Satanic horror often focuses on demonic possession or Satan himself. Rarely are there films made about Satan worshipers or satanic cults, the latter only frequent when demons themselves are running amok on screen. Eighties nostalgia has finally wrought the former, with B-movie filmmakers chomping at the bit to explore the so-called “satanic panic” of the 1980’s, wherein suburban dwellers and religious groups were panicked about such groups and false rumors of murder and sacrifice at their hands. We Summon the Darkness is an amusing, involving slice of cultural commentary that plays off of that mythology, with a midway twist sure to ruffle feathers and multiple performances that are better than they have any right to be.
Alexis Butler (Alexandra Daddario, Baywatch) and her two best friends are headed to a heavy metal show on the prairie, somewhere in rural Indiana. Following a milkshake run-in on the road, they meet three pot-smoking, head-banging boys and big metal fans that they later bring back to Butler’s empty parental estate. The wealthy enclave is chock-full of booze, Nintendo, and plenty of acres for partying. One game of Never-Have-I-Ever is all they need before the proverbial shit hits the fan. Though the trailer doesn’t explicitly give it away, anyone can guess from a set photo or two that these gals are the villains, killers clad in inverted crosses and sharp leather ready to sacrifice a dolt or two for their deity. That’s not the real twist though. The real twist is much juicier and more meaningful than a slight gender-bend of horror movie conventions. If you’re over thirty and recall the aforementioned 80’s/90’s religious hysteria, you’ll appreciate it the most.
Representing the religious leaders of that time, those who were the loudest and proudest about denouncing these supposed cults, is the pastor of a local congregation played by none other than Johnny Knoxville in a pleasingly subtle turn. As Mark, one of those pot-smoking, head-banging boys, Keean Johnson (Alita Battle Angel, Euphoria) is your requisite male lead when lady villains are front and center: quiet, smart, and mysterious. Johnson’s an effective, expressive actor when given opportunities, and Darkness gives him plenty of them to explore. Surrounded by knife-wielding women and bumbling friends, Mark is the primary rooting interest for a majority of the film. He has eyes for rock stardom in L.A. as well as for one of the girls in question, a shy one named Bev whose loyalty to the offending cult is uncertain.
Much has been written about promiscuity and symbolism in horror movies, wherein the “slut” dies first and the “virgin” dies never. Somewhat contradicting the film’s message, director Marc Meyers succumbs to said cliches by portraying the two psychos in the trio as flirty and salacious, and one not-psycho as timid and inexperienced. A scene or two of Bev gleefully brandishing a chainsaw are highlights, representing her coming-out party as a force to be reckoned with in spite of those virginal attributes. While not exactly a revelation or a real head-turner, Daddario proves she’s got more in the tank than head-turning looks. Her performance as one of the psychos, a wild-eyed killer and brainwashed cultist, is a bigger stretch than her previous resume of assorted hero’s daughters (San Andreas) and dainty girlfriends (When We First Met), and she mostly pulls it off.
Meyers comes close to some brief moments of greatness, when he chooses to amp up the 80’s amp and lay on the music thick. Some editing woes detract from the desired atmosphere, but “Heaven is a Place on Earth” is a good moody cue for such a bloody backdrop in the final act. Gore is minimal, relegated to gunshots and gooey stabbings by giant kitchen knives, a nice callback to 80’s horror. The real horror is neither visceral nor supernatural, it’s the simple idea that ordinary, supposedly good people could be driven to commit such horrible acts in the name of a so-called religion. We Summon the Darkness channels that horror, that psychological cornerstone of the genre. Last year saw a similarly-themed film in Satanic Panic reach arthouses and specialty theaters, a story about dark magic and surly rituals. After having seen both, I believe We Summon the Darkness deserved the title of “Satanic Panic.”