'Hail Satan?': Film Review | Sundance 2019

Jesus would want you to see this film.

Director Penny Lane meets members of the Satanic Temple, a religious organization dedicated to protecting basic human rights in modern America.

You would expect a film called Hail Satan? to deal in outrage, blast out some heavy metal music and feature plenty of people dressed in black with sleeve tattoos. All are indeed present in this latest documentary feature from director Penny Lane (Just Add Water: The Story of the Amazing Lives of Sea Monkeys, The Voyagers). But the unexpected bonus ingredient is humor, thanks both to Lane’s wry, savvy subjects — members of The Satanic Temple (TST), led by activist-prankster in chief Lucien Greaves (not to be confused with the older Church of Satan) — and a film crew that’s totally in on TST's complicated, but also-a-bit-serious joke. Wickedly funny, fascinating and niftily made, this crowd-pleaser will reign at festivals and prove, yet again, that the devil always has the best tunes.

Thanks to smartphones and cheap camcorders, the doc is able to draw not just on footage shot by the filmmakers but also material taken by the Satanists themselves, some dating right back to those distant days of 2013. Back then, they held a rally in Tallahassee “supporting” then-governor Rick Scott (R) for proposing a bill to permit prayer in Florida schools at students’ discretion. According to the Satanists, the legislation should be welcomed for permitting children to worship the Dark Lord with as much impunity as those worshipping Jesus or Allah, a result probably not intended by the Christians who originally introduced the bill. Right-wingers predictably went nuts.

This ironic literalism, a kind of rhetorical jujitsu designed to hoist deistic lawmakers and legislatures by their own petard, is one of the Satanic Temple’s most incisive satirical tools. It's a smart way — if arguably too subtle for many of its opponents to understand — to underscore why church and state must be kept separate. In the same vein, TST has also campaigned to erect statues of Baphomet, a half-man/half-goat avatar of Satan, shown being worshiped by two children (a rather handsome design by artist Mark Porter) on public grounds near state legislatures that have erected sculptures representing the Biblical ten commandments in Oklahoma and Arkansas. Predictably, pro-Satanist rallies have drawn zealous counter-protestors and it's a miracle no one's gotten killed yet, especially given how many locals in these states are just as enthusiastic about owning guns and protecting their precious Second Amendment as they are about the Bible and telling women what they can and can't do with their own bodies.

Indeed, the explication here of TST's essential seven tenets (such as, for instance, "the freedoms of others should be respected, including the freedom to offend," or "one should take care never to distort scientific facts to fit one's beliefs") suggests they're basically liberal humanists 2.0, but with more facial piercings, eyeliner and f-you attitude. Which basically makes them awesome, especially since unlike an earlier generation of Satanists, they are atheistic and interested in celebrating human beings in all their rich variety rather than creating some kind of looking-glass inversion of Christianity.

That said, there are still schisms and fissures here, observed dispassionately by Lane. Greaves, the witty if somewhat haughty leader of the temple, eventually falls out with one-time comrade-in-arms Jex Blackmore, leader of the temple's Detroit chapter, over the latter's more extreme political positions. The drama adds a little spice to a film that at times almost feels like a (highly persuasive) commercial for TST, one told with all the crisp editing and jocular deployment of clips from many other works permissible under the terms of fair-use copyright law (hello Rosemary's Baby and lots of vintage religious movies) you'd expect from a slick recruitment film. Sign me up and send me two Baphomet t-shirts for the kids.

Production company: Hard Working Movies
Distributor: Magnolia Pictures

With: Lucien Greaves, Jex Blackmore
Director: Penny Lane
Producer: Gabriel Sedgwick
Executive producer: Lori Cheatle
Director of photography: Naiti Gamez
Editor: Amy Foote, Aaron Wickenden
Music: Brian McOmber
Music supervisor: Kyle McKeveny
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Documentary Competition)

95 minutes