Review by Sean Boelman
The true crime documentary genre is perhaps one of the worst creations in the history of cinema. While there have been plenty of films to do the genre well and tell a meaningful story, many more end up falling flat on their face and feeling insensitive. Satan Wants You has an arguably pretty important story to tell, but it’s so misguided in its approach that it ends up being rather upsetting.
The movie explores how the memoir Michelle Remembers, by psychiatrist Larry Padzer and his patient Michelle Smith, directly contributed to the rise of the mass cultural hysteria that has come to be known as the Satanic Panic. Although the Satanic Panic is one of the most fascinating — and alarming — cultural phenomena of the 20th century, this documentary goes about it in the entirely wrong way.
Sean Horlor and Steve J. Adams are clearly very adroit filmmakers, crafting the film in a way that is sleek and polished. It has the quick editing, flashy cinematography, and kinetic use of archive footage that one would find in a Netflix true crime documentary. However, it also has the same problematic and manipulative qualities characteristic of that genre.
What makes Satan Wants You concerning is that, in an attempt to dissect the broken societal norms that allowed the Satanic Panic to become so toxic, it inadvertently points the finger at the other side in an equally toxic way. Although the prejudices shown against the Satanist community were undeniably unfair, Satan Wants You paints in such broad strokes that it, too, feels wrong.
Indeed, in telling this story in such a sensationalized, true crime-esque fashion, Horlor and Adams lose track of what could have made it impactful. Whether it was at the hands of Satanists or Christians, it’s clear that Smith was abused and manipulated by *someone*. Why are we watching a movie that is so clearly insensitive towards her trauma?
The film certainly asks some interesting questions about the role that the media played in the Satanic Panic, yet this more interesting theme is largely relegated to a subplot. Instead, the movie seems more focused on the idea of indoctrination — failing to realize that all religious and spiritual communities (meaning Christians and Satanists alike) are guilty of the practice.
The interview subjects chosen for the film are certainly very indicative of the stance the project takes on its subject matter. We hear a lot from Satanists and very little from Christians. Of course, Smith (supposedly) declined to participate, meaning that her perspective on the matter is restricted to archive materials that are presented in a clearly skewed light.
Satan Wants You is clearly made with the noble intention of righting the wrongs of the Satanic Panic, but its course correction is so severe that it ends up being just as toxic as the movement it criticizes. While some viewers are sure to be entertained by its sleek, sensationalized production, those who can see its nasty soul will be disgusted.
Satan Wants You is screening at the 2023 SXSW Film Festival, which runs March 10-18 in Austin, TX.