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The women of Satanic Panic on creating a slasher movie that doesn't care about the male gaze
The first moments of Satanic Panic will be gloriously familiar to any horror fan: a young girl jumping rope a la Nightmare on Elm Street meets The Bad Seed, followed by a single-take POV shot akin to the Michael Myers attack on his sister that opens Halloween. The entire film is an ode to female friendship and empowerment, heavily inspired by Jennifer's Body. But one of its biggest influences is fairly surprising for this female-focused tale of glee and gore.
"When I read the script," says director Chelsea Stardust, "I thought, 'Wow, this feels so much like The Wizard of Oz to me.'"
Having just finished the movie, in which a freshly impaled Rebecca Romijn eats two raw human hearts while calling out to her demon god as a "triple-faced f***-monster of remorseless intent," I was a bit confused. But upon explanation, it makes complete sense.
Written by Grady Hendrix, from a story he created with Ted Geoghegan, Satanic Panic follows Sam (Hayley Griffith), a pizza delivery driver who drops off an order to a giant mansion and receives no tip. When she goes back — you must always tip! — she is instead selected as the virgin sacrifice to Baphomet for a wealthy coven led by Romijn's Danica. She befriends the coven's originally intended sacrifice, Danica's daughter Judy (Ruby Modine), who had sex upon learning her mother's intentions for her. Together, the two try to save themselves from being forced to birth the Antichrist — and, by extension, the world.
"She goes from this world, where she's working at this pizza shop, and she crosses over into sort of another universe, almost another dimension," Stardust says. "She meets Danica, who's basically your Wicked Witch. She befriends Judy, who becomes her Scarecrow. The rabbit is essentially her Toto. All she wants to do is go home." Sam even encounters a woodland tree monster (modeled, of course, after the one from The Wizard of Oz), all while sporting her trusty red
slippers Chuck Taylors.
The costume comfort doesn't end with practical footwear. Griffith spends the majority of the film in an oversized T-shirt and jeans, after her shirt is ripped fending off the efforts of Danica's husband Samuel (Romijn's real-life husband Jerry O'Connell, in a brief and delightfully douche-tastic appearance) to rape her and make her virginity no longer an option for the coven — and wanting a thank you for it like a true "nice guy," which is an excellent touch. Watching Sam cover up with a big old tee was a reminder of how other movies in the genre would likely have her stay in a tight tank for the rest of the film.
"That was something that I really loved when I had talked to Chelsea and our wardrobe designer, Rachel," says Griffith. "Just hearing their thoughts on how 'this is not what this movie is going to be. It is not going to be over-sexualized, everything is going to be done very appropriately.' And our bodies and our costumes were not meant to be like 'Whoa, look at that.' No, these are just the characters and we're going to wear what is comfortable."
This became an ongoing conversation and theme while shooting, a welcome change from what horror often is — and even what this film could have been.
"When I had first got the audition they had a whole little blurb written, because at that point they hadn't had a director attached. And in this script there was nudity," Griffith explains. "And they were like, 'Just so you know, we don't have a director yet, we want a female, and we want it to not exploit women in any way, and we don't want the nudity to be the subject of the film.' Then when Chelsea was attached, she and I Skyped, and she said, 'Just so you know, we have already talked, the nudity is gone. You're now in outfits.'"
According to Griffith, Stardust told her, "We don't want it to be that kind of film." That sensibility was important not only for Stardust to impart to her actors, but for herself as a director in making a movie in the first place.
"These female characters, these lead characters are so incredible, and all the men just take a total back seat in this movie, which I love," she says. "I just feel like I don't see that [all] that much. My goal with this movie was, I wanted a movie that a group of teenage girls will rent at a slumber party and will watch and say, 'Oh man, I want to make a movie like that one day.'"
This kind of role modeling was also important to Romijn, whose career has been filled with characters in full possession of their sexuality and well aware of the male gaze.
"Early on, when I was reading scripts in my 20s, I recognized that playing arm candy or a trophy wife was never going to be interesting to me and I wouldn't even know where to start. I just don't have that in me. I think that probably physically, people thought that would work for me. But deep down in my soul, I knew that I would never ever be interested in that," Romijn says. "So I specifically went after things that felt more aspirational, for me. And then it shifted again when I had kids — I had two daughters. They're at an age now where they want to know what it is that I'm working on. The characters that I portray have to be impressive to them as well. I certainly wouldn't want to send them the wrong message."
And for a film so joyfully resplendent in blood, guts (so many guts — seriously, there is this one very long disembowelment scene, it's awesome), and extremely dark humor, it is just as packed with messages we would be proud to deliver to any (age-appropriate, of course) daughter or teen with a horror penchant. The friendship between Sam and Judy is wholly drama-free in a way rarely depicted in any medium — very impressive, considering Judy's mom is trying to murder them with demons — and the film's handling of virginity as a subject is practically revolutionary. Virginity is neither shamed nor revered as in some way sacred. It just ... is.
"What I really like about the film about what I have to say all about that, is [that] overall, Sam isn't embarrassed," Griffith says. "It's not really a thing or something she really thinks about. Which I think is huge and not really common. I feel like a lot of times now people are like, 'Oh, you haven't slept with anyone? That's insane.' But I think what is so great about it is Sam is like, 'No, I, that's just what I am. I could have not been, but that's not how life works,' and she also doesn't want to lose it, even though they are like, 'You've got to lose your virginity, or you're going to be sacrificed to Satan.' She's like, 'I'll just fight my way out of it instead.'"
For both our heroines, virginity isn't a major deal, but that doesn't mean it's dismissed entirely. "There is a sadness there because Judy felt that, as soon as she found out what her parents were using her for, she found the first person she could and 'boned down.'"
"It's kind of interesting," I say to Modine. "Sam is this 'Final Girl' virgin to whom virginity is not a big deal, and to Judy, who in other movies would be the more outgoing and therefore sexualized character, it is. It's kind of a cool switch."
"Yeah, it is," Modine says. "And I dare say empowering? Because it says, 'We are virgins, hear me roar.'"
In so many ways, Satanic Panic subverts the tropes of the often male-dominated world of horror and slashers. In one scene, Judy strips down to her underwear in what would generally be the typical cheesecake scene existing solely for the titillation of the male viewers. Here, the scene is played both as grotesquely as possible (lots of vomit, complete with more hair than a clogged bath drain) and as tenderly, playing out as a beautiful scene between Sam and Judy, just two characters trusting their lives with each other and fighting for each others' lives.
Beyond our need for a horror-comedy like this, Satanic Panic is very much a movie we need right now — as viewers, sure, but also for Stardust as a filmmaker, who started our call by saying, "I think we're in a tough time right now, and I wanted to make something really fun." It's something I call back toward the end of our phone call.
"You know, it was a way to sort of exorcise a lot of demons I was dealing with sort of politically, what's going on in the world," she says. "And it was very cathartic to do this movie for me and also to surround myself by such incredible, powerful women — not only these characters but in real life. This cast is incredible. And our crew as well. We had so many female department heads. I very much felt the power there."
Feel the power for yourself when Satanic Panic hits theaters, VOD, and Digital HD September 6.
These interviews have been edited and condensed.