We Summon the Darkness starts off as fun and games, then takes a sinister turn exactly thirty-one minutes in. The arrival of that moment marks the point where the film becomes a darker-than-dark horror comedy, one that's not afraid to go to shocking places. Underlying it all is a satiric idea about hardcore evangelical religion in America. The story may be set in the late '80s, when “satanic panic” was a real thing, but it absolutely rings bells regarding our present day.
The story begins with three female friends driving to a heavy metal concert by “Soldiers of Satan.” They are Alexis (Alexandra Daddario), Val (Maddie Hasson), and Bev (Amy Forsyth). The young women travel, despite the fact that there's been a recent string of satanic murders in which eighteen people have died. Mere minutes after safely reaching the venue, they meet three shady fellow concert-goers in a van: Mark (Keean Johnson), Kovacs (Logan Miller), and Ivan (Austin Swift). Some friendly bantering takes place, and after the show, Alexis suggests they all go party at the nearby home of her televangelist father, Pastor John Henry Butler (Johnny Knoxville).
That's everything up to the 31-minute mark. The twist revealed at this point really defines what We Summon the Darkness is about. Even though you can reasonably surmise it from the film's trailer, I won't reveal what happens except to say that the six characters do indeed end up smack in the middle of a satanic event.
Part of the fun of We Summon the Darkness is how it surprises you by subverting not only your expectations but also several of the common conventions of horror. Characters you expect to be predatory find themselves in the role of prey, and vice versa. The motivation for the satanic activity isn't really about Satan, either. It's more complicated, speaking to the fire-and-brimstone mentality that seems to fuel so much of evangelical Christianity these days, where the name of Jesus is used to prop up ideals and attitudes that are directly opposed to His teachings. The movie shows genuine ambition in tackling the subject matter.
If some of the themes are heavy, the movie leavens them with wicked humor. Interactions between Alexis, Val, and Bev are often funny, with the trio's members not always in agreement over the best course of action. Daddario and Hasson, in particular, give deft comedic performances, finding humor in the midst of situations that are otherwise harrowing. Casting Johnny Knoxville as a Southern televangelist, meanwhile, turns out to be a stroke of genius. Playing against type, he actually isn't funny here. Knoxville instead projects a level of intensity that could open up new avenues for his career.
We Summon the Darkness is stylishly directed by Marc Meyers (My Friend Dahmer). He balances the wit in Alan Trezza's screenplay with the requisite bloody bits. And there are plenty of those, for sure. Watching how scenarios start off one way, only to abruptly spin off in another direction is a key pleasure of the movie. Whenever you think the characters are firmly in the frying pan, they immediately fall out into the fire. Such unpredictability keeps you glued throughout.
It would have been possible to expand the story's central concept a tad further and turn it into a true take-no-prisoners tale. Even if it doesn't go that far, We Summon the Darkness is enormously fun to watch, thanks to sharp dialogue, good performances, and a devilish sense of mischief.
out of four
We Summon the Darkness is rated R for bloody violence, pervasive language, some drug use and sexual references. The running time is 1 hour and 31 minutes.