[Fantasia Festival 2019 Review] Satanic Panic is a Blast

A thudding synth track pulls us into the movie as the camera flies past various affluent people working in their affluent lawns and waving to their affluent friends. It’s a place where giant, motorized gates keep out the riffraff and everyone looks so happy…except for the two teenagers who are discovered, Killer POV style, having sex in one of the affluent beds. Let’s just say it doesn't end well for one of them. Welcome to Mill Basin, where the rich and powerful live and kill with impunity.

Basically, Affluenza Teen would feel right at home.

On the other side of town, our hero Samantha (Hayley Griffith) is about to start her new job as a pizza delivery person. We're introduced to Sam through a video she shows her new coworkers Karim (Mike E. Winfield) and Duncan (AJ Bowen) of her, strumming an acoustic guitar and singing. They don’t take her songs about how how someone who does drugs just needs hugs seriously. And you might not either.

Maybe it’s that she tries to rhyme paraphernalia with Australia. Regardless, the lyrics actually do represent the naively earnest Sam to the core. She’s the kind of person who drives a Vespa and puts cutesy pins on the collar of her badass leather motorcycle jacket. She tackles life and all of the shit it throws at her with a delightfully upbeat attitude.

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But Sam is dreadfully broke. So broke she's concerned about the $5 thermal pizza bag deposit she needs to pay Mr. Styles (Skeeta Jenkins), the owner of the pizzeria. Money she was planning to use on gas for the night. To make financial matters worse, her new co-workers put her through a rite of pizza hazing and give her all the shit deliveries to a place appropriately nicknamed S-Town. After some funny montages of her night leave her tipless and broke, the call comes in from Mills Basin. Typically outside of their delivery zone, Sam jumps at the opportunity, even though Karim has some freaky stories about delivering there. Maybe it’ll turn her night around.

The house she ends up at has high, Gothic fences and the house inside looks opulent yet ominous. After getting stiffed (yet again) on her tip, her night gets worse when she realizes her Vespa is out of gas. Determined the end the night with a tip, she storms back to the house and ends up in the middle of what appears to be some kind of Self-Improvement seminar led by Danica (Rebecca Romijn). Milling between all of the attendees, she hears Danica shout platitudes like, “Today is non-returnable” and that it’s “time for a major paradigm shift.”

Except this is a Satanic ritual. Call it self-improvement through the devil. As is the case with Satanic rituals, the cultists need a virgin. And it turns out the girl having sex in the cold open was Judi (Ruby Modine), who fucked up their plans by boning the first guy she could find. Everyone knows that to summon Baphomet, one does need a virgin. Good news/bad news: Sam fits that bill. What follows next is a fight for Sam’s life with the existence of humanity potentially at stake. All because a cultist didn’t tip.

Basically, what I’m say is…for all cultists out there, please just tip your delivery men and women.

Working from a story by genre stalwarts Ted Geoghegan (We Are Still Here and last year’s excellent Mohawk) and Grady Hendrix (the fantastic books Horrorstör and My Best Friend’s Exorcism), Chelsea Stardust directs the hell out of this little horror comedy. Working within low budget constraints, the story still surprises with inventive practical effects, gory gags and some genuine surprises. While it is set in the present, it’s obvious that the 80s inspired much of the monster work and feel. After all, the 80s were known for the titular Satanic Panic so it’s only appropriate the movie mimic that feeling.

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Honestly, I thought the pacing fires on all cylinders. The cast is delicious, from Rebecca Romijn’s campy and unhinged performance as the leader of the Satanic cult to the naiveté Hayley Griffith brings to her roll. Even side characters like AJ Bowen’s scene-stealing wannabe Lothario and Rebecca’s husband Jerry O’Connell playing her character’s put-upon doofus of a husband worked incredibly well. Another standout was Gypsy (Arden Myrin), a bubbly fellow cultist who doesn’t think Danica is up to the challenge of leading the coven. This coven infighting adds another fun wrinkle to the camptastic story.

But I think what works the best is that the dialogue is sharp and quick-witted. When Sam escapes the cultists and begins to discover the true depravity in Mill Basin, she finds and saves Judi from a deranged pair of sisters. One of them is introduced with a strap-on drill that’s referenced as a “killdo” and, in the words of Judi, the sister was planning to, “hump me to death with her H.R. Giger lovestick.”

The action and comedy hums along perfectly up to the third act, where things get really weird and actual stakes are introduced. Up until that moment, it felt like a candy-coated confection and, yes, that silliness continues, I actually started worrying for Sam and Judi. While the ending has a sense of…let’s call it diabolus ex machina, it doesn’t detract from the climax nor steal agency from Sam. And, yes, the plot is silly and sometimes the magic/rituals aren’t explained very well, but it was campy fun the entire time. But most importantly, it shows that Into the Dark: All That We Destroy was no fluke.

Chelsea Stardust is the real fucking deal.