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‘Hail Satan?’ Review: In the Dark Lord (and Religious Freedom) We Trust

Penny Lane’s doc starts as a look at the Satanic Temple and ends as a portrait of religious freedom and social hypocrisy

hail satan?

A statue of Baphomet, a goat-headed demon, in a scene from the documentary 'Hail Satan?'

Magnolia Pictures

The question mark may throw you at first: Wait, so are you asking us if we pledge fealty to the Prince of Darkness, or …. But as filmmaker Penny Lane’s documentary on the Satanic Temple makes clear early on, the innate sense of inquiry in the title is indeed there for a reason. When we’re introduced to the fringe religious group, members are making cheery phone calls to a Tallahasee newsroom (“The Satanic Temple … ‘S’ as in Sam …”) and typing away on laptops in a brightly colored living room. Someone in a grim-reaper robe shuffles awkwardly up a stair case. People are making signs. Unopened Halloween costumes are strewn about. Their spokesperson is practicing a magic trick that he’ll end their public “convening” with; he’s wearing a nice suit and some makeshift horns. No one’s being sacrificed. It all seems very quaint, and rather chintzy.

When we see their press conference the next day at the Florida State Capital to a few scattered reporters, the group thanks Governor Rick Scott — the staunchly Christian politician, after all, has been stumping to allow prayers in public schools. So naturally, this means “a boom in religious diversity,” per TST co-founder Lucien Greaves, and thus kids will also be allowed to praise the devil during morning announcements, right? And that can only help further the Temple’s cause. Because if you’re going to allow one faith to do it, you really have to allow all of them to participate, correct? Yes, there’s a jaunty, goofy marching-band score playing underneath as the devil worshippers slowly dispel and disperse, which along with the group’s “evil” banality, suggests that the movie is setting them up for grand mockery. Look at these ridiculous suburbanites and their hellish cosplay! But it’s also letting the group make their point. They’re exposing a hypocrisy.

Soon, a pattern begins to emerge as we follow them from one Situationist spectacle to another: staging a “pink mass” over the grave of the mother of Westboro Baptist Church minister/noted homophobe Fred Phelps, which posthumously converts her to lesbianism (for good measure, Greaves places his testicles on her tombstone); hosting a black mass in Boston, which is eventually relocated from Harvard Square to a Chinese restaurant; dressing up like “adult babies” as a counter a protest in front of an abortion clinic; they help form a “Satanist” after-school club. They play the media like an accordion, making folks like Megyn Kelly and Tucker Carlson squirm. They help out homeless shelters by donating socks and tampons (“Menstruate with the devil”). Their recruitment starts to grow, as misfits everywhere realize that these folks are far more accepting of difference and the freedom to be you and me than regular society. Questions arise: Why should “Christian privilege” be so dominant? What happened to the separation of church and state? And can you be a major advocate for free speech and basic human rights while still kneeling before Lucifer?

By the time you get to the group’s pièce de résistance — a 10-foot stature of Baphomet, a demon with a goat’s head and Iggy Pop’s torso, that will reside near the Ten Commandments monument in Little Rock, Arkansas — the point of their performance art and Lane’s documentary are pretty clear. The sincerity of their love in the Dark Lord may be debatable in some cases, but their determination to make folks reconcile with the falsehood that the faith game should be an all-or-nothing endeavor isn’t. And while the movie also offers a much-needed context of the “Satanic panic” of the ’80s and ’90s — backwards messages and heavy metal and Dungeons & Dragons, oh my! — as well as vintage afternoon-TV handwringing and glimpses of organizational in-fighting, it’s these scenes of folks engaging in real political showdowns by any ridiculous means necessary that give the movie its sense of currency. Hail Satan? starts as a portrait of a group considered by many to be evil incarnate. It ends with you wondering why their Seven Basic Tenets involving justice, compassion, science and looking out for one another should be considered “evil” at all and not the law of the land. It goes from being a look at folks challenging the status quo to its own work of protest art that’s worth flying the devil horns for.

See an exclusive clip from the documentary below.

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