Grady Hendrix interview: Satanic Panic, horror movies, filmmaking and more

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Grady Hendrix talks us through his film Satanic Panic, making the film at a lower budget to keep it in tact, and writing.

Grady Hendrix, journalist, novelist and screenwriter, has a new film out. It’s called Satanic Panic and it’s about as hip as horror movies come. It’s funny, self-aware, outrageous, gory and heartbreaking. The film is about pizza delivery girl Sam’s hellish first night on the job. Heading out past the delivery threshold in order meet an order in a wealthy area, Sam finds herself the target of a super-rich Satanic cult who would find her dead body useful for a ritual they’re conducting. Not only that, but they totally stiffed her on the tip.

Hendrix kicked off Satanic Panic more than two years ago, starting in on it to give a novel he was wrapping up a little time to one side. His script has been subject to a lot of work, taking a roundabout journey to the screen, but he explains that it remains fairly close to that first draft. With, he concedes, one major difference.

The early version was, he explains, “basically Satanic Panic with a guy named Sam.”

“A friend of mine, Ted Geoghegan, had directed a film called We Are Still Here for Dark Sky, and I was having drinks with him and he was really bummed out because he wanted to do another movie and Dark Sky wanted to do another movie with him, but they were like ‘It has to have a female lead and we really wanted something heavy metal-y with demons and Satanists, we want to set in in one 24 hour period to keep it really tight’ and he was like, ‘I don’t know, I just don’t have any ideas.’ I was like ‘Well, do I have a script for you!’”

“If we switch boy Sam to girl Sam, we have something that covers most of their bases.”

Geoghegan, who retains a ‘story by’ credit on the movie, and Hendrix worked on the script, with Dark Sky on board. Things looked positive for Satanic Panic, at least until they didn’t.

“Dark Sky called and said ‘Well, we actually have a crew in Saskatchewan that’s ready to roll on a period production with lots of horses and Ted, you once pitched us this war of 1812 horror movie, we want to do that instead. We need a script in about six-to-seven weeks.’ So we put Satanic Panic aside and Ted and I wrote this movie Mohawk together. I’m also a big war of 1812 buff, so it all fit. He went off and made Mohawk, and then Satanic Panic wasn’t what he wanted to do next.’

“I took it over to Fangoria with my manager Adam Goldworm, who is also one of the producers on the film, and they really loved it and got Chelsea Stardust on board to direct. We worked on it but it stayed remarkably similar, except for that gender swap, all the way from the beginning.”

That big gender swap change was, Hendrix tells us, no small amount of work.

Satanic Panic hinges on lead character Sam. She’s played by Hayley Griffith, who is terrific, bringing to Sam an innocence that plays as authentic while still showing enough fight and grit to survive some of the more gruesome events in the movie. Griffith certainly had good material to work with.

“You know, it’s funny. There’s a legendary story with Alien, where Ripley was a guy and then they saw Sigourney Weaver and were like ‘Oh, we’ll just make it a girl, we don’t have to change anything. We’ll just change the pronoun.’

“I’m like, really? ‘Cause I had to change everything.”

Our conversation soon moves on to the topic of Satanism, as conversations are wont to do. I press Hendrix for some insight into the research he’s done into Satanists, figuring that the depiction of the evil cultists in Satanic Panic came from hours hunched over 400-year-old leather bound tomes with pages made from human flesh and ink made of goat blood and witch urine.

Not so, it turns out.

“What I love are the pop culture Satanists. That kind of whole 60s and 70s Dennis Wheatley revival. The Devil Rides Out. In the States there was the Peter Fonda, Warren Oates movie Race With The Devil where they’re racing away from Satanists in their Winnebago. Or Devil’s Rain. But the whole red cloaks with hoods and swords and alters with naked women on them and pendants and chanting and goblets and all that implicit class stuff.”

There are a few Film Stories favourites, such as To the Devil A Daughter (like The Devil Rides Out, a Hammer production based on a Dennis Wheatley novel) and All The Colours Of The Dark, that come from that cinematic Satanism trend of the 60s and 70s. These are the films that run through the blood of Satanic Panic.

“I just love the way Satanic iconography looks.”

“Then there was a lot of influence from Hong Kong movies. I’m a huge Hong Kong movie fan, there was a huge brand of black magic movies in the early 80s in Hong Kong, with lots of people puking worms and lots of guts and things. It was fun to bring some of that over here as well.”

The further we dig into Satanic Panic, the clearer a picture I get of it as a sort of smoky cauldron where all of these odd ingredients are mixed together, following a recipe written by Grady Hendrix. You take the Satanic horror trend of the 60s and 70s, add a pinch of the 80s Hong Kong black magic flicks, you throw in references to obscure horror movies like the made-for-TV sequel to When A Stranger Calls (When A Stranger Calls Back, I’m told) and then a dash of the snappiest dialogue this side of Juno. The end result is a potion that casts a unique spell.

We talk about that snappy dialogue a little. In particular, the term ‘killdo’ has been bouncing around this writer’s head ever since I saw the film at the London FrightFest back in August.

“The first draft didn’t have killdo in it. It had the killdo, and I was describing it to my manager Adam Goldworm and he was like ‘well, there’s a thing with this strap-on, it might be an issue with some production companies’ and I was like ‘Dude, we’ve got to keep the killdo!’

“There were many drafts of this script without the killdo because a lot of production companies were very skittish about it. One of the reasons we wound up doing it with Fangoria is they were like ‘That is the reason we want to make this movie because that is something we’ve never seen before. Not because we hate women’s genitals and we want to stab them with a spinny drill, but because that’s something new and ridiculous that makes us laugh and horrifies us at the same time. We want to make a movie with something like that.’”

“That was when we knew it was a love match.”

So, I wonder, if you took out the killdo would you have been able to trade up the budget, in exchange for some of that freedom?

“Oh absolutely. I don’t think we would have gotten that much more money to work with. The budget may have gone up by a quarter. We would have had a nicer camera package and a few more production days to work out some of the physical stuff. But we would have used CGI, we wouldn’t have used as many practical effects and some of the stuff that’s fun would have been gone.

“I still think it would have been a fun movie, but I think it would have been a movie that looked like anything else. I feel like the lower budget, which forced a lot more creative choices, and the commitment to practical effects was something that Fangoria insisted on.”

It’s always a pleasure be able to talk to another writer. Writing is predominantly a solitary pursuit. Grady Hendrix in particular, a witty and energetic, bouncy conversationalist, is a good deal of fun to talk to.

It’s difficult, though, for me to get my head around someone used to working as a novelist, a writing pursuit that, to my outsider eyes, looks so dominated by the voice of the author, being able to work as collaboratively as film requires writers to. Between producers and the director, a movie has a lot of authors.

“Oh, I love it. I don’t get as much of it as I want when I write books. I had a really good editor who changed jobs recently, but he was my editor for almost all my books, and we would go back and forth and argue, and write emails and call each other. ‘What about this?’ It’s really fun to have someone to work with. I started out as a journalist, so I got used to that from editors being like ‘we’ve got to cut 500 words’ or ‘it can only be 600 words’ or ‘I need you to hit these points’, and so I really like having that collaboration.

“It’s fun not to be alone, and sometimes good ideas come from weird places. I don’t think I’ve ever in the screenplay writing I’ve done gotten a bad note.

“I’ve gotten weird notes. I’ve gotten notes that were difficult to deal with. I’ve gotten notes that weren’t the note the person thought they were giving; they gave me a note and their note wasn’t right, but the fact that they gave me one was right. They knew something was wrong, but they didn’t know what it was. So they were telling me to fix the wrong thing, but that note helped me go back and fix the right thing, to find it.

“I’m not an artiste, I write commercial fiction and horror movies, and it’s stuff I want people to enjoy, so the more feedback the better. I love it.”

It’s in listening to this interview back that I’m able to pinpoint the most important ingredient that Hendrix has in his spooky recipe for Satanic Panic. It’s his approach to people, the humanity he brings to his characters, that makes it magic.

“The thing with Sam’s backstory that was really tough is, people really, really want to have a traditional screenplay structure. They want to have every character’s backstory up front, unless it’s Kevin Spacey in The Usual Suspects… (we’ve excised a bit here in case you’ve somehow not seen The Usual Suspects yet)… they want everything up front, from a producer’s point of view.

“So to drop in this backstory in the middle that rejiggered the way you thought about Sam emotionally, that was a hard sell. It was a lot of push to get that closer to the beginning. Ultimately Chelsea stuck with that to be where it is and we’re really relieved it worked. I really was worried that it wouldn’t work, but it seems to work, for the most part. It’s not perfect, but it works better than we thought it would. But it was tough.

“At the end of the day, everyone’s a person so they should have a little dignity.”

Satanic Panic is available to digital download and on Blu-ray and DVD now.

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