Review: Hail Satan? (2019)

Penny Lane’s latest documentary takes a look at the Satanist movement, specifically the Satanic Temple, an organization that popped up in 2013. Led by Lucien Greaves, this community is dedicated to fighting back against Christian encroachment on the separation of church and state.

Hail Satan?, like the organization at its heart, seems to be taking an easy route; by covering a subject so inherently controversial, it’s elevated to a certain level of attention. This is not to say the film is poorly made but, rather, it coasts by invoking a certain kind of playful deviance.

With documentaries, it’s important to question what the filmmaker gains from choosing their specific subject matter. Penny Lane appears to have a proclivity for oddities, her previous film covering an obvious bunk doctor from the early 20th century who implanted goat testicles into human patients as a cure for impotence. Hail Satan is a suitable, modernized follow-up, but only on the surface – these people have better intentions than Dr. John Brinkley, carrying a certain savviness about what to do to garner media attention.

This film feels as politically charged as any Michael Moore film; Penny Lane has a very clear statement. This film falls too easily on the side of Lucien, seemingly advocating for his beliefs. The Satanic Temple is rarely questioned over the course of this film; the one internal conflict we see is a woman who goes too far with a ritual and gets kicked out. She jokes about somehow being too much for Satanism.

How is that possible? Well, the Satanic Temple seems to be more of a political movement than any real religion; they simply use the Satanic imagery to highlight what they view as illegal activities in the name of religion. There’s a satirical edge to their acts, to suggest a Christian monument needs a Satanic monument to match. As surface level as this movement seems, they appear to get the results they want.

But does this really work? Would these Christian monuments not have been taken down on their own, or without a standard legal challenge? These are the questions that need to be asked, but the film never does. At one point, an older Christian woman is asked about the Satanists, and she’s not convinced these are true beliefs; they are, essentially, trolling for attention.

This could be an interesting question: what exactly constitutes a religion? Several members of the Temple seem open about the fact there’s no real association with Satan, or any other theistic systems. What happens to the Satanic Temple when everyone is aware their use of ‘Satan’ is purely performative?

Penny Lane seems to simply capture what she observes. There are a few key moments where the film reflects on the past, such as clearing up the difference between the Satanic Temple and the Church of Satan while also contextualizing the rise of Christianity in American culture and the Satanic Panic of the 1980s. She justifies this organization’s existence but never digs into whether they are truly effective; we take their word for it.

In the end, Hail Satan? is a story of political activists going to extremes to prove a point; it’s a fun ride to enter their unusual approach to life. It rides on the back of its subject matter, not offering many complexities nor doing much to make it engaging as a film – in fact, some talking head shots linger to the point of awkwardness. But, ultimately, the subject matter is neat enough that you might as well check it out.

3.5 Stars Out of 5

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