Here’s what I knew about Satanic as I went in: 1) it’s a horror movie, 2) it oddly has an adjective as a title, and 3) it probably has the creepiest poster I’ve ever seen. That’s it. This was an almost-entirely blind viewing, which can often be a tremendous experience.
This wasn’t what I would call “tremendous”. But it wasn’t as bad as I was expecting, either, based on the film’s IMDb score. Satanic starts off with an all-too familiar horror movie trope of a group of twenty-somethings going on an adventure of some sort. In this case, we have four friends on spring break headed to Coachella. Along the way, they make bad choices and get themselves into a supernatural mess.
I saw the headline of a user review, somewhere, stating that this film does “everything wrong” for a horror movie. I found that comment uninsightful, reductive, and unfair. Now, don’t misunderstand; there is plenty wrong with Satanic. But not literally “everything”. So, I’m going to start with what was done well and what I liked.
The cast is inexperienced but solid. Sarah Hyland (Chloe) especially does a nice job staying grounded and natural with her performance. There’s always a temptation in horror films to go over-the-top with the acting but Hyland plays it real and believable. I had never seen her before, though some after-the-fact research led me to discover that she’s a regular on the extremely popular Modern Family (which I have obviously not watched). She may have accepted the role as Chloe in an effort to get her foot in the door of the world of film. Being the strongest aspect of Satanic, with more experience and the right role, I expect she’ll turn some heads, one day.
Satanic doesn’t shoot for jump scares but instead opts for an omnipresent atmospheric dread and tension. It works as I felt unsettled during the entire film. The pace flows nicely and the story unfolds in an unexpected way. After the first twenty minutes, I truly thought I knew what the remainder of the film was going to be, but I was way off. There are surprising turns along the way and it all builds to an admittedly satisfying climax.
The problem is that the issues with the film are in the fundamental aspects of storytelling. Firstly, the characters are stupid. I don’t mean real-world stupid. I’ve said before that people in real life make stupid decisions in stressful situations and that needs to be represented in film – especially horror – in order to maintain relative realism and artistic integrity. But that’s not what I’m talking about, here. Rather, the characters are horror-movie stupid, in the way that people frequently talk about with regards to horror movies. The four friends kick the core events of the narrative off, themselves, by willingly doing things no actual human would do. There is no potential benefit to their actions. They’re just stupid for the sake of pushing the story forward. Even Chloe and her boyfriend David (Steven Krueger), both of whom say intelligent things and talk about the reasonable things to do, eventually give in and just follow their two stupid friends, bringing about everything that happens to them in the film.
That dreaded Stupid Horror Movie Character Syndrome eases up as the film progresses but it’s too late by that point. A nice house can’t stand on a weak foundation and that’s what director Jeffrey Hunt and screenwriter Anthony Jaswinski are attempting to pull off. It’s lazy. There are dozens of ways around this, but they choose the easiest route and it really hurts the film by getting it off on the wrong foot.
The other issue (other than the awful title) deals with the internal logic of the film. The supernatural elements deal with ritualism yet, when the events start to go sideways, there’s no rhyme or reason as to why they happen in the exact ways and order in which they do. Rituals have very strict rules and these rules should have been firmly established and followed all the way to the final frame.
What this all boils down to is that Satanic is frustratingly mediocre. There are some genuinely good ideas in the film and some of them are well-executed, too. This film really could have been a low-budget gem of a horror movie (like Hush on Netflix! Check it out!) had more effort been put into the details and finer points. It’s truly the little things that count. As it stands, it’s an enjoyable film in parts (the further you get into it, the higher the quality rises) that serves as a nice platform for Hyland. Unfortunately for her, very few people will see it, thanks to some crucial, uninspired choices made by the filmmakers.
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