Saturday, October 19, 2019

Bugging Out: Empty "Wounds" allows Armie Hammer to go to dark places, but to what end?

Wounds (2019)
95 min.
Release Date: October 18, 2019 (Hulu)

Based on the novella “The Visible Filth” by Nathan Ballingrud, “Wounds” aims to descend into the heart of darkness, complete with an opening quote from Joseph Conrad’s novella. The reality of what writer-director Babak Anvari (2016’s chilling, thoughtful “Under the Shadow”) has brought to the screen is only superficially disturbing, empty even. The film is well-acted and has startling imagery—Anvari had me at cockroaches—but the story itself is more of a head-scratcher than a head-trip that burrows under one’s skin and too undercooked to do for cell phones what “The Ring” did for videotapes.

College dropout Will (Armie Hammer) lives a life of complacency as a New Orleans bartender at Rosie’s. When a nasty bar fight breaks out between a couple of regulars, war-vet barfly Eric (Brad William Henke) gets stabbed in the face with a broken beer bottle, clearing out the bar. Before locking up, Will picks up a cell phone belonging to one of the underage college kids he served and takes it home. He manages to unlock the phone and find a series of text messages that make Will’s live-in girlfriend, grad student Carrie (Dakota Johnson), a little suspicious at first. Unfortunately, that’s only the beginning once Will finds disturbing photos on the phone, heading toward a roach-infested downward spiral and taking Carrie with him.

“Wounds” is a downbeat, slow-burn nightmare drama that grabs one's attention for a long time. There’s something fun about watching an appealing, strapping actor like Armie Hammer squirm, and he really gets to go through the wringer as Will, rising to the occasion when it comes to going to deeply dark places. Dakota Johnson is fine with what she is given as Carrie, but she is mostly asked to either be supportive yet suspicious or sleepy in a fugue state. Zazie Beetz (2019’s “Joker”) has a little bit more to work with as Alicia, Will’s ex, close friend and bar regular who’s now seeing someone else (Karl Glusman), and captivates with her natural charisma alone. 

There are a lot of blink-and-you’ll-miss-it flash frames with unsettling, nightmarish imagery involving cockroaches and a few creepy stylistic flourishes, like a quick dim of the lights revealing a bedroom with blood spattered all over the walls that isn’t really there. Humming along with a sense of dread, “Wounds” doesn’t go off the rails so much as it just spins its wheels until not coming together. A lot of the film feels murky and inexplicable, hinting at ritualistic sacrifices and Lovecraftian portals, as if it’s building to something without quite getting there. Director Babak Anvari may end things on an effectively gross note, but “Wounds” botches the landing, leaving the viewer bewildered with one question among many, “What did I just watch?”

Grade: C

Friday, October 4, 2019

Put on a Serious Face: "Joker" black as pitch and uncompromising with an unshakably chilling Joaquin Phoenix

Joker (2019)
122 min.
Release Date: October 4, 2019 (Wide)

Black as pitch and more provocative than one might assume a comic-book film to ever be, “Joker” reigns as a ballsy, psychologically piercing character study that doesn’t condone the actions of its antihero but seeks to understand him. For those expecting an origin story of a one-note villain ready to tango with Batman, this is far from that and actually closer to 2018's staggering, Lynne Ramsay-directed "You Were Never Really Here," which also starred Joaquin Phoenix as a nuanced Travis Bickle type. Writer-director Todd Phillips (2016’s “War Dogs”), working at the height of his powers after R-rated comedies like “Old School” and “The Hangover” trilogy, and screenwriter Scott Silver (2016’s “The Finest Hours”) have envisioned a bleak, uncompromising, and much more courageous vision than anything in the realm of studio blockbuster filmmaking, and it’s an unprecedented shock to the system. 

Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is anything but happy, despite his job as a clown-cum-sign twirler, his Tourette’s-like condition of laughing uncontrollably, and his aspirations to be a stand-up comedian. He lives in Gotham City in a grimy apartment with his ailing mother, Penny (Frances Conroy), and gets beaten up by a gang of punks in an alley by his own broken sign to which his boss (Josh Pais) demands be taken out of his salary. Arthur sees a health professional, but funding for his appointments and his seven medications are cut. When a gun he’s given by co-worker Randall (Glenn Flescher) for protection falls out of his pocket during one of his clown gigs at a children’s hospital, he is fired. Then, when he’s on the subway on his way home, three jerks in suits who work for mayor running mate Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) harass him, Arthur shoots them dead. With nothing to lose and feeling like society has abandoned him, Arthur snaps and crosses the point of no return as the clown-faced “Joker,” just as late talk-show host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro) invites him on for his failed attempt at stand-up comedy.

An alternative origin story for the Joker, set in 1981, filtered through a Martin Scorsese film, “Joker” was unmistakably modeled after Martin Scorsese’s 1976’s “Taxi Driver” and 1983’s “The King of Comedy,” and it looks and feels like a gritty ‘70s motion picture, complete with a Saul Bass-designed Warner Bros. logo. Such nods as casting Robert De Niro in a supporting role and characters putting a gun finger to their heads go beyond flattering imitation, however. The film doesn’t entirely forgo the traditional Batman lore—Bruce Wayne’s mom’s pearls and all—but director Todd Phillips makes sure it seamlessly seeps into the real story he’s telling about a mentally ill man falling off the deep end.

As one watches Joaquin Phoenix, it is not only forgotten during the film that Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger already made the roles of the Joker iconic—and distinctly their own—in 1989’s “Batman” and 2008’s “The Dark Knight,” respectively, but one forgets about watching an actor entirely. Phoenix is that committed and chilling, profoundly disappearing into the skin of this interpretation’s Arthur Fleck. Right down to his gaunt torso twisting and ribs projected, an uncontrollable laugh that often gets caught in his throat, and a balletic dance, Phoenix puts an indelible stamp on the character as if it was the first. He makes Arthur sympathetic to a point when he is still just a broken man and a walking tragedy who feels disenfranchised before becoming even more diseased and irredeemable, and the film understands that he is a product of his environment and upbringing. As Arthur further loses his grasp on reality and his own sanity, his dance down a large staircase, set to Gary Glitter’s “Rock and Roll Part 2,” is an unforgettable moment of many. 

Lawrence Sher’s intimate, gorgeously textured cinematography and composer Hildur Guðnadóttir’s propulsive, portent-filled score are the other big stars here to ensure that "Joker" isn’t just a film entirely hinging on its tour-de-force performance, but forceful filmmaking all around. There’s also an impressive roster of talent filling supporting parts, even if they all exist in Phoenix’s orbit. Frances Conroy is terrific as Penny, a woman who loves her son but may not be all there anymore, and Zazie Beetz (2018’s “Deadpool 2”) is wonderfully charismatic as Arthur’s single mother neighbor Sophie, and while the character might be underdeveloped into what she exactly sees in Arthur, that is the point. Rattling and unsettling but not unfeeling, “Joker” never for one second celebrates the mayhem created by Arthur Fleck when he “becomes” Joker because as the third act comes to an operatic crescendo, it is all very frightening and riveting with disturbing sociological implications. Though it’s hard to say that this is the kind of film that many will come away enjoying, “Joker” is hard to shake, and it’s better for it.

Grade: A -

Drifting Apart: "Harpoon" a darkly funny, unpredictable three-hander with a coal-black heart

Harpoon (2019)
83 min.
Release Date: October 4, 2019 (Limited); October 8, 2019 (Blu-ray/VOD)

A sort-of “Dead Calm” among friends, “Harpoon” is a coal-black, mean-spirited, thrillingly unpredictable character-based thriller that keeps changing like a severely infected wound without treatment. It’s also scabrously funny. Writer-director Rob Grant does a lot with a little—it’s just three friends on the open sea, plus a one-man Greek chorus—and manages to turn a toxic friendship between three characters into schadenfreude for the sake of telling a grim tale of betrayal and desperation. Those with a twisted sense of humor should get a wild kick out of “Harpoon,” while others will want to stay on dry land.

Shaggy-haired martyr Jonah (Munro Chambers), trust-fund hothead Richard (Christopher Gray), and referee girlfriend Sasha (Emily Tyra) are a dysfunctional trio. As Jonah is packing up his parents’ house after their deaths in a fiery accident, Richard shows up and, in a regular fit of rage, beats his best friend to a bloody pulp. Richard has jumped to the conclusion that Jonah and Sasha have been sleeping together when, as Sasha explains when coming to stop the fight, they were actually texting each other about buying their friend a harpoon, er, speargun as an early birthday present. When the friends take out Richard’s yacht after the misunderstanding, the motor dies, stranding them at sea. Things go from bad to worse once dehydration and starvation enter the equation.

Sailing into the blackest of hearts and darkest corners of humanity, “Harpoon” finds the right groove in making the viewer laugh in between the winces and gasps. The dynamic between these three terrible human beings is so endlessly watchable, especially as transgressions begin revealing themselves and resentments keep bubbling to the surface. Allegiances also keep shifting, not only between the three characters but between the viewer and the trio of characters. All three actors pull their weight and navigate some pretty tricky arcs within a tight 83-minute film: Munro Chambers is shrewd in finding a range between sympathetic and pathetic as Jonah; Christopher Gray is chilling when his Richard, a real dick, becomes volatile; and Emily Tyra is almost always the smartest person in the boat and the voice of reason as Sasha.

Narration in films can sometimes spell out too much when the characters and the story should do most of the talking, but Brett Gelman’s omniscient voice-over is an enhancement. Rather than holding the viewer’s hand, Gelman’s commentary coupled with his precise cadence is darkly amusing in ways that flesh out this so-called “friendship of history” and jokily comment on seagulls, redheaded superstitions, and the story of Richard Parker. In a nasty little number like “Harpoon” that mounts and mounts until its perfect bad-luck ending, everyone has it coming. 

Grade: B

Friday, September 20, 2019

Edible Retreat: "Corporate Animals" conceptually promising but winds up being a toothless misfire

Corporate Animals (2019)
85 min.
Release Date: September 20, 2019 (Limited & VOD) 

“Corporate Animals” might have been pitched as “The Office” meets “The Descent,” and that shorthand would seem like it could have nailed something sharper and less shaggy as satire. Director Patrick Brice (2017’s “Creep 2”) and writer Sam Bain (TV’s “Peep Show”) do have a morbidly clever premise and a solidly assembled cast with crack comic timing, but the film is only sporadically amusing and never seems to find a momentum to sustain itself for even a brief 85 minutes.

Lucy Vanderton (Demi Moore) is the tough, egomaniacal CEO of Incredible Edible Cutlery, a start-up company whose mission statement is to rid the planet of disposable plastic cutlery with the edible kind. Aided by extreme sports guide Brandon (Ed Helms), the company embarks on a team-building retreat in the New Mexico desert. When Brandon takes them spelunking, Lucy demands they take the advanced route into the caves. Of course, once all members are deep into the cave system, an earthquake occurs and triggers a cave-in, sealing off any potential exit. As several days pass, the only learning experience that the team will have is realizing that they won’t be above a little cannibalism if it means staying alive.

As an ensemble black comedy, “Corporate Animals” has an axe to grind about corporate culture outside of the workplace, but the character quirks actually outweigh any of the supposed satire and irony. Jokes about affirmative action and sexual harassment—“Weinstein” becomes a verb here—just aren’t as subversive or funny as writer Sam Bain thinks they are. One character also references 1993’s “Alive” as that “Ethan Hawke movie where those people get trapped in the Andes and then they have to eat their friends” just to foreshadow where the story is headed. The characters are a diverse, cartoonish bunch: Lucy's assistants, Jess (Jessica Williams) and Freddie (Karan Soni), are both promised positions as vice president; Suzy (Nasim Pedrad) is scared of everything but not sleeping with someone from work, like May (Jennifer Kim); and Gloria’s (Martha Kelly) lupus is worsening. In the film's weirdest touches, Freddie uses his superfandom of Gary Sinise in “CSI: NY” to improve the morale, and intern Aidan (Calum Worthy) begins hallucinating Britney Spears singing out of his grotesque leg injury that’s on the verge on gangrene and then brings an extra source of light with his “wank band,” where his arm is constantly in motion. 

Demi Moore relishes the unlikable role of horrible boss Lucy, but Jessica Williams (2019’s “Booksmart”) is closer to the lead here as the smart, underappreciated Jess, while Karan Soni (2018's "Deadpool 2") earns some laughs as the emasculated Freddie. The sly standout, though, is stand-up comic Martha Kelly (FX’s “Baskets”), who’s a deadpan hoot as Gloria, who plans on writing a will that will grant certain co-workers to eat her butt cheek after she dies. With plenty of conceptual promise and a cast that's game for anything, “Corporate Animals” just winds up being a toothless misfire. 

Grade: C

Monday, September 16, 2019

Rejects Return: "3 from Hell" more of the same hell-raising, only with less of a point

3 from Hell (2019)

111 min.
Release Date: September 16, 2019 (Limited)

If writer-director Rob Zombie’s 2003 feature debut, “House of 1000 Corpses,” was a deliriously in-your-face Grand Guignol of gonzo funhouse style, shock value, and a lot of screaming, 2005’s “The Devil’s Rejects” marked a distinct departure in tone and style as a gritty road movie in the vein of “The Wild Bunch” and “Bonnie and Clyde,” while still never watering down its vile, sicko nastiness. Both films tracked the mayhem caused by members of the Firefly family, but it wasn't until the 2005 film that Zombie treated them more as antiheroes, not to mean that they were likable and sympathetic but more human, in spite of their despicable crimes. “3 from Hell,” the third entry in this retroactive “Firefly Family” trilogy of sorts, is a little less ugly, if still depraved, but continues on a more slapdash, episodic path after undoing the uncompromising, oddly poignant finale of "The Devil's Rejects." Fourteen years later, this is just more of the same with a story bereft of a point to warrant it being told.

Against all odds, Baby Firefly (Sheri Moon Zombie), Otis Driftwood (Bill Moseley), and Captain Spaulding (Sid Haig) survived their gunshot wounds after playing a game of chicken with the police, cued to Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird,” even if their chances for survival were “less than a million to one.” Ten years later when it’s 1988, they are still incarcerated for their numerous hideous crimes and sentenced to life in prison, however, they’ve become infamous media sensations. While Captain Spaulding is executed, Otis escapes with his half-brother, Winslow “Foxy” Foxworth Coltrane (Richard Brake), also known as the “Midnight Wolfman.” In waiting to free Baby from prison, Otis and Foxy hold hostage the prison’s warden, Virgil Dallas Harper (Jeff Daniel Phillips), along with his wife and friends, and coax the warden into sneaking her out. Once the trio is back together, they cross the border to Mexico for a fresh start during Dia de Muertos, albeit not without a little carnage like old times and a face-off with a local Mexican gang out to avenge the murder of Rondo (Danny Trejo).

“3 from Hell” has its merits as a grindhouse prison-break exploitationer, but it’s ultimately a completist's reunion with these characters and a greatest-hits compilation that only takes these grungy, foul-mouthed, homicidal maniacs to a new geographical place—Mexico—to do what they do best: “get fucked up and fuck shit up.” The film is actually at its most unpredictable and dangerous when focusing on Baby, who has lost her mind even more so than before she ended up in prison, hallucinating feline ballerinas, and shares a growing animosity with broken-nosed prison guard Greta (Dee Wallace). Her brutal first kill after prison in broad daylight also ends with a twisted, pitch-black comedic punchline, a friendly wave to an elderly woman sitting in her front yard. 

Bill Moseley and Sheri Moon Zombie slide back into their respective roles of Otis and Baby perfectly, dialing up the insanity when they have to with his commanding monologuing and her dementedly flirtatious cackle. Zombie might have the most to do as Baby, and she gets to share the film’s most touching moment with hotel worker Sebastian (Pancho Moler), who brings her breakfast right before the Black Satans come to take them out. Sid Haig, who became ill during production and passed away as of this writing, makes his brief screen time on death row memorable as former clown Captain Spaulding, but Richard Brake is here to take over as the trigger-happy Foxy and gets to strut his comedic stuff, like during an amusing debate on Cagney and Bogart between Foxy and Otis. 

Whether or not his grimy brand of filmmaking is anyone's cup of tea, writer-director Rob Zombie always has a specific vision for each of his films, even if this one feels pretty derivative of what came before. Zombie still peppers his dialogue with four-letter words, and he sure likes his zooms, freeze frames, and swipes on grimy 16-millimeter, and all of his characters must at one point be watching an old black-and-white movie or TV show, this time being 1923’s “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” and “The Three Stooges.” It also wouldn’t be a Zombie joint without his on-point selections of ‘70s music, like Suzi Quatro’s “The Wild One,” Slim Whitman’s “It’s a Sin to Tell a Lie,” and James Gang’s “Ride the Wind.” Unfortunately, not unlike his last film (2016’s “31”), many of the murder set-pieces are shakily shot and choppily edited within an inch of their life. There’s a relatively tense bloodbath in the warden’s home, with a hapless clown named Mr. Baggy Britches (Clint Howard) thrown in as collateral damage, that feels interminable compared to the unsparing danger and jittery, claustrophobic tension of a similar extended sequence set within a motel room in “The Devil’s Rejects.” Though it's kind of sweet to see Zombie have trouble saying goodbye to his creations, these natural born killers should probably just go to hell and stay there.

Grade: C

Friday, September 13, 2019

All Hallows' Hell: "Haunt" a seasonal genre gem that's grisly, tense, and scary

Haunt (2019)
92 min.
Release Date: September 13, 2019 (Limited & VOD)

A group of friends entering a “haunted house” where it's hard to tell the difference between someone playing a part and actually begging for his or her life on All Hallows' Eve is the premise for the high-concept slasher film “Haunt,” the writing-directing debut of Scott Beck and Bryan Woods (the screenwriters behind 2018’s “A Quiet Place”). It reminds of 1981's Tobe Hooper-directed "The Funhouse," as well as two most recent worthwhile slashers (2018’s “Terrifier” and “Hell Fest”), while never resting on the laurels of its conceit and actually knowing how to give audiences a solid scare for their buck. “Haunt” may not reinvent the wheel of slasher pics, but it’s quite effective at what it accomplishes with atmosphere and technical know-how.

Carbondale, Illinois college student Harper (Katie Stevens) is tired of being abused by her alcoholic boyfriend—and so is her roommate Bailey (Lauryn Alisa McClain). It happens to be Halloween night, so Bailey and their two friends, Angela (Shazi Raja) and Mallory (Schuyler Helford), persuade her to go out to the club. Once meeting up with nice jock Nathan (Will Brittain) and loudmouth Evan (Andrew Caldwell), the four girls decide to go to a haunt since it’s still early in the night. When the group finds an “extreme” haunt off the beaten path in the backwoods, they are greeted by a silent clown, who makes them sign a liability waver and hand over their cell phones. The haunted house seems harmless enough with cobwebs and a skeleton popping out, until a bit with a screaming co-ed having her face branded with a hot iron by one of the masked workers, and it seems awfully real. 

Aside from being set in the present with cell phones that get locked away at the entrance of the haunt, “Haunt” plays like a pleasing throwback to a 1980s slasher film without name-checking — it just does. It might not be enough for a film like this to just rest on its premise, and fortunately, there is more to the production design within the maze-like industrial warehouse and, in the case of Harper, enough characterization to distinguish itself from the pack. Directing team Scott Beck and Bryan Woods are skilled at building dread and apprehension, as with a tunnel where each character must enter one at a time so a trap door doesn’t open on them and a “Guess the Body Parts” game where characters put their hands into three different mystery holes.

The characters are standard fodder, but the cast does a fine job enlivening their roles enough for the viewer to care whether or not they get out alive. Katie Stevens, in particular, is strong as Harper, the likely “final girl,” as she might be the most well-drawn character of the bunch, having not been back home in four years because of her abusive father. The antagonists of the piece are menacing, both when they’re masked and unmasked, and their motives smartly remain mysterious enough but unsettling that one might never willfully enter a haunt again. The ending might seem tacked-on and more than a little preposterous, but it is immensely satisfying nonetheless. Grisly, tense, and never at a loss for figuring out ingenious ways to put its characters in peril, “Haunt” is doubly a genre gem and a perfect option for the early Halloween season.

Grade: B

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

One Step at a Time: "Brittany Runs a Marathon" a naturally inspiring crowd-pleaser with humor, honesty, and a winning Jillian Bell

Brittany Runs a Marathon (2019)
103 min.
Release Date: August 23, 2019 (Limited); September 13, 2019 (Wide)

Like Kristen Wiig and Melissa McCarthy before her, Jillian Bell has stolen scenes over the years in comedic supporting roles, like in 2014’s “22 Jump Street,” 2016’s “Office Christmas Party,” and 2017’s “Rough Night,” and finally receives the opportunity to headline her own movie, and deservedly so. The writing-directing debut of Paul Downs Colaizzo, “Brittany Runs a Marathon” isn’t so much a straight-up comedy as it is a crowd-pleaser and a rather perceptive character study with humor, honesty, wisdom, and painfully relatable introspection, not to mention a winning lead performance by Bell.

Hailing from Philadelphia with past dreams of being a commercial jingle writer, 28-year-old Brittany Forgler (Jillian Bell) is now at a crossroads in her Manhattan life. She drinks a lot, stays out late, and sleeps in late, being perpetually late to her job as an Off-Broadway theater greeter. When she sees the doctor, looking to score Adderall, she is told that her high body mass index considers her to be obese. At first, Brittany feels insulted that she’s been ordered to lose about 50 pounds in order to be healthy, but she soon comes to terms with her insecurities and sedentary lifestyle. As she gets to know more about her neighbor, avid runner Catherine (Michaela Watkins), Brittany tries just jogging one city block and then gets invited to join Catherine on a group run. It’s not easy at first, but Brittany soon makes friends with Seth (Micah Stock). Once she begins making more progress on her weight loss and runs a 5K, Brittany sets a goal for herself in training for the New York City Marathon. It’s more than just about getting healthy—and it’s about finishing, not winning—but it’s about finally taking control of her life and feeling good about herself, physically but also mentally and emotionally.

No longer a comedic sidekick just as Brittany is tired of being the fat, funny, self-deprecating sidekick in her group of friends, Jillian Bell gives one of those carefully modulated performances that allows her to perform comedy—her natural bread and butter—but also stretch her dramatic chops to convey Brittany’s lows, like facing the toxicity of her friendship with social media-obsessed roommate Gretchen (Alice Lee). The script allows Brittany to be an unlikable jerk even after she’s lost weight, like in a scene where she projects her frustration and unhappiness on to a plus-sized woman who shows up with a thinner husband at her brother-in-law’s (Lil Rel Howery) birthday barbecue. As flawed as she is and full of setbacks as her soul-searching journey is, we want to see Brittany persevere and ultimately succeed.

The supporting cast can’t help but shine, all of them playing characters that break surface-level molds. The always-reliable Michaela Watkins is excellent, finding devastating layers in Catherine who finally airs out her problems to Brittany when the two actually meet for the first time, despite living in the same apartment building. Micah Stock is wonderful as Seth, Brittany’s first real running buddy, and Utkarsh Ambudkar (2018’s “Basmati Blues”) makes a lovable foil for as Jern, a slacker with whom Brittany finds herself housesitting and caring about.

Save for a few moments where scenes feel like they have been trimmed just as they’re getting started, director Paul Downs Colaizzo adeptly guides his film and its tonal shifts. Revealing itself to be a true story in the credits with stills of the real Brittany (Colaizzo’s former roommate), “Brittany Runs a Marathon” is naturally inspiring without coming off manipulative or cloying, or even saying that running a marathon is an instant cure-all for self-improvement. It's safe to say that joyful tears will have to be wiped away when Brittany accomplishes her goal.

Grade: B +

Thursday, September 5, 2019

No Tip, No Sacrifice: "Satanic Panic" a likably go-for-broke horror-comedy ready-made for pizza party

Satanic Panic (2019)
88 min.
Release Date: September 6, 2019 (Limited & VOD)

Satanists and pizza go rather well together in “Satanic Panic,” an entertaining, go-for-broke horror-comedy with Fangoria-produced gore and a side of commentary on social class. Directed by Chelsea Stardust, making her feature debut, and penned by Grady Hendrix and Ted Geoghegan (2015’s “We Are Still Here”), the film has a broad, energetic comedic style but also strikes enough of a goofy, creepily off-center tone to be outrageous. For what it lacks in budget, “Satanic Panic” makes up for it with a hell of a lot of enthusiasm in front of and behind the camera. 

22-year-old aspiring musician Sam Craft (Hayley Griffith) is a new hire at a pizza joint, relying on tips but having a rough first day and getting stiffed. For her last stop of the night, she has to deliver outside the parlor’s delivery zone: the rich, white neighborhood of Mill Basin. The man who answers the door of the mansion stiffs Sam on a tip, and when her vespa runs out of gas, she decides to let herself in to what at first seems to be a motivational party, hosted by Danica Ross (Rebecca Romijn). As it turns out, everyone in the room is a red-robed member of a satanic coven planning on sacrificing a virgin before sunrise to summon demon Baphomet and Sam happens to be a perfect specimen. 

Feature film newcomer Hayley Griffith makes for a likable Sam, sweet but tough when she needs to be and grounding the over-the-top circumstances around her. What the viewer later learns about her love for Australia and the origin of her “two fuzzy bunnies” calming words is unexpectedly affecting. Ruby Modine (2019’s “Happy Death Day 2U”) has a snappy comic presence as Danica’s devirginized daughter Judi, who becomes Sam’s one true savior and friend through her hellish night. Griffith and Modine’s moments together are a delight, and they share the film’s weirdest and tensest sequence in which Sam frantically scribbles symbols all over Judi’s body in order to break the coven’s voodoo ritual to kill her.

A gamely perverse Rebecca Romijn is having a campy blast as the elegantly evil Danica Ross, and former “MADtv” cast member Arden Myrin is another loopy standout as Gypsy, Danica’s devious second-in-command vying to become leader. The rest of the ensemble is all in on the daffy spirit, including Jordan Ladd and Jeff Daniel Phillips (2016’s “31”). Also, an unrecognizably mustached AJ Bowen and Jerry O’Connell (Romijn’s real-life husband) each get laughs, respectively, as Sam’s sleazy co-worker Duncan, who got her the job, and Danica’s even sleazier husband Samuel Ross.

2018’s “Slice” attempted to do something similar with a party-movie vibe, finding pizza delivery drivers at the hands of supernatural forces, albeit with sloppy results. Director Chelsea Stardust’s film has more focus, more of a low-budget charm, and even more on its nutty mind than most larks, commenting on how wealthy Satan worshippers think they’ve earned the right to use working-class Sam to complete their ritual, while still being a lot of tongue-in-cheek fun. There’s an ample amount of practical gore out of a schlocky B-movie, from someone being impaled by a drill strap-on dildo toy, to Danica going elbow-deep into someone’s neck to grab their heart, to an organ soufflé being prepared like a Thanksgiving turkey. Wickedly amusing as it is gleefully gory, “Satanic Panic” is ready-made for a slumber party with beer and pizza.

Grade: B -