There’s a seed of a great idea in Satanic Panic. Capitalizing on the semi-ironic alt-fashion obsessions with both pizza and Satanic imagery, the film revolves around a pizza delivery driver named Samantha “Sam” Craft (Hayley Griffith) who stumbles into a Satanic ritual while out on her Vespa on her first day on the job. It’s campy, it’s gory, it’s a little bit titillating, and it features one of those novelty performances from famous actors that tend to bring a lot of press to otherwise under-the-radar productions. It’s Pizza Pentagram T-shirt: The Movie, and there is undoubtedly a built-in audience for that type of thing in today’s horror landscape. But did it have to be made of such shoddy materials?
Griffith’s Sam is a classic “final girl,” sheltered but resourceful when it really counts. Puttering through a wealthy suburb with an armful of greasy cardboard boxes and no money for gas in the film’s opening scenes, she’s definitely being taken advantage of by her more cynical co-workers, who already know what the naïve Sam is about to find out: The rich don’t tip for shit. But Sam is also brave enough to go back into the mansion where a dour, mustachioed one-percenter has “forgotten” to tip and demand that he cough up the five measly bucks she’ll need to get back home at the end of her shift. Much to her surprise—and the audience’s delight—she’s barged in on much more than a neighborhood-watch meeting. And unfortunately for Sam, being an archetypal final girl and all, the ritual she’s interrupted is in need of a virgin.
Much of the film’s fun comes from Rebecca Romijn’s performance as Danica Ross, the coven’s glamorous head witch. Cold and condescending, she sashays across the screen in red silk robes to match her lipstick and manicure, keeping her evil composure even when she’s tasked with chowing down on the whole human heart she keeps in labeled Tupperware in her fridge. Romijn also plays nicely off of character actress Arden Myrin—whose performance as vindictive underling Gypsy marks the film’s comedic highlight—as well as her real-life husband, Jerry O’Connell, who makes a brief but memorable appearance as Danica’s drugged-out husband. All three of these actors are seasoned enough to know how and when to temper even a broad performance, but the same can’t be said for the film’s young cast, which struggles with balancing the wordy dialogue and cartoonishly one-note direction.
Director Chelsea Stardust comes to Satanic Panic with extensive experience on the production side of horror filmmaking, but only a handful of credits as a director. Unfortunately, this inexperience shows. The pacing is clumsy and inconsistent, and the film is composed mainly of static wide shots and flat, bright fill lighting, with little variation (or imagination) either in its camera angles or its cinematography. Stardust’s devotion to and knowledge of the horror genre, on the other hand, is indisputable, and much love has clearly gone into the film’s delightfully grotesque practical effects. (A special tip of the hat to Stardust is in order for the film’s Shaw Brothers-inspired black-magic scenes, an underappreciated style of horror here in the West.) But while it’s awesome to see Rebecca Romijn bring a flying gut-bag to life with a drop of her own blood, it would also be prudent for that gut-bag to not just randomly drop out of the film after a couple of scenes.
Satanic Panic comes backed by Fangoria, whose relaunched print magazine has a polished aesthetic that sits oddly beside the self-conscious vulgarity of both this film and Fangoria’s last film release, Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich. Both approaches have a place in the genre, to be sure. But there does seem to be a fundamental miscommunication going on somewhere in the production process of these films, both of which come from established writers—S. Craig Zahler in the case of The Littlest Reich, and Grady Hendrix, celebrated author of My Best Friend’s Exorcism and Paperbacks From Hell, for Satanic Panic—whose distinctive voices get completely lost in the final product. It’s a film that never tries to be anything more than an entertaining lark, and only fitfully succeeds at that. Nevertheless, to quote an old cliché, there are those who believe that even bad pizza is still pretty good. And depending on how much you require out of a horror movie, you may feel the same way about Satanic Panic.
Note: This is an expanded version of the review The A.V. Club ran from the Overlook Film Festival.