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Genre-Bending 'Satanic Panic' is Campy Fun, But Flops on Thesis

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Satanic Panic, the new indie horror-comedy opening Friday at the Atlas Diamond Cinemas in Solon, isn't quite scary enough to be a horror film and isn't quite funny enough to be a comedy. But it still occasionally slaps.

The script, penned by novelist and journalist Grady Hendrix, (who wrote the notable 2014 Ikea-inspired paranormal novel Horrorstör) dances around the thematically fertile territory of generational conflict. The Boomers and Generation X destroyed the world for millennials, as everyone knows, but in Satanic Panic, they are literally devil-worshipping cultists. Millennials are literally their victims. This reification of anxiety and disapprobation between generations is unevenly rendered until late in the third act, at which point it's conveyed mostly through punchlines: "Millennials," declares Danica (Rebecca Romijn), the sultry leader of a suburban coven, "simply don't understand sacrifice."

The joke is that Danica's daughter Judi (Happy Death Day's Ruby Modine) and a very unlucky pizza delivery girl, Sam (Hayley Griffith), who've been entangled in an all-night botched satanic ritual, are by that point chained to an altar, awaiting what promises to be a truly unpleasant demonic vaginal birth.

But the fun of the movie is in its over-the-top camp and gore, executed competently with a host of practical effects. There are a few supreme gross-out moments. The production designers might as well have been gastroenterologists for the breadth of human anatomy displayed throughout.

The film begins poorly. Like, really poorly. The first 10 minutes of exposition, establishing Sam as a down-on-her-luck delivery girl, feature some of the dumbest dialogue of 2019. But by the time she arrives at the satanists' home, pleading for tips to pay for gas, Panic picks up steam, thanks in large part to Romijn, who cuts a striking figure in her floor-length red dress and whose steely treatment of her bumbling underlings recalls the behavior of an upper-crust suburb's alpha-female. And she sure doesn't shy away from the gristle. In one scene, she dashes to the fridge and begins feverishly munching on a couple of Ziplock bags' worth of frozen (human?) hearts to recover from a head wound.

Jerry O'Connell is the other top-billed star of the show, and he delivers in limited screen time. Playing the husband of Danica, his contribution is trying to convince Sam to submit to rape. If she remains a virgin, he tells her, the night is going to end unhappily for her. (See the demonic vaginal birth mentioned above.) Despite the discomfort inherent in this scenario, O'Connell injects just enough zany slapstick to sustain the comedy. He jumps around in tighty whities, delivering deadpan humdingers on the order of: "They're going to render my fat to make candles."

The half-assed denouement leaves much to be desired, and in the end, you'll likely be yearning for a bit more narrative richness: not a tidier conclusion, just a more satisfying one. You can appreciate the effects and the production design and the well-defined weirdness of the satanists' beliefs, but none of those elements are quite enough to compensate for the incomplete ideas driving the script. Though there's blood and gore galore, the thesis needed a bit more, shall we say, fleshing out.

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