A look at the quick rise and influence of the controversial religious group known as The Satanic Temple.
Director: Penny Lane
Religious influence in American politics had an unexpected countermeasure in the rise of The Satanic Temple, a deeply misunderstood organization that director Penny Lane playfully profiles in her latest documentary, Hail Satan?.
The question mark in the title gets at the most erroneous assumption people make about The Satanic Temple: that its members genuinely worship Satan and are spreading his evil works throughout the world. Much of the vitriol directed at the group comes from this notion, and it’s one of the first things Lane pushes against.
In the opening scenes, we see leaders of the group, or at least those willing to go in front of a camera, brainstorming the right outfits for a media event in which they will declare support for tea party candidate Rick Scott. They search costume shops and land on some kitschy numbers: black robes and masks for the entourage, horns and a sad little fire effect for the main speaker. They’re having fun with the whole thing, an early hint that the devilish accouterments really aren’t so precious to them.
As Lane pulls back the veil on the firebrand group, what comes into focus are the individual members that make the organization thrive: the misfits, weirdos, and people who never quite got the niceties of mainstream culture. Their distance made it easier for them to see the hypocrisies at work, and if anything bonds them its their desire to push back against these cultural blind spots, not their worship of Satan.
As with Lane’s previous work, Hail Satan? takes a remarkably lighthearted tact in dealing with its subjects. There’s a certain cheeriness to the proceedings, one that makes the movie feel like its peppered with inside jokes that you’re being let in on. This is most obviously a result of Lane’s irreverent worldview, something she seemingly shares with several members of The Satanic Temple. But it’s also thanks to her unfussy approach to documentaries, which may immediately strike you as a plain blend of interviews and boots on the ground footage. What this is doing, though, is minimizing the distance between subject and viewer, making it seem like you’re getting a relatively unfiltered look at The Satanic Temple when in reality Lane is carefully guiding you through a sympathetic look at an organization experiencing growing pains.
The complexity that Lane is able to achieve in its brief runtime is impressive, first tackling misconceptions, then explaining what the organization is actually about, and then calling into question whether those tenants are actually being followed. While loving, this isn’t a fluff piece, and the film leaves you with a more accurate understanding of both The Satanic Temple’s accomplishments and the questions you should be asking about them.
Unfortunately, that does leave Hail Satan? with little time to look at things outside of the temple, so its portrayal of other religious groups (predominately Christian) is limited to the more extreme varieties that the temple targets. Given that mainstream religions already get plenty of time in the sun, though, I wasn’t bothered by this limited look; we can all bring our knowledge of functioning, moderate religious practitioners to our understanding of The Satanic Temple’s work, and the fact is that those people don’t really play a part in the battle being waged.
Hail Satan? delivers everything you want from a movie with such a cheeky title; it’s knockout funny, wickedly smart, and a grand time at the cinema. See it with a crowd if you can, and maybe lead a little ‘hail Satan’ of your own.
– Emily Wheeler, Film Inquiry