectures are like going to horror church, and do not pass up the opportunity to hear him speak if you get the chance. Chelsea Stardust comes with an impressive background as well, as she has been an assistant with Jason Blum for years, and has a comedy production background too. The right people were in place for a production like this, even though it is Hendrix’s 2nd screenplay, and Stardust’s 2nd feature film. You can bank that we will see more from both of these individuals down the road.
It is not a film without faults. It is a bit overlong at times, and some of the sequences could use an edit to streamline the pacing of the story. The conclusion, while rather tidy, has a sense of Deus Ex-Machina, the hand of God (though in this movie it most certainly not be God, to be sure), and it is all resolved rather quickly.
The tropes are also quite familiar, but the film avoids slipping into outright cliche. I would also hesitate to suggest that this film breaks a ton of new ground. It just follows a familiar path very amusingly. I did find this movie to be more amusing than the somewhat similarly themed film, Slice, another horror comedy which also dealt with pizza deliveries gone awry.
The acting was appropriate to the nature of the film, and the biggest names in the movie (The husband and wife team of Romjin and O’Conner, married both in the movie and in real life) chew on the scenery, vamp up their performances, and are highly entertaining. Haley Griffith was a great find for the lead role of Sam. She merges the sweet girl-next-door vulnerability, with a bit of tough chick, and just enough sexy to keep your eyes on her at all time. FANGORIA Producer, Dallas Sonnier, announced from the stage that one of his few regrets was that Griffith showed so much talent that he probably wouldn’t be able to afford her in the future. He might actually be right. We’ll see how her career goes. She reminds me a bit of the actress Chloë Levine in The Ranger and The Transfiguration in her ability to capture the necessary vulnerability and toughness for a modern horror heroine.
For a little film, they assembled a big cast of great character actors, which is becoming another FANGORIA trademark. (Puppet Master TLR similarly had a big cast.) As a movie critic, I got a big kick out of seeing Clarke Wolfe have a cameo drop-in, as she is one of the genre critics I respect the most.
Satanic Panic is off to play next at the Portland Horror Film Festival on Wednesday 6/5, and then it show at the Oak Cliff Film Festival in Dallas on 6/8, and later on at Cinepocalypse (Chicago – June 13-20) and Fantasia Fest (Montreal – July 11-August 1). So, check your travel schedules and check out the latest offerings from the film festival nearest you, if you’d like to check out Satanic Panic before it hits its theatrical run in the fall.
No trailer yet, but when it shows up, The Scariest Things will Post it. Also, keep an eye and an ear out for our Podcast Extra where we get to interview Amanda Presmyk, one of the Producers of Satanic Panic. (Good job, Amanda!)
Review by Eric Li