Who would’ve thought that one of the most interesting and entertaining films about today’s culture war would be about Satanists? But such is the case with Hail Satan, the irreverent new documentary directed by Penny Lane. Or, I should say “Hail Satan?” because the title includes a question mark that emphasizes the absurdity of such an exclamation.
Hail Satan? profiles a specific group, The Satanic Temple, founded in 2013, which has chapters and affiliates around the globe, including here in Santa Cruz. The film begins with the Temple’s spokesperson phoning the press regarding an upcoming rally. While Temple members suit up in dime store Halloween capes, the spokesperson patiently spells out the word “Satanic” to a reporter (“That’s ‘S’ as in ‘Sam’”), effectively setting the comedic tone for the entire film.
It turns out that the members of The Satanic Temple are just a bunch of nontheistic political activists. As one of them puts it, the Temple’s founding principle is, quote-unquote, to troll people. When they exclaim “Hail Satan,” it’s a calculated tongue-in-cheek provocation intended to goad the narrow-minded into revealing their ignorance and intolerance. And it works! In one archival clip, we’re shown an irate citizen yelling at an Arizona city council meeting, “They want to bring death and destruction to Phoenix!!!”
In reality, The Satanic Temple performs a lot of admirable charity work, such as providing clean socks to the homeless, organizing blood drives and keeping our shores clean, just as our local chapter has been doing for Seabright State Beach going on two years now. And Hail Satan? is quick to point out that the Temple founders and members don’t believe in Satan any more than they believe in God. What they do believe in is the separation of church and state as defined in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. So, when a Ten Commandments monument pops up on public grounds, their response is to petition the government for their right to put up a statue of Satan. It’s a clever way of exposing the slippery slope created by granting special exceptions for Christianity, as well as an in-your-face reminder that America is religiously pluralistic.
Leaning heavily on talking heads and news footage, the filmmaking style of Hail Satan? is fairly conventional. But close scrutiny of its creative use of sound and image often reveal subtle layers of meaning. In one scene, The Satanic Temple’s co-founder, Lucien Greaves, is shown preparing for a rally by donning a bulletproof vest while a church-choir overlay evokes the solemnity and ritual of a priest preparing for Mass. But the music also creates an ironic counterpoint that reminds us from whom the threat of death is coming. And Hollywood’s take on Christianity, as shown by interspersed film clips, exemplifies the simplistic views of good and evil which reflect and reinforce our cultural beliefs. But they also suggest a showbiz side to The Satanic Temple’s public outings, which often come across as equal parts political protest and performance art.
Unsurprisingly, reactionary comments have surfaced on the Internet, claiming that Hail Satan? is nothing more than bait put out by the Devil in order to damn more souls. That’s unfortunate because it’s precisely those misconceptions that the film is trying to address. Regardless, Hail Satan? is often laugh-out-loud funny while providing an in-depth exposé of The Satanic Temple’s cutting-edge political activism.
For KSQD’s Film Gang, this is Paul Kanieski