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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
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The condemned: We Summon The Darkness (2019)

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The plot: There’s been a burst of satanic panic-themed horror films over the past few years. From The Devil’s Candy to A Dark Song to, well, Satanic Panic, these movies play on the tropes and concepts that first came to national consciousness during the panic of the ’80s, when a wave of sensationalist media and conservative conspiracy theorists started pushing the idea that secret Satan-worshipping cults throughout the country were preying on America’s youth. It was horseshit, of course, but the upside is that it’s inspired some damn fine horror. And We Summon The Darkness, this month’s Home Video Hell entry, doesn’t just embrace that source material: It gives it a soft, warm kiss, right before swiftly flicking its wrist and using the knife hidden in its sleeve to open up a vein and release an arterial spray of blood.

The movie follows a trio of women in 1987 Indiana, en route to a concert by one of their favorite metal bands. There’s group leader Alexis (Alexandra Daddario), party girl Val (Maddie Hasson), and shy newcomer to the trio, Bev (Amy Forsyth). You know this is a horror movie because while driving, they hear a news report about yet another satanic ritual murder that’s befallen a group of young people, part of a rash of such killings nationwide. (There’s also the requisite “old gas station attendant warning them to be careful,” one of my favorite horror clichés.) At the concert, they stumble upon a group of buddies who earlier passed them on the road, a former rock band having one last celebratory trip before their drummer Mark (Keean Johnson) leaves his bandmates Ivan (Austin Swift) and Kovacs (Logan Miller) behind for Los Angeles. The six quickly bond, and Alexis invites them all to continue the party back at her dad’s country house a short distance away. The night doesn’t go as planned.

This is the part where I tell you that if this film sounds at all up your alley, now is the time to stop reading and go watch it before we get to the spoilers—because there’s a twist coming, and it’s a good one. (We Summon The Darkness is available to buy or rent on all major streaming services.) From here on out, the rest of the film’s plot will be recounted in detail, and there’s a lot to like, so anyone who doesn’t enjoy knowing the story ahead of time, caveat lector.

Okay! Now that those people are gone, here’s the wicked fun move this film makes. If you’ve seen A Perfect Getaway, you know what’s coming: Despite our having spent the first third of the film with them, it turns out the women are the killers, who plan to drug and then murder the guys in front of pentagrams, upside-down crosses, the whole checklist of satanic panic accouterments. Our ostensible protagonists are actually members of a cult-like Christian congregation, one that came up with the plan to carry out these satanic-inspired murders as a means of driving the rest of a now-terrified population into the welcoming arms of the church. (The satan-occult stuff is mere window dressing; as Alexis explains to the guys, “It’s all just a giant crock of shit to me.”) In these brainwashed young women’s minds, they’re saving souls—the greater good, and all that. And Alexis’ dad (Johnny Knoxville) is the slick televangelist responsible for it all.

Unfortunately for them, the guys don’t really want to participate. After Alexis quickly kills Ivan, Mark and Kovacs break free and barricade themselves in the pantry, and the second act quickly turns into Panic Room. Bev is dispatched to the tool shed to find a means of breaking down the door, but instead discovers the good preacher is running a massive scam, embezzling the funds donated to his church to finance his lavish lifestyle. It’s enough to change her mind: While an escalating series of arrivals threatens to derail the girls’ plan (Alexis’ stepmom arrives at home, followed later by a police officer), Bev abandons the scheme. Already wavering on the whole “let’s murder in Christ’s name” thing, Bev turns on her friends, teaming up with Mark and Kovacs to escape Alexis and Val’s clutches. The final act is the showdown, as Alexis and Val (who hold the keys to the only working automobile) stalk and threaten the others throughout the house, and the good reverend shows up to discover what a hash has been made of his sinister plan.

Over-the-top box copy: In the current era of who-knows-when-this-shit-will-end, there doesn’t appear to be any pull quotes yet in the promotional materials, just a poster/presumable blu-ray cover that bears the tagline, “Let us prey”—which is, of course, also the name of a horror movie, from 2014. (It stars Game Of Thrones’ Davos Seaworth himself, Liam Cunningham. I have no idea if it’s any good. I do know there is zero chance it is more entertaining than We Summon The Darkness.)

The descent: Aside from the fact that I’m always up for a good dose of Satan worship in my horror movies, I think it’s way past time Alexandra Daddario got credit for being a solid actor. She’s been unfairly lumped into the category of “stereotypically attractive person who is sufficiently talented to also be in movies, but the main job is the attractive thing,” and Hollywood’s focus on her sex appeal does a great disservice to her. She’s obviously interested in more than just lunkheaded roles in pablum like San Andreas and Baywatch (it must be fun to work with The Rock, though)—and more importantly, she’s clearly savvy about the world of horror, and is a regular presence in it. One of her first leading roles was in the compelling slasher-meets-soap experiment Bereavement, and she’s returned to the genre numerous times, albeit with some better results than others. Daddario’s done excellent work in series like True Detective and Why Women Kill, and dammit, she deserves recognition. (Plus, she’s funny: Check out her episode of Rob Huebel’s Do You Want To See A Dead Body?) Long story short, I would watch this movie regardless, but Daddario is the draw. (Counterpoint: Our film editor A.A. Dowd heard me extolling her talents as an actor, and replied, “If you say so.”)

The theoretically heavenly talent: I believe I just expounded at length on this subject, but it’s also fun seeing Johnny Knoxville pop up in this thing, doing a rare straight-man role. It’s not a big part, but he underplays it nicely.

The execution: It’s so refreshing to be able to give a Home Video Hell movie a full-throated endorsement, especially because this particular movie would be very interested in slashing that throat. The big pivot relies on the film taking its satanic panic stuff seriously, so that when it’s revealed to be a total sham, it doesn’t feel like a cheat. If anything, this is an improvement on the first act’s tease of devil-derived mayhem, because it’s a rare case of a horror film actually making hay out of the proper targets in the whole Satanic panic cultural moment. By turning the main trio into pious religious nutters, We Summon The Darkness accurately points out the true villains of the era were the Christian fanatics attempting to stage a country-wide version of the Salem witch trials, almost 300 years later. (You could do the same thing with the Pizzagate idiots of our contemporary moment.)

Before even getting to some of the better scenes, it’s worth pointing out that the film is more well-written than a good 75% of the horror I watch. For starters, the three leads are all written as normal, likable people in the early going, avoiding the irritating clichés of horror characters as stock types who spend half the movie insulting each other and making you wonder how anyone could be friends with them in the first place. (See: Daddario’s unfortunate Texas Chainsaw remake.) And the movie continually grounds its first act in a prosaic real world: Even when Alexis and company stop to refuel, Val’s gas-pumping flirtation with a random guy ends the way it likely would in normal circumstances:

The initial third is full of fun little moments like that, times when plausibly bland scenes actually enhance the fun, rather than dull it down. (Alexis, talking up the appeal of them partying at her dad’s house: “We have booze, we have a great sound system, we have Nintendo…” Kovacs: “Oh, I Metroid like a mofo.”) But when the shift happens, the entire film leans into it, along with all the actors. And here’s where Daddario demonstrates why she can anchor a film: She takes her wonderfully expressive face and uses it to pivot into full-on crazy-eyes territory. I always suspected her skills at wide-eyed straight man humor could be inverted, were she to go full-on bananas, and the actor doesn’t let me down. Take a look at her zeal when she starts spouting Bible quotes at her embattled prey—it walks right up to the edge of camp and nudges it, without falling over into that territory.

And even as the characters and movie ratchet up the intensity, it retains a nice balance between extreme, outsized thrills and the grounded physical reality that sells the film’s sense of humor. To wit: Val tries to knock down the pantry door by jumping at top speed into it, action-movie style, and when it predictably fails miserably, Alexis stares at her with open scorn. Or when Alexis and Val release gas under the pantry door to try and flush out the men, only to realize a beat too late they should be covering their own mouths as they do this.

Here’s a good example: Listen to Val’s tag on this brief exchange between her and Alexis, as they realize their simple plan has gone to hell after Alexis is forced to kill her stepmom to prevent things from unraveling.

We Summon The Darkness probably isn’t going to set the world on fire or anything, but it’s a solidly entertaining little horror-thriller with a sharp sense of humor and an effective balance of those two elements. Honestly, it’s just smarter than most of its brethren, and never feels like it’s having to flail or do something suspiciously over-the-top to hold your attention. If anything, it maintains an even keel where lesser horror-comedy attempts would descend into slapstick. In that sense, it borrows a page from Knoxville’s even-keeled reverend, keeping his malevolent rage in check despite walking into his kitchen and seeing a murdered police officer lying in a pile of blood. Here’s underplaying for you:

Likelihood it will rise from obscurity: Even when we’re not in the midst of a global pandemic, it’s tough out there for a minor trifle of a film like this to gain much traction, no matter its merits. But I suspect We Summon The Darkness will slowly find its audience, and earn its rightful place among the better entries in the satanic-panic subgenre resurgence of recent years. Besides, #JusticeForDaddario.

Damnable commentary track or special features? The Blu-ray release won’t be coming until June 9, and it contains a director’s commentary as well as a making-of featurette. But this movie is devilishly good fun—I’ll be sure to update this post when I watch it again for its home entertainment release.

Alex McLevy is a writer and editor at The A.V. Club, and would kindly appreciate additional videos of robots failing to accomplish basic tasks.

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