By John Duncan Talbird.
Grady Hendrix is a novelist, sometimes-journalist, essayist, and screenwriter. He’s written several horror novels, including the very recent We Sold Our Souls, “a heavy metal take on the Faust legend.” He is one of the founders of the New York Asian Film Festival and, on his website, reviews lost classics of horror fiction paperbacks under the title, “Book Reviews of the Damned.” In 2017, he turned his prodigious energy to the film industry with his original screenplay (co-authored with director Ted Geoghegan) for Mohawk, a bleak low-budget action film set in the 19th-century USA.
His follow-up to that film is Satanic Panic, directed by Chelsea Stardust. It is the story of neophyte pizza delivery girl Sam (Hayley Griffith) who, during her last delivery of her first day on the job, delivers a stack of pizzas to a house in a gated community where a satanic ritual is taking place. A virgin, she becomes the stand-in for their recently deflowered sacrifice (Ruby Modine). She is almost raped by the ring-leader’s husband (Jerry O’Connell) – supposedly in order to “save” her. That husband is then shot in the neck, and before he can bleed out, his wife (Rebecca Romijn) shoves her hand into the bullet hole and pulls out his heart. This is in the first thirty minutes. It’s followed by a monster with strangely suggestive lips, a teen girl in drill-shaped dildo, demon fornication (and pregnancy), decapitations and disembowelments, and a little girl eating a live fluffy bunny. It’s got something for everyone.
There is a method to this madness. The spectacle builds, if not subtly, then definitely steadily. And there is a healthy tongue thrust firmly in cheek throughout, a trait that Hendrix’s novels share. When I asked him about the place of humor in his writing, he said, “I’m not sure I would know how to write a straight horror movie. Hong Kong films always appealed to me because they didn’t have rigid genre boundaries. A horror movie could shift tonally to a comedy or even a romance and then back again.” Hendrix, speaking of the similarities between horror and comedy, notes, “A horror story, just like a good joke, builds to a climax. It uses misdirection to surprise. One thing that’s always appealed to me about the horror genre is that it literalizes the metaphorical. So, when I was first writing the story, I thought to myself, ‘Who would the Satanists be? Oh, of course: Rich people.’ That leads to thinking through problems, like, ‘Well, they would need to get their red robes dry cleaned because of all the dead baby blood on them,’ and so on.”
In addition to edgy genre movies from Hong Kong and Japan and elsewhere in Asia, Hendrix grew up watching classic horror movies from the ‘60s through the ‘80s including such classic midnight movie fare as The Satanist (1968) and Race with the Devil (1975). “I definitely watched some movies way too young,” he says. “I saw The Shining  in elementary school. There is something so scary about Jack Nicholson. I’m thinking of that moment where he puts Danny in his lap and is being kind to him. You know that something terrible is going to happen.”
I pointed out that one of the central motifs that Satanic Panic relies on as a plot device – as in other of his work – is the sheer crappiness of the jobs that many people have to do. In fact, a major irony of the film, a joke that gets a big laugh in the end, is that the entire ordeal that Sam undergoes is simply because one of the Satanists refused to tip her. “My wife owns a restaurant. You have to tip. If you don’t tip, you’re probably a Satanist.” The crappy job is a plot device that Hendrix has explored since his first novel, Horrorstör (2014), about workers stuck overnight in a haunted Ikea-like store. Hendrix told me about a particular job he held in Hong Kong: “For three months, all I did was change the labels on files from seven numbers to five numbers. At the end of three months, they said they’d give me a permanent job. I quit that day and became a writer.”
The film medium is a natural fit for Hendrix who has shown an interest in design since Horrorstör (optioned for a Fox TV show). The novel looks like an Ikea catalogue with order form, pictures of furniture with made-up Swedish-sounding names, and coupons in the back. His 2016 novel, My Best Friend’s Exorcism looks like a high school annual, complete with handwritten notes from BFFs on the interleaves. The natural next step, it seems to me, is for Hendrix to take the step into directing. “I didn’t study film when I was in school at NYU, but my roommates did so I was always helping them on their projects. Actually, I did take a sound class. Have you noticed the sound work in Philip Kaufman’s version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers? It’s terrifying.” Someone should give this guy some money to make a film.
John Talbird is the author of the chapbook, A Modicum of Mankind (Nortre Maar). His novel The World Out There will be released in 2020 by Madville Publishing, and his fiction and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Ploughshares, Grain, The Literary Review, Ambit, Potomac Review, North Dakota Quarterly and many others. He lives in Queens, NY and is an English professor at Queensborough Community College-CUNY.