Hail Satan? Review
The USA was founded on the very basis of freedom of religion, but thanks to a steady diet of increasingly Conservative Governments and pop culture steeped in the words of God, it managed to become a Christian supremacist country somewhere along the way. This is where the Satanic Temple was conceived. Contrary to popular belief, they weren’t founded to praise the virtues of Lucifer so much as they were created to expose the hypocrisy of a country that no longer values freedom of religion in the most delightfully theatrical way possible.
Director Penny Lane’s thoroughly entertaining documentary Hail Satan? could have easily depicted the group’s big battles during the Trump administration, as religious persuasions besides Christianity are largely ignored by a President who frequently boasts about “one nation under God”. Instead, she focusses on the smaller challenges the group faces to ensure one of the country’s founding values remains honoured, even if it means erecting gigantic statues of the Devil next to the Ten Commandments in order to fulfill it. It's a small scale insight into the ludicrousness of their daily battles, as they try to recapture the public imagination on an issue largely forgotten or ignored by many Americans.
Lane largely concentrates on the Temple's co-founder and spokesperson, the enigmatic Lucien Greaves, a man who has built up such an extensive trail of aliases, even his most frequent Christian critics fail to identify him. In addition to a history lesson of how he came to be involved in the group, and their headline grabbing stunts, we follow him on the front line in Little Rock, Arkansas, where he aims to a get a statue of the demon Baphomet erected next to the Ten Commandments in order to highlight the country's freedom of religion. This provocative stunt works wonders, showing how blind the conservative politicians of the state are to an integral moral of the country, and how difficult it is for them to get a fair hearing despite their promised rights. Their tongues are firmly in cheek - but the values behind the stunt aren't a laughing matter.
The documentary is largely uncritical, even as some of their protests and publicity stunts become so obtuse and layered within levels of irony likely undecipherable to those with a limited online presence that they appear as harmful as the thing they’re organising against. The film’s flaw is that these moments are presented and glossed over extremely quickly; a performance art protest outside an abortion clinic is the biggest offender, reading as accidentally anti-choice due to the lack of comedic clarity on their concept. If the devil really is in the details, then it’s somewhat surprising the Temple allowed this satirical event to go ahead without making its purpose more clear, and infinitely more annoying that Lane presents without probing further, doing her best to not complicate our view of the Temple as unexpectedly moral crusaders.
When we do see a member of the Temple in a negative light, delivering a sermon calling for bloodshed despite their clear pacifist intentions, she becomes the subject of controversy and officially removed from the group - why other members who have equally belly flopped with their attempts at political protest aren’t given a similarly critical analysis is something of a nagging problem, despite how fun the film remains. Lane has expressed that she deliberately left out much of the internal conflict from the final film, meaning we're left with an entertaining snapshot, but far from the full, complicated picture of an organisation working to restore sanity in the most insane manners possible.
Mostly, the film conveys the Temple's use of ironic humour well, even if at times it seems like they're using it as a shield in a way that detracts from their core humanistic values. Their seven "tenets", the group's equivalent to the ten commandments, are admirable rules for a society to adhere to, and has seen the group get praise from several atheists who have otherwise rolled their eyes at the group's flare for the theatrical. In a scene depicting protests at one of the group's stunts near a commandments mural, Lane lingers on the dark irony of the supposed moral evangelical groups protesting with confederate flags in hand and bigoted logos on their shirts - a grim reminder that those embracing eternal damnation are more attuned to our core values than those who follow mainstream religious scripture.
Moments like this appear frequently throughout, but the director refrains from transforming her film into anything resembling propaganda for their cause. There does seem to be bafflement at some of their techniques (even if they are far less than the oddballs they may appear from the outside), but in a time of unparalleled craziness in the western world, you get the sense that Lane earnestly believes that any group who preaches to defend liberal values deserves a fair hearing in spite of this. Her initial intention was to make a documentary charting the "satanic panic" between the 70s and 90s, but instead found an iteration of that unjustified moral panic still commonplace today. Focussing on two small scale, nominally administrative, attempts to challenge Christian dominance in local government, she's crafted something far more impactful than a history lesson that has already been covered extensively elsewhere.
Hail Satan? is released in UK cinemas on August 23rd