Welcome to Cheat Sheet, our brief breakdown-style reviews of festival films, VR previews, and other special event releases. This review comes from the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.
In 2013, an organization billing itself as The Satanic Temple made a minor news splash when it mounted a press conference at the Florida State Capitol to praise Governor Rick Scott for signing a bill to permit student-led “inspirational messages” at school events. The group issued a statement in support of freedom of religion, saying that the bill “has reaffirmed our American freedom to practice our faith openly, allowing our Satanic children the freedom to pray in school.” It was a puckish take on a thinly disguised, widely unpopular attempt to return religion to public schools, but while the event itself only featured a handful of self-declared Satanists in black clothes and Halloween-costume robes, it drew a fair amount of press attention for its sheer outrageousness.
That’s the moment Penny Lane’s lively documentary Hail Satan? opens on, with bemused news teams pointing their cameras at a banner reading “Hail Satan! Hail Rick Scott!” and interviewing a horn-wearing spokesman who was apparently a coached actor. It was the year the Satanic Temple was founded, and the organization’s events didn’t have much polish yet, but its leaders were already finding ways to blend real anger at the mixing of church and state with ironic humor and outrageous, media-savvy stunts. Lane’s movie captures plenty of those stunts and the unfailingly funny public reaction to them, as she charts the organization’s rise, its political activism, its often-misunderstood philosophy, and even its growing pains.
What’s the genre?
Recap documentary. Starting from the Rick Scott event, Lane tracks how the group’s co-founders, Lucien Greaves and Malcolm Jarry, shifted their approaches to public events, with Greaves dropping the idea of an actor as spokesman, and stepping forward himself as the organization’s public face. She follows the group through watershed events — opening a headquarters and store in Salem, Massachusetts; targeting Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist church; and especially battling the Oklahoma and Arkansas state legislatures over monuments of the Biblical 10 Commandments in front of the state Capitols. As the group has grown, it’s sued Missouri over abortion law, crashed an abortion protest with a performance-art piece about baby fetishization, and launched a campaign against corporal punishment. Hail Satan? is essentially a guide to the group’s recent history, as seen from their point of view.
What’s it about?
Even viewers without much political bent can enjoy Hail Satan? as pure theater, the story of a group of colorful iconoclasts subverting the politicians trying to codify Christianity as a state religion. The film is largely about Greaves and the people he and Jarry inspired, and how they’ve developed and spread a message of religious freedom, compassion and empathy, justice, bodily autonomy, and scientific rigor. (The group’s “seven tenets” lay out its fundamental philosophy.) The film can be taken as cheerful entertainment, a roundup of related news, and an insider look at a grassroots political movement.
It’s also about what prompts its members to embrace the Temple as an organization. Lane talks with a variety of Satanists, who all disavow any belief in Satan as a real entity — to the Temple, he’s a symbol of rebellion against tyranny and authority, a representation of independent thought. The film explores their beliefs and why they express them through the trappings of Satanic worship, and it delves into the history of Satanism, from figures like Anton LaVey to the Satanic Panic of the 1980s, and through imagery and exploitation in popular culture.
What’s it really about?
While Hail Satan? starts off in an amusing, stunty spirit, and stays funny throughout, it actually covers a fair number of significant political issues. Most centrally, it focuses on the efforts to conflate American politics and religion, often with gestures that might look harmless and symbolic — until those gestures get challenged, and their sponsors respond with deep-seated, fanatical, true-believer fury. The Satanic Temple has repeatedly answered state Capitols’ 10 Commandments monuments with requests to place its own monument, a statue of Baphomet, on Capitol grounds. The resulting revulsion and anger is telling, and provoking that kind of open fury seems to be one of the Temple’s unspoken goals. One member describes the Satanism as “the ultimate troll,” but its leadership isn’t interested in provocation just to make people angry. People like Greaves want to expose institutional bias, making politicians and the public consider their unconscious prejudices, and starting a rolling conversation about what it means when the state expresses a preference for one religion over another.
Is it good?
It’s hilarious. There will certainly be people who don’t find any of this funny — particularly the kind of people frequently caught on camera in Hail Satan?, waving religious protest signs, or nearly frothing at the mouth as they remind their local politicians that dollar bills say “In God we trust” on them, which proves America is a Christian nation. (One of Lane’s most pointed sidebars in the film examines that notion, considering the Founding Fathers’ take on religion, the point in the 1950s where much of America’s “Christian nation” rhetoric and signifiers emerged, and the surprisingly commercial origin of all those 10 Commandments monuments.) For people who fervently believe Satan is a real entity who’s actively at work in the world, people like Greaves are either making a mockery of their religion by treating the devil flippantly, or are selling themselves out to a supernatural adversary, embracing the ultimate evil and imperiling their souls in the process.
But a great deal of what makes Hail Satan? funny for everyone else is watching the reactions of that group of people when Greaves and his group express their own freedom of religion. Over and over, Lane catches journalists, politicians, protestors, and bystanders who are either flat-out consternated or openly enraged by the straight-faced people touting an “after-school Satan club” for elementary-school students, or a “Menstruatin’ With Satan” drive for sanitary products for women in need. The sharp editing turns the film into a comedy about how wickedly successful the Temple’s trolling is, and how humorless and easily riled their opponents are.
Lane is openly sympathetic toward her subjects, giving them plenty of time to lay out their beliefs. But it helps that they’re generally such personable people. Given that dour humorlessness on the political side of the equation, it’s particularly notable how often Lane’s cameras capture the Satanists joking in interviews, or laughing together, whether they’re picking up trash as part of adopt-a-highway or adopt-a-beach programs, or finding likeminded souls at meetups. In interviews, the Temple members widely come across as intelligent, ethical people practicing a thought-through philosophy through collective activism. In group footage, they emerge as a loose gathering of like-minded people finding comfort in companionship and mutual beliefs, as with any other religion.
Lane could probably stand to spend more time on one issue that Hail Satan? touches on in passing: the ouster of Detroit Temple founder Jex Blackmore. Lane includes a sequence where Blackmore presides over a ritual featuring naked men hauling chains out of a well, severed pig heads impaled on spikes, a masked man smashing glass tubes, and an energetic call for acts of violence, including the execution of President Trump. The cut from this frenzied performance to Blackmore afterward, quietly sweeping up glass and disassembling the props, is one of Hail Satan?’s most priceless and subversive moments, reminding viewers once again that the Satanists are just people, that they’re still around and living mundane lives after all the gory public theater is over, and that every theatrical act has its prosaic side. But it remains that Blackmore was ejected from the Satanic Temple for advocating violence, which she chuckles over later in an interview with Lane. The very idea of being too rebellious for an organization about rebellion has its own amusement value, and its own irony.
And that’s one thing Lane might have dug into more. The film tracks the expansion of The Satanic Temple from a group of three friends to a worldwide organization that claims more than 50,000 members. As with any religion, schisms over doctrine seem inevitable, and exploring how the Temple handles a membership of strong-willed, independent iconoclasts could have been fruitful and useful. As more of the Temple’s local chapters secede over leadership disputes and concerns over the National Council’s choices, the Satanic Temple appears to be approaching a point where it either cracks down on its messaging, or further splinters into sub-groups.
Lane’s film doesn’t say much about the organization’s internal divides or possible futures. But it’s enough that she clears the air about its origins and intentions, and highlights some of the reasons people join. “I don’t want to say that this has given my life purpose,” says one cheerful interviewee. “But it’s made life more fun.”
What should it be rated?
PG-13 at minimum, for salty language and a fair bit of male and female full-frontal nudity during Satanic rituals, both in cheesy fictional film clips and footage of modern-day rituals.
How can I actually watch it?
Magnolia Pictures bought the rights to Hail Satan? ahead of Sundance, and is planning a spring 2019 release.