Editor’s Note: This was originally published for FANGORIA on October 9, 2009, and we’re proud to share it as part of The Gingold Files.

Satanic Panic (out on DVD from Celebrity Video) is named after the wave of paranoia that swept across the U.S. in the early ’80s, inspired by reports and rumors that adults and children were being kidnapped by devil-worshipping cults and subjected to torturous rituals and sacrifice. It’s a potentially provocative and eerie premise for a filmmaker to build on—but here, writer/director Marc Selz doesn’t really try.

Portions of the movie’s first third have the right idea, beginning in vérité/interview style as a self-confessed Satanist defending his own nonviolent lifestyle is intercut with survivors recounting their ordeals at cultists’ hands. The most evocative material follows, as a man shows the camera around his neighborhood of abandoned, boarded-up homes, the residents all having fled in fear of local satanic activities. Sadly, Selz then goes schlocky, cutting to the same guy hanging naked in a basement, at the mercy of an unseen cultist who shoves a metal pipe up his butt.

It’s a signpost of the bait-and-switch to come. The movie then takes us to 1980, where a young boy is sacrificed on an altar in the woods while his sister Cindy flees to safety, and she is subsequently interviewed by the authorities. Flash-forward to the present day, and the now-adult Cindy is still clearly haunted by the experience. The scene appears to be set for an exploration of how the traumas of the past influence the present, and the evils that adults do unto children who can’t defend themselves. Instead, Selz abandons this promising plotline, and the remaining 50 minutes or so are one more saga of a group of vacationing friends (with no connection to any of the people we’ve seen before) who set out on a camping trip and wind up running afoul of Bad Stuff.

They come across the usual suspects—a caricatured hick with bad hygiene (played by co-writer/composer Karl Sundstrom), an odd, vaguely threatening general-store owner, etc.—before night falls and cultists in cheap robes and hoods come out to play. It’s quite a generic comedown from the intriguing setup, and while Selz strains to come up with creative murder scenarios, they come off as simply contrived. In a particularly pointless flourish, one victim is tied up on a boat in a lake, and a fully garbed worshipper pops out of the water beside her to plunge the dagger in. And if that strikes you as not making much sense, wait till you get to the ending, which attempts to tie up all the narrative threads but comes across simply as a rather incoherent excuse to bring on a literal monster.

Selz makes a good stab at explaining his climax on the DVD’s audio commentary he shares with Sundstrom, but it remains easy to understand when he reports that a number of people came up to him with questions after an early screening. Satanic Panic’s widescreen transfer (sharp and clean, though numerous daytime scenes appear overexposed) is also supplemented with “Norville’s Outtakes,” which amount to less than two minutes of Sundstrom clowning around on set, and a slideshow and featurette on the FX, but the commentary is the most substantial extra. The duo share a decent amount of production information and anecdotes over the course of their discussion: where they found those streets with the shuttered houses, the fact that both the 1980s siblings were played by the same child actress, the inevitable difficulties of finding a church whose owners would allow them to shoot there, in-references ranging from Friday the 13th Part III to Night of the Demons, etc.

The filmmakers’ yen to pay tribute to ’80s fear fare also informs a more unfortunate running theme in this track, however, as they repeatedly refer to Satanic Panic as a “textbook horror movie” designed “for short attention span theater,” whose target viewers “aren’t going to care about” things like characterization. Despite moments where they note attempts to inject a little extra drama into the proceedings, too often they come off as apologizing for making a silly fright flick intended to replicate the formula of B-chillers past, hewing to established conventions instead of venturing into more distinctive territory. It’s especially frustrating since Satanic Panic’s first act strongly suggests that something much more impactful could have been achieved here, rather than what Selz describes as “an ’80s-style slasher movie based on something that creeped us out as kids.” At one point, Selz makes reference to a potential prequel, which would offer “a much more interesting, deeper story than we’ve given you here.” Need it even be said that that’s what he should have gone for the first time around?

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