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Simon Read [Celluloid 09.04.19] horror comedy

This punky, anything goes horror-comedy is the feature debut from director Chelsea Stardust, and while it suffers from a rocky first act, some hit-and-miss gags and a general low-budget feel, it quickly finds its feet along the way. I was surprised at how much fun I had with this film. If you can enter into the spirit of things, Satanic Panic would make a fine Friday night movie to watch with friends.

Hayley Griffith plays Sam, a pizza delivery girl who can't catch a break. After a disappointing first day on the job, she's tasked with delivering an order to the upscale neighbourhood of Mill Basin; anticipating a hefty tip, she gets far more than she bargained for. Within the McMansions of this eerie suburban paradise, a coven of sadistic yuppie witches led by Rebecca Romijn's Danica are preparing to summon the devil in order to secure their wealth and privilege. All they need is a virgin, and the naive and innocent Sam happens to fit the bill nicely.

I have seen so, so many low-budget horror-comedies over the years (thanks QE), and the vast bulk of them are not as funny as they think they are, and are immediately forgotten. While Satanic Panic strikes a few duff notes, for every joke that lands flat there are at least a couple more that work very well. The script by Grady Hendrix keeps things moving along at a good pace, introducing some truly 'wtf' moments to throw us off balance, and, crucially, allowing time to establish and develop the central characters. I doubt this film will win any major awards, but as an example of itself, it's one of the better ones in this respect.

There are lots of little things to appreciate about the film - reoccurring gags and witty call-backs, smart, sharp dialogue and a playful attitude towards genre tropes and audience expectations, plus some icky gore and absurd violence. A thread of class-commentary runs through the film, with blue-collar Sam facing off against these pampered Satanists. Think of Rosemary's Baby by way of Society. While the film cannot hope to reach the giddy heights of either of those genre gems, it aims high, and this is admirable.

Romijn is always interesting to watch, and while she's not particularly associated with comedy, she's clearly having a good time as a status-obsessed ice-queen. I enjoyed the petty rivalries within the coven too - Jordan Ladd (who I repeatedly mistook for Missi Pyle) gives a wonderful turn as Romijn's bitter, snarky lieutenant, and there is something inherently funny about upper-middle-class baby boomers worshipping Satan in an effort to maintain their extravagant lifestyles. All that chardonnay won't pay for itself after all.

Ruby Modine (Happy Death Day) has a supporting role as a local rich kid caught up in the action, and she stands out as a strong screen presence. We will see more her in the future I think. Jerry O'Connell also appears briefly, and I felt a pang of sympathy as he was reduced to flailing around on a carpet in a pair of tighty whities. There is a nice pay off to this scene, but perhaps Hollywood ought to introduce a law against forcing former child stars to debase themselves in front of the camera for cash and craft services. It is a cruel business.

Satanic Panic is far from perfect. Its low production values constantly threaten to undermine its positive intentions, and several scenes simply don't work at all. After seeing the trailer I was honestly not looking forward to watching this film, but despite low-expectations, or perhaps because of them, I was won over by its charms. In a sea of mindless sub-SNL comedy splatter fests, here's a film that has both heart and balls - a good combination.

Satanic Panic will open in select theatres and be available on digital and VOD on September 6.

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