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film review
  • Satan Wants You
  • Directed by Steve J. Adams and Sean Horlor
  • Classification N/A; 98 minutes
  • Opens in select theatres Aug. 11

If history is destined to repeat itself, then so is cultural idiocy. This is the message smuggled late – too late, really – into the new Canadian documentary Satan Wants You, which tracks the “Satanic panic” psychological phenomenon that dominated the tabloid-news discourse of the 1980s, and whose noxious conspiracy theories have reverberated into today’s QAnon and Pizzagate absurdities.

If all this perhaps sounds unfamiliar, then co-directors Steve J. Adams and Sean Horlor wind it all back to 1980, when Canadian psychiatrist Larry Pazder published the best-selling book Michelle Remembers, chronicling the ritual cult abuse reportedly inflicted upon Michelle Smith as a young girl growing up in Victoria. By supposedly extracting long-suppressed memories through intense therapy, Pazder was able to “help” Smith recall that her youth was dominated by years of cruelty courtesy of a Satanic cult.

Open this photo in gallery:

Smith and Pazder on To Tell the Truth, in 1980.Handout

Michelle Remembers became an instant sensation, with Pazder and Smith milking the talk-show rounds for all they were worth – a cultural feedback loop that led to a shocking number of similar accusations raised in homes and daycares across North America. Children were apparently being sacrificed on the regular, or forced to watch as Satanists performed horrific acts of demonic patronage on a daily basis. Parents were separated from their children, child care providers were put on trial and jailed. And it was all complete nonsense, peddled by charlatans and fools alike.

Adams and Horlor’s film will be a rude wake-up call for anyone who has never heard about the wave of fear-mongering – though it’s hard to imagine that most well-read doc audiences will arrive completely fresh to the scene. This was one of the major cultural scandals of the ‘80s, after all, even if the film treats it as some kind of secreted away scandal.

And while the doc is jammed with talking heads and archival footage, Satan Wants You lacks a sense of historical and political context in which to place the delusions. Ultimately, this is a destructive cycle that has roots in everything from the Salem Witch Trials to the Affair of the Poisons in 1600s France. By the time the film starts to connect the dots between Michelle Remembers and our current age of Alex Jones and Donald Trump disinformation, the punches land softer than they should.

There is a great, big, awful picture that needs to be painted here, but this doc is too preoccupied by the devil in the details of one specific, already overanalyzed case.

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