Satanic Panic. 2019. Directed by Chelsea Stardust. Screenplay by Grady Hendrix.
Starring Rebecca Romijn, Jordan Ladd, Ruby Modine, Arden Myrin, Hayley Griffith, Jerry O’Connell, Whitney Moore, Jeff Daniel Phillips, Michael Polish, Clarke Wolfe, & AJ Bowen.
Aperture Entertainment / Fangoria / Media Finance Capital
Not Rated / 85 minutes
Comedy / Horror
Disclaimer: The following article contains
Funny how even when a sub-genre of horror becomes stale there’s always someone who’ll come along and breathe life into its withered corpse. Father Gore’s gotten tired of Satanism as a plot device. Real life Satanists are modern hedonists, using Lucifer as a symbol of freedom from oppressive Judeo-Christian values. Today, the Church of Satan are actually at the fore fighting for many progressive issues in America (see Hail Satan?). All that’s not to say director Chelsea Stardust and screenwriter Grady Hendrix didn’t find a fun way to use a Satanic cult.
Because that, dear readers, would be a dirty, dirty lie.
Satanic Panic tells the tale of Sam Craft (Hayley Griffith), a new pizza delivery woman. She’s trying to make ends meet like the rest of us. She winds up doing a delivery just outside her shop’s delivery zone in a suburb called Mill Basin, where most houses are castle-like mansions protected behind gates— a neighbourhood where you’d be surprised if someone even knew the number to a small pizza place, let alone actually order from one. When Sam’s stiffed on a tip for a big order, she takes it upon herself to demand one from the rich douchebags, only to discover she’s caught in the midst of a Satanic cult looking for someone just like her to sacrifice.
Although the Satanists are presented as an evil entity, they’re a stand-in for the insidiousness of the American bourgeoisie. Mill Basin’s upper class neighbourhood becomes a sacrificial ground upon which the working class are sacrificed, or, at the very least, wholly exploited by the ruling class. Stardust and Hendrix use socioeconomic language to present a satire of capitalism, using the cult as a way to confront the disingenuous, dangerous realities of neoliberal thought.
Right from the get-go, Hendrix’s screenplay cleverly presents pizza delivery in the context of working class struggle against capitalism. This could’ve been easily written during the ’80s, the ’90s, or the ’00s of the new millennium. But the topic is almost most timely today. Just look at the takeout delivery service Skip the Dishes— they routinely don’t tell employees who sign up as drivers that a different type of insurance is needed to cover their cars, and, like the pizza shop in Satanic Panic, they push the cost of a thermal food bag off onto their employees. Sam has to pay a $5 deposit for the bag she uses to deliver pizzas, which acts as the film’s gateway into the numerous instances of nefarious capitalism the working class face daily.
On top of that is the hilarious, if not equally depressing yet unsurprising irony of upper class customers refusing to tip on pizza delivery orders. They act as if pizza’s good enough for them but those who deliver it are akin to insects. And for asserting herself, demanding a tip from the rich assholes, Sam’s nearly violently sacrificed to Baphomet.
If the Satanists were presented in a less satirical, more serious light, they’d feel stale like countless other pop culture iterations of Satanism. But Stardust plays up the comedy, using economic language, by focusing on the cult as a group of bourgeois maniacs. For instance, Danica talks about bringing Baphomet into the world as “an investment in your future,” then calls out to her friends like a female Drumpf asking “Are you ready to be a winner?” There’s also a quick shot later in the film featuring a cabinet of herbs Danica uses for witchcraft. One jar’s labelled Financial Panic, furthering the idea of her cult as a sinister economic force above all else.
Danica’s daughter Judi (Ruby Modine) is one of the best characters. When the audience meets her, she’s a brainwashed upper class kid. She tows the bourgeois line concerning people who make less than $50K a year, such as her conception of “public school” as horrifying, and that working class people all survive off “government cheese.” Government cheese, as a term, is hilarious on its face because someone like Judi probably uses it as a synonym for monetary government assistance, a tad young to know it was a real processed product provided to people on welfare, Social Security, and Food Stamps, as well as to food banks. Doubly funny is that Sam is a pizza delivery driver, whose job delivering cheesy pizzas can’t even support her, which is why Sam so desperately challenges the rich for her tip. The comical part is, aside from the pizza guy Judi bangs in the beginning, she’s probably never spent 5 minutes around an actual average person who doesn’t live in the privileged economic cocoon of Mill Basin. All the better when she and Sam must join together, or die.
During one scene, Danica yells at her daughter: “Your generation doesn‘t understand sacrifice.” It isn’t only social+economic class that separates America, it’s the generational differences that divide, as well. Even the older pizza guy, Duncan (AJ Bowen) uses socioeconomic issues to exploit a younger, economically vulnerable woman. He tries to spin helping Sam get a job into a sexual relationship, expecting physical compensation for an economic transaction. Of course, in the end, Duncan remains a working class pizza delivery guy, and that doesn’t bode well for him. Because class is the ultimate determinant of who is or is not exploited, and potentially sacrificed, in Satanic Panic.
“Death to the weak.
Wealth to the strong.”
Hendrix’s screenplay focuses in on the decadence and depravity of the bourgeoisie— the sick, violent indulgences of a rich, bored crowd. When Sam stumbles into another home in Mill Basin, she’s hopeful they’ll save her from their insane neighbours. Little does she know there’s a woman upstairs wearing a drill bit dildo with Judi tied nude to a bed, ready to be, effectively, fucked to death. Before that, Sam has a creepy run-in with Danica’s husband Samuel (Jerry O’Connell). He’s not part of the cult, though his depraved upper class behaviour is no different when he tries to rape virgin Sam under the guise of ‘saving her life’ from his wife, whose group hopes to use her virginity in their sinister plot. The decadence of suburbia is likewise apparent in a bunch of scenes. Most disturbingly funny of all the decadent imagery is how, in the same mansion where Sam eventually encounters the terrifying dildo lady, you can murder-rape someone to death but you dare not step on the fancy carpet if you’re going to get blood on it.
Satanic Panic continually refers to the language of capitalism in the context of how supposedly liberal people prop up oppressive systems. Gypsy (Arden Myrin)— one of the cultists— passionately tells the others: “Fascists get things done.” More than that, Judi mentions how demons are obsessed with “laws, codes,” and “rituals.” The hierarchy of demons in this film’s world is laid out similar to the bureaucratic world of capitalism, structured through a system of behaviours, which loops back into fascism.
This is the crux of how Hendrix and Stardust present their satirical version of Satanism. They suggestion isn’t that real Satanists are this way, and it isn’t even that rich conservatives solely make up the sinister ruling class— rather, the film satirises bourgeois neoliberals most of all, Satanist or not. A telling scene in this respect goes back to Samuel trying to rape Sam. When the young woman fights back, prompting Samuel to hit her, he’s mortified. In the midst of his sexual violence, he exclaims: “Look at what you made me do— I‘m a feminist!” There are several scenes during which cult members believe themselves liberals, and the contrast with their hideous acts against working class people is a fantastic evisceration of those who convince themselves they’re progressive while they’re simply perpetuating a destructive class divide.Chelsea Stardust already did awesome work on Hulu’s Into the Dark with a stunningly creepy science fiction-horror segment “All That We Destroy,” about everything from gender, to toxic expressions of masculinity, to motherhood, and her short film Marco Polo (available through Crypt TV here) is a stellar 2(+) minutes of horror that delivers the gnarly goods in such compact time. With each new project she ventures into a different corner of the genre.
Satanic Panic proves Stardust is a Jill of all trades, master of many, whose comedic sense is as strong as the one she brings to the horror itself. She’s aided by a perfectly tongue-in-cheek screenplay from Hendrix, who may not be a fellow, proud Marxist like Father Gore but certainly writes like one.
The film works wonders as a straight forward horror comedy. If people like their laughs as strong as their gore, Satanic Panic will scratch that itch. If people also enjoy a strong dose of social horror, Stardust and Hendrix offer all that, too. There’s much vicarious pleasure in watching “blue collar bad ass” Sam fight for her life against depraved neoliberals who want nothing more than to exploit those beneath them. In this day and age especially, genre films can let us have lots of fun while simultaneously pushing us to keep our eye on important issues. Stardust entertains as much as she enlightens— more than can be said about 75% of what Hollywood churns out— doing so with a gleeful mess of blood, guts, and dark laughs.