hen a Satanic cult kidnaps you, remember that Satanists these days are not all that bright.
Take mustachioed rock god Christian Winter (Will Forte), the whiny antagonist of Mike Ahern and Enda Loughman’s Extra Ordinary. Christian became a superstar in the 1980s with “Cosmic Woman,” a period-appropriate synth pop joint, but failed to follow up on its popularity with another hit. He has spent his years milking that cow bone-dry ever since. He’s trying to rekindle his success through Satan and virgin sacrifice, which would be bad news for intended offering Sarah Martin (Emma Coleman), except that Christian and his wife, Claudia (Claudia O’Doherty), are ninnies. Sarah isn’t even Christian’s first-pick victim. That other poor girl gets blown up mid-ritual when Claudia disrupts Christian’s incantations.
The Winters might look the part of the opulent Satanic cultist, but their lunk-headed scheming clangs with the classic blueprint of the devious devil worshiper. Ever since Val Lewton and Mark Robson’s 1943 film, The 7th Victim, wrote the template for Satanic horror, the sub-genre has often linked devotion to Satan with class. Its villains tend to enjoy placement in high society: They’re rich WASP-y socialites, and for them, Satanism is another lever of power alongside full coffers and cultural giddy-up. But money and clout are perks of privilege and not its source; in these movies, cleverness is a commodity that holds a higher value than cash. The cultists in The Seventh Victim, as well as its progeny, are more dangerous for cunning than coin.
The Satanic cultists of today’s horror look similar to their ancestors except for one big difference: They’re incompetent dumb-asses. All of the money in the world can’t purchase intellect, whether in Chelsea Stardust’s Satanic Panic, Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett’s Ready or Not or in Extra Ordinary; each of these movies function as class satires, wherein affluent cultists don’t know what the actual Hell they’re doing and routinely defeat themselves by dint of their stupidity. Ready or Not’s Le Domas clan, Satanic Panic’s snobby suburbanites and Extra Ordinary’s Mr. and Mrs. Winters are, generally speaking, deep in pocket but dim in wit. From film to film and character to character, the rules vary. Some heavies are smarter than others, or richer. But these movies portray their heavies collectively as doltish because of, maybe in spite of, their wealth.
Morons litter the planet, no doubt about it, and many of those morons have double-digit bank balances. But the biggest morons out there, or at least the morons with big enough soapboxes, typically have lots of money. That’s whether they belong to the dynasty of gilded nitwits currently running the country, or have tangential connections with that dynasty, or own companies like Tesla; there’s an inverse relationship between net worth and IQ where the higher the former rises, the faster the latter plummets. True, FANGORIA’s Satanic Panic has one capable antagonist: neighborhood coven leader Danica Ross (Rebecca Romijn), a constitutional schemer who’s always a step ahead of her opposition. Sure, the Le Domas’ — father Tony (Henry Czerny), mother Becky (Andie MacDowell), brother Daniel (Adam Brody), sister Emilie (Melanie Scrofano) and aunt Helene (Nicky Guadagni) — have a numbers advantage on their home field. And yes, Christian’s rather sly for a Forte character, managing to trick the good witch Rose (Maeve Higgins), Extra Ordinary’s reluctant and oblivious heroine, into undoing the protection spell she casts to keep Sarah out of his clutches.
But Danica’s subordinates, especially her chirpy, backstabbing second-in-command, Gypsy (Arden Myrin), are low-watt bulbs. The Le Domas’ attempts at killing Grace (Samara Weaving), their younger son Alex’s (Mark O’Brien) bride-to-be, all end in collateral damage. And surprise, Sarah isn’t a virgin, which makes Christian look real fucking silly in front of Astaroth (voiced by Jed Murray) in Extra Ordinary’s climax. These characters are, at every turn, defeated by their own entitlement. Each of them believes in the power of prosperity, as if prosperity itself gives them actual power over anybody. But prosperity is a means to an end, and they don’t have much else going for them without it. That’s why Christian turns to black magic in the first place: He’s a loser. His assets are all frozen. “One-hit wonder” is a four-letter word in the rock world, and the designation doesn’t sit well with him. So, from the ornate safety of his giant estate, he architects his comeback by spilling Sarah’s blood. Of course, he doesn’t do his homework, and the whole thing blows up in his face.
The cultists of Satanic horror masterpieces, as in Rosemary’s Baby and The Devil Rides Out, meanwhile, are more than rich. They’re actually smart, and they know how to use their smarts. The Castevets of Rosemary’s Baby and Mocata (Charles Gray) — chief of the occultists hunting Nicholas, Duc de Richleau (Christopher Lee), Rex Van Ryn (Leon Greene), Simon Aron (Patrick Mower) and Tanith (Niké Arrighi) in The Devil Rides Out — know how to leverage power. In Satanic Panic and Ready or Not, money and class afford expensive, lavish backdrops for the villains to dwell within. In Rosemary’s Baby and The Devil Rides Out, they provide meaningful control; it’s the Satanists’ universe, and we’re all just living in it.
Billionaires and resource-hoarding are central issues in contemporary political and social discourse; watching billionaires get theirs in splattery fashion grants the sweet release of cathartic, vengeful laughter at their expense. But now, the element of acumen feels uniquely relevant. The more time the ultra-wealthy class spends under a microscope, the clearer two truths become: They’re avaricious on a molecular level, and most of all, they’re some of the biggest idiots on the planet. Neither Satanic Panic, nor Ready or Not, nor Extra Ordinary says so aloud, but they don’t need to. When you have bottomless finances and infernal power at your fingertips, and you still can’t succeed in sacrifice and sin, the only thing worth blaming is your IQ.
Boston-based freelancer Andy Crump has been writing about pop culture online since 2009, and he's been watching horror since he was 10. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.