A Violent Satanic Sex Cult With a Giant Twist
The new film “We Summon the Darkness” features Johnny Knoxville as a sketchy televangelist, a trio of hard-partying women as supposed Satanists, and plenty of raunchy curveballs.
Whether it’s because of fears of fundamentalism, apocalyptic disasters or the fact that America is currently being run by a treacherous, lecherous agent of evil, horror films about devious Satanists are all the rage these days. And as if to mitigate the chilling real-world anxieties into which they’re tapping, these dark modern sagas generally pitch themselves as playful comedies. Satanic Panic, Porno, and Extra Ordinary (as well as the unintentionally funny Suspiria remake) are all goofily hellish efforts about Beelzebub’s acolytes, and to that collection one can now add We Summon the Darkness, which serves up a buzzy brew of sex, drugs, heavy metal, Christian zealotry and pentagram-fueled rituals. Gruesome and good-natured, it’s a rollicking B-movie satire about those who truly have blood on their hands.
My Friend Dahmer director Marc Meyers’ latest (on VOD April 10) situates itself smack-dab in the middle of heartland Satanic hysteria circa 1988, when concerns over impressionable teens being possessed by Ozzy Osbourne lyrics ran rampant—thanks, in part, to Tipper Gore’s war on pop culture profanity, licentiousness, and the occult via her Parents Music Resource Center. We Summon the Darkness suggests, early on, that Gore was on to something, given that its story finds Indiana contending with a string of unsolved Satanic killings. Yet no matter the seriousness of that threat, brash Alexis (Alexandra Daddario), sultry Val (Maddie Hasson) and timid Bev (Amy Forsyth) remain committed to attending an eardrum-bursting concert by The Soldiers of Satan. On the road in a van boasting the bumper sticker “Lord Lucifer,” they’re a trio of righteous headbangers in ripped jeans, studded leather jackets and upside-down cross necklaces, and thus the embodiment of everything preached against by TV pastor John Henry Butler (Johnny Knoxville).
During their journey, Alexis chats about makeup’s origins as warpaint for sex, Val complains about having to pee, and Bev worries about the latest cult-massacre headline. “This is supposed to scare other people, not us,” is how Alexis comforts her friend about the news, while all three buy junk food—including Jolt Cola and Twinkies—that function as some of the film’s many period-specific shout-outs. The death toll for the notorious killing spree has reached 18, and everyone’s talking about it, including three guys—loudmouth Ivan (Austin Swift), inappropriate Kovacs (Logan Miller), and sensitive Mark (Keean Johnson)—the girls meet outside the show, this after an earlier run-in with them involving a projectile chocolate milkshake. As envisioned by Alan Trezza’s script, these kids seem like they’d be right at home in John Heyn and Jeff Krulik’s legendary 1986 non-fiction short Heavy Metal Parking Lot, short on brain cells but full of unbridled boozy rebelliousness and a love of sonic mayhem cranked to 11.
Good times at the concert ensue, as do subtle sparks between Bev and Mark, which is no surprise since the former is the goody two-shoes of her clique, and the latter—who intends to move to L.A. to chase his rock ‘n’ roll dreams, much to his buddies’ chagrin—is the level-headed and ambitious member of his own troupe. An afterparty plan is struck, and everyone reconvenes at Alexis’ country home, which turns out to be a lavish mansion with plenty of alcohol and privacy. By an outdoor fire pit, they talk about the death of Metallica bassist Cliff Burton and the band’s upcoming release (i.e. August 1988’s …And Justice For All), as well as play drinking games. And it’s at this point that the questions lingering over the proceedings come to the fore: How will these stereotypical metalheads wind up victims of unholy forces, and which of them will survive the nightmare that We Summon the Darkness obviously has in store for them?
Clues to those answers lie in Alexis’ admission that she reads Bop magazine, her ignorance about Ozzy’s iconic guitarist Randy Rhodes, and someone’s offhand comment about a photo in which Daddario’s protagonist looks like a Catholic schoolgirl. That said, after hiding its central twist for its first third, We Summon the Darkness gleefully gives up the ghost, revealing that Alexis is actually the daughter of Knoxville’s fire-and-brimstone pastor, and that she, Val and Bev aim to slaughter their horny male companions and blame it on devilish cultists. Moreover, they’re merely the latest perpetrators of this Satanic-panic ruse; Butler is having all his parishioners carry out similar slayings as a means of scaring the public into joining his congregation. It’s an Evangelical scheme that’s as dastardly as it is hypocritical, orchestrated by pious Christians who see nothing contradictory about converting the gullible masses via the very sort of murderous behavior they (and, of course, Jesus) supposedly decry.
We Summon the Darkness’ censure doesn’t end there—Butler also turns out to be a profiteer interested primarily in fattening his own wallet. This hardly passes as a novel critique of true believers, and unfortunately, director Meyers and writer Trezza don’t have much more to say on the matter. Once Alexis and company’s true motivations are disclosed, the film heads down a rather routine path, with the ferocious girls trying to kill the innocent and overwhelmed boys, and then coping with a series of unforeseen circumstances that complicate their massacre. Some suspense follows, although it’s undercut by the fact that we know Bev isn’t really on the same wavelength as her friends, and that—by virtue of her anti-drinking, hesitant-about-homicide “purity”—she and good-guy Mark are destined to avoid suffering any fatal blows.
The predictability of We Summon the Darkness’s slaughterhouse insanity is in keeping with its straightforward condemnation of organized religion, and the moral righteousness its adherents often espouse. Still, if it sticks to a formula that’s too safe by half—not to mention squanders Knoxville in a throwaway part that ends before it begins (and features nothing close to a memorable moment)—it does so with relative skill, as director Meyers proficiently orchestrates his gnarly conflicts. Moreover, it benefits from its leading lady, who infuses the cheesy material with a requisite amount of wild-child enthusiasm and confidence. Daddario’s badass performance may not fully overshadow the film’s unadventurous nature, but it mixes sexiness, deviousness and fanaticism to captivating ends.