“Death to the weak, wealth to the strong!” is a cry we hear too often these days, even if it is as subtext buried within less obviously combative comments made by the wealthy and powerful, and that clash between the classes has been fodder for horror films for almost as long as the art form has existed. From I Walked with a Zombie (1943) to The People Under the Stairs (1991) to this year’s Ready or Not, it’s hard not to want to root for characters fighting back against their social, financial, and physical oppressors. Hard, but as evidenced by the new horror/comedy Satanic Panic, not impossible.
Sam Craft (Hayley Griffith) is struggling to make ends meet, and as a self-described busker that’s a fact that surprises no one. She wants to make it as a singer/songwriter, but for now she’s taken a job delivering pizzas. Her first day goes poorly from minute one, so in a desperate attempt to salvage her situation she accepts an order from a ritzy, upper-class, gated community. They stiff her on the tip, and with her scooter out of gas and her wallet empty she decides enough is enough — she sneaks in through a back door and politely demands her tip only to realize that this neighborhood gathering is preparing a ritual meant to call on the demon Baphomet. Short one virgin needed for their ceremony, social elite Danica Ross (Rebecca Romijn) and her bumbling satanists descend on Sam, but she’s not giving it up for the devil without a fight.
Like most horror/comedies, Satanic Panic leans heaviest towards the latter, but while that path can still lead to fantastically fun cinema in the right hands (What We Do in the Shadows, 2014) it’s entirely dependent on a single aspect — it needs to actually be funny. Unfortunately for this film, though, that particular need is woefully unfulfilled thanks to desperate jokes, forced dialogue, and a complete disinterest in tone. Even that would be acceptable if viewers had anything to care about, but the narrative is played far too loose for any of it to matter on either side of the moral divide.
Griffith is an appealing enough actor, and while she appears to have solid comedic timing it’s difficult to tell without comedic writing for her to work with. She’s tasked with playing it straight as things go batty around her, but both script and direction fail her as she instead comes off as oblivious and distracted. One minute she’s near tears in a torn and bloodied shirt as she tells a stranger that she was just almost raped, and the next — the literal next — she’s commenting on the inappropriate viewing habits of children she just met. There’s no consistency or attempt at maintaining tone, and the result is a film that feels thrown together with neither care nor concern.
The script — it’s credited to Grady Hendrix, but you’d be hard-pressed to find even a whiff of the wit and smart humor he displays in his novels — offers up a slapdash story involving a ceremony to raise a demon through the impregnation of a virgin so it will gift the cult with more wealth, but while the commentary on the class divide is visible it’s also blandly undeveloped.
Director Chelsea Stardust does a serviceable job here, but none of it ever feels cinematic or alive. It’s all just there on the screen, and while Stardust has previously proven herself a capable director with the Into the Dark feature, All That We Destroy, there’s little here beyond manic energy unfettered by focus. Her love of horror succeeds best, though, through her clear affection for gory gags and bloodletting. It’s all played for laughs, but there’s still at least an appeal to gore fans through shots of sticky intestines, hearts pulled through necks, beheadings, drill-bit dildos, and more. You won’t care who’s on either end of the violence, but you’ll be happy to at least find the film’s only real source of fun.
Sam’s efforts to escape see her join up with another young woman named Judi Ross (Ruby Modine) who was originally intended as the evening’s virginal sacrifice before Danica caught her daughter popping that adjective out of existence with the help of some guy’s penis. Like Sam, Judi’s more prone to wisecracks and forced jokes than to any hint of real concern over the threat they’re facing, but like Griffith, Modine is an equally enjoyable performer. The same can be said for just about everyone here including supporting players like AJ Bowen, Arden Myrin, and Jerry O’Connell — they’re solid, comedically capable actors hamstrung by dialogue that’s consistently flat, unfunny, and endlessly basic in its attempts at humor.
Members of the one percent channeling evil inspirations to stay ahead of those beneath them is a common enough theme, and this year alone has already seen two absolute gems with Ready or Not and Extra Ordinary. Both films see everyday folk going head to head with snooty satanists who believe they deserve the world, both give us heroes worth rooting for, and both are hilarious and thrilling. So maybe don’t panic, and just seek out those two movies instead.