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Satan Wants You

This almost unbelievable Canadian documentary tells a story of the the occults, satanism, manipulation, and especially deceit; an event so dramatic and unholy that it kicked off the “Satanic Panic" craze of the 1980s - from the 31st edition of Raindance

What began with one woman’s dormant trauma evolved into a best-selling book, a precarious marriage, and a nationwide witch hunt down blind alleys. The film’s mystery brings up all kinds of questions and theories, but the most important and recurring query is always: what really happened to Michelle Smith during that two-year period of her childhood in Victoria, British Columbia?

Satan Wants You begins with the promise of blood, gore, and some other sick stuff. Set in a world unknown to many, one with devils, demons, and 80-day sacrificial rituals, Michelle Smith is the woman around whom this story revolves, and it’s in her personal memoir Michelle Remembers where all these details were revealed – it was an experience of torture that took place when she was just five years old. Michelle claims that she was introduced into a house of Satanists by her mother in the 1950s, who she recalls, “had gotten mixed up in something that she didn’t quite understand but was too far in before she realised the truth.” This experience led to Michelle apparently being physically and mentally tortured throughout this period.

It wasn’t until Michelle was in her 30s that she sought advice for this supposed dormant trauma affecting her so much. Michelle’s closest confidant was her psychiatrist, Doctor Lawrence Pazder; a friendly face, eventual writing collaborator, and Michelle’s future husband – that’s a whole thing on its own. Dr Pazder used recovered-memory therapy to reveal the alleged abduction at the hands of these baby-stealing Satanists. There’s a lot more than meets the eye with Lawrence and his new test subject though; their story has more holes in it than a pair of old denim jeans, and all this alleged; supposed; apparent hearsay that’s been talked about already, makes you wonder where the truth begins, and the treachery ends.

Sean Horlor and Steve J. Adams’s film is a brilliant investigative documentary that becomes incredibly reflexive in its structure and storytelling technique. It is weaved together with interviews of several figures of the story itself – people gazing in through the events windows; on the periphery of the actual case that could see it for what it really was… or wasn’t. But its most reflexive aspect might just be its power to invigorate the viewer and allow them to come up with possibilities and outcomes that could potentially arise. Giving the film added sustenance though, is a collection of reenactments, that are placed sporadically throughout the film and attempt to marry up with some of the archival footage that has also been pieced together. Footage that showcases the duo during their book tour (they were on the Oprah Winfrey show you know, and they met The Pope!) and voice recordings of Michelle speaking like a child and screaming during some of her therapy sessions are used as proof of a case that lacks an awful lot evidence.

It doesn’t take long to understand the underlying truth of what the film is successfully exploring. The introduction of different characters that take you by the hand and walk you through the findings, step by step, is what truly opens this can of worms up. We have Satanist experts expanding on the facts; friends and family of Michelle debunking her tales, and former FBI agents exposing those tall tales for what they are, but it is Lawrence’s first wife, Marylyn, that ultimately has one of the most decisive impacts to the outcome. Her sheer will; her bitterness over this woman stealing her husband, and her determination are what allowed her to uncover an important detail for everyone to see.

Call it whatever you want: manipulation, plagiarism, exposing a gap in the market, or a simple case of needing to become rich and famous in the quickest way possible, Michelle’s story is one that makes for a luscious film. The crafty couple and their spinning of an intricate web of lies led to a snowball effect that spread right across Canada and their neighbours in the south. One lie led to thousands of women wanting answers to their own questions about suppressed childhood trauma, if they even had any that is.

The subject matter’s morality is questionable, but the film is brilliant at exposing everything for what it is. Satan Wants You lays traps in its early stages to keep you on your toes, and the genuine suspense that radiates from it is unwavering – even if you do begin to piece together what happened quite early on, the construction of the story and how it unfolded is excruciatingly exciting. You came for the kidnapping, the sacrificial lambs, and the lure of torture, but you’ll stay for one of the most unusual and audacious schemes of the 1980s.

Satan Wants You premieres at the 31st Raindance Film Festival. The event returns to London later this month, and with it, an eclectic collection of films chomping at the bit and dying to make the biggest impression of the festival. What Raindance does have again this year is an interesting array of documentaries.

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By John McDonald - 17-10-2023

Failing from the seaside town of Southport but now living in Liverpool, John McDonald has had a passion for cinema since he was a small child. The westerns of John Wayne were his gateway into the cine...

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