Studio: Magnolia Pictures
Director: Penny Lane
Producer: Gabriel Sedgwick
Stars: Lucien Greaves, Jex Blackmore, Stu de Haan, Michelle Shortt, Jesper Aagaard Petersen, Jay D. Wexler, Kevin Kruse
A non-theistic religious group slyly stokes controversy by appropriating satanic symbols to challenge popular conventions.
We should get this out of the way for the sake of any uninformed religious conservatives who accidentally stumbled here anxious to shout fire-and-brimstone fury. In nonfiction terms, “Satanist” is not synonymous with “devil worshipper.” Starting with Anton LaVey’s Church of Satan in 1966 and continuing into the 21stcentury with Lucien Greaves’ The Satanic Temple, whose rise to fringe culture phenomenon is chronicled in “Hail Satan,” modern Satanists appropriate devilish symbology purely as an act of anti-establishment empowerment. They not only don’t serve the devil, they don’t believe the entity exists.
True Satanists are acutely aware that if they don’t promote spectacle, few people would pay attention to their message. And what better way to be certain someone takes notice than by slyly stoking engrained irrationality with goat heads, black robes, and devil horns raised on a hand. As “Hail Satan” entertainingly informs us, their cheeky defiance erects a middle finger to highlight the stubborn ignorance of anyone unable or unwilling to distinguish between an authentic Satanist and an imaginary evildoer pledging allegiance to make-believe demons.
I don’t use it in this review because it’s a tedious typing task, but the documentary’s title specifically includes a question mark to let us know The Satanic Temple (TST) is in on its own joke. They take themselves seriously enough to be respected for exposing institutional hypocrisy, but not so seriously that they can’t see the delicious humor in their intentionally ironic existence.
“Hail Satan” starts with a tour through the homegrown movement’s snarky roots. In its earliest days, TST’s motley crew laughingly lampoons Florida governor Rick Scott’s school prayer proposal and posthumously converts Fred Phelps’ mother into a lesbian by tea-bagging her headstone.
Through that mockery, the pseudo-religious yet non-theistic organization ultimately unearths a more meaningful purpose. While still taking time to stir controversy by establishing an After School Satan Club for children, TST takes up activist projects like blood drives and highway adoptions, gradually growing into an anarchic, antagonistic ACLU determined to challenge misconceived conventions one pentagram at a time.
You might level a conflict of interest complaint at “Hail Satan” for coming across like a flattering commercial for The Satanic Temple. In truth, director Penny Lane doesn’t have to employ moviemaking manipulation. The imbalance between both sides outs itself organically.
Sure, anything with the devil as a figurehead will attract some misguided goth poseurs in heavy metal t-shirts. What philosophy doesn’t have its bad apple representatives? Far more often, contemporary Satanism attracts marginalized misfits who aren’t represented in mainstream channels. Tolerance for all types is “Hail Satan’s” true message of understanding.
It’s not the film’s fault that Satanists have a Princeton professor, a Boston University professor, and other academics on their side. TST stands on grounds governed by levelheaded logic, with constitutional law providing ammunition for their verbal weapons. Its objectives naturally attract freethinkers who happen to have quirky attitudes.
Meanwhile, contextual clips have the opposition doing the heavy lifting of making themselves look like brainwashed bigots. One smugly smiling man points at the “in God we trust” printed on paper money as irrefutable proof America is a Christian nation. A woman time-traveling from the Satanic Panic worriedly raves that allowing Satanists in the state capitol will cause their community to become cursed. Without saying so directly, “Hail Satan” implies that the self-righteous merely wish to project frustration onto a false perception of evil because their outdated notions can’t be inconvenienced by facts.
The film’s efficient editing playfully pokes at The Satanic Temple too. One excellent scene showcases former TST Detroit chapter head Jex Blackmore whipping up a frenzy with a pomp and circumstance performance piece. As part of her show, a pounding score builds to a big crescendo of Blackmore calling for the president’s execution before feverishly shouting “Hail Satan!” in front of strobing neon lights.
Cut immediately to Blackmore plainly pushing a broom as she cleans up the mess of an empty auditorium. In this quick juxtaposition, Blackmore instantly goes from colorful rabble-rouser to common custodian, and “Hail Satan” suggests that the satanic fantasy doesn’t always mirror reality.
It’s not incorrect to categorize TST’s approach to questioning authority as politicized, confrontational trolling. However, “Hail Satan” clarifies that for all of their provocative pageantry, Lucien Greaves’ group is composed of law-abiding rebels committed to promoting positive change on a global scale. That their movement achieved actual influence may scare their detractors more than any effigy of a red beast in hellfire.
Ultimately, what’s the better belief? That a talking snake convinced a woman built from a bone to bite a cursed apple? That an alien airplane carrying billions of thetans crashed into a volcano 75 million years ago? Or that a motivated mobilization of fed-up freedom fighters can win a war on culture beneath a banner of Baphomet flanked by adoring children? “Hail Satan” seemingly leans toward a correct answer, though one remains free to make up his/her own mind. The Satanic Temple wouldn’t want it any other way.
Review Score: 80