Hail Satan?


Reviewed by: Owen Van Spall

Hail Satan
"Intriguing and often rib-ticklingly funny." | Photo: Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

Nuts! and Our Nixon director Penny Lane is back with an intriguing and often rib-ticklingly funny new look at a sect in America that has in recent decades has had to bounce between two poles of perception: baby-killing, blood-drinking, grave-defiling maniacs, or parent-hating, basement- dwelling incels. Yes, Penny Lane is exploring modern American Satanists. Integrating herself with the HQ of The Satanic Temple of America (now the hub of the global network) and sticking close to the side of key council member, Temple co-founder and spokesperson Lucien Greaves (not his real name), Lane looks at the quick rise and influence of the controversial religious group, touching on how they have been framed in popular culture and what ideological/political approach they have settled on now, including tactics and principles that have split the group apart as they have grown in size and uniformity of approach has been demanded. Light in tone overall (the TST admit they are kind of trying to build a semi-serious image as trolls of authority as opposed to actual devil worshippers) and with no narration or exposition text, Hail Satan offers plenty to think about but leaves some unanswered questions.

Hail Satan? is at its most thought-provoking (and funny) when it showcases how the TST have, in these polarised times, found both an ideological standpoint and tactical approach that seems quite smartly designed to vacuum up new members disillusioned with the increasing spread of the culture wars into all areas of American life, particularly state government, while also using the tools of the same compromised state institutions to make their point.

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Some archive footage that Lane inserts, along with several talking heads from the academic world, showcase for us how the ‘satanic panic’ of the Seventies and Eighties had modern American satanists pegged as the kinds of kids who had read too many metal magazines and listened to rock albums backwards too many times, escalating from there to blood sacrifices on gravestones in the midnight hours.

Former head of the Church of Satan, the goateed and bald Anton LaVey, was regularly wheeled out on talk show as an easily-demonised figure. It seems ludicrous to look back on now, but this crippling image clearly haunts the likes of Greaves and his TST council members and contextualises their approach today.

Thus Hail Satan? explores how this context drove the temple to evolve into an organisation with principles and campaigns (often stunt-based) that focus on removing organised religion from state law and activity, and specifically eschews the idea that Satan is an actual deity as oppose to merely a symbol of disruption and rejection of absolute authority. Even if unspoken, it seems clear from interviews with TST leaders and members who their target audience is with this newly fashioned image of satanism as the ultimate act of rebellion: disillusioned liberals, worried atheists, politically active LGBT types. You could be cynical and argue that, especially in the Trump era, this is a smart move to hoover up paying members who want something more edgy from their politics, when everything is seen through the culture war lens, but who wouldn’t otherwise want to be associated with something only the loser goth kids at school would have been down with. It is an interesting exploration of the age-old question where political opportunism mixes in with genuine ideological conviction: it was ever thus.

We are whisked through several years worth of footage that shows how the TST has tried to evolve from a few small-scale media stunts to an internationally-recognised religion with hundreds of thousands of adherents. One thing that Greaves and his council seem to have focused on in recent years is targeting state capitols across the US. A throughline in Lane’s doc is the TST’s dogged campaign to place a nine-foot, bronze Satanic monument - a Baphomet (think a horn- headed humanoid figure with breasts and bat-wings) - smack dab next to the statue of the Ten Commandments on the Arkansas State Capitol lawn, forcing the issue of the true meaning of the separation of church and state into the open and relying on constitutional law to back up their demands.

It is undeniably smart, win-win politics, and you can’t deny the larger point. If a chunky Ten Commandments slab (which, as hilarious archival footage suggests, is still being based on the design of the Hollywood Charlton Heston 1950s epic) is just fine and dandy sitting on a state capital lawn - an act of outright support by the state for one religion - why not any other religious symbol if enough people express belief in it? And either way, the massive response from the openly conservative christian governments and other figures gives the TST the media coverage they want.

Though it largely dodges the thorny subject area of how modern Satanism deals with the misogyny of a religion that in the past has seemed to require a lot of women to be naked and subservient, and how the TST balance their explicit elevation of science-led thinking into their new core tenets with support for campaigns that seem to contradict that, one question Lane’s doc thankfully does address is what an organisation founded on disruption and an anti-authority ethos should do when it grows to global size. Can such an outsider attitude can be maintained when real political impact seems to demand a uniform message? From the description of what Lane’s doc covers above, you have probably noticed an absence of naked bodies writhing with snakes on altars. Well, that stuff is shown to be still going on in the various chapters of the TST today, but Lane was also witness to a series of wild underground ceremonies in the Detroit wing (pigs heads on spikes, robe lights, heavy metal music, naked chained temple members on their knees), that led to its leader/organiser getting expelled given she had thrown in a call for the execution of the president into a series of rants at one such gathering. “We lost some things, we gain some things” Greaves rationalises. Welcome to mainstream politics, Satanists.

Reviewed on: 01 Jun 2019
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Hail Satan? packshot
A look at the intersection of religion and activism, tracing the rise of The Satanic Temple: only six years old and already one of the most controversial religious movements in American history. The Temple is calling for a Satanic revolution to save the nation’s soul. But are they for real?
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Read more Hail Satan? reviews:

Jennie Kermode ****

Director: Penny Lane

Starring: Jex Blackmore, Nicholas Crowe, Lucien Greaves

Year: 2019

Runtime: 95 minutes

Country: US

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