Documentary | 2019 | rated R | directed by Penny Lane | 1 hr 35 mins |
Penny Lane’s documentary, pulls the plastic Halloween mask off The Satanic Temple, a group of apparent devil worshipers who, when we first meet them, are crusading for equal religious rights on the steps of the Florida courthouse. But in Hail Satan? (with questioning question mark) nothing is what it seems. The man speaking out in favor of Governor Rick Scott’s proposal to put prayer back in schools is an actor and the man in sunglasses standing next to him saying nothing, is the real mastermind behind the organization, Lucien Greaves.
Hail Satan peels back the layers of this organization like an onion, follows several of their members and their growing following as they push back against – not religion and Christianity – but the government promotion/co-opting of Christianity in what they claim would otherwise be a truly pluralistic country as the founding fathers intended. They’re trolls in real life. But very smart, very creative and funny trolls here to give Southern Republican politicians a lesson in civics and history. Wherever a Christian after school program is set up, The Satanic Temple will be there. Wherever a city counsel meeting wants to open with a prayer, Greaves and his team of lawyers will be there. The film’s primary narrative is built around Greave’s dogged battle with Arkansas senator Jason Rapert over a monument of the 10 commandments on the capital grounds. The Satanic Temple doesn’t want to wipe out Christianity, they just want to put an 8 foot statue of the devil with a goat head on a thrown being worshipped by two children on the lawn next to it – a stunt to point out Rapert’s hypocrisy.
The Satanic Temple, we learn was named as such because it wasn’t already taken, that “Greaves” is just the top of a layer cake of aliases and that the temple doesn’t believe in the Devil, but sees the character as a figure symbolizing rebellion and tomfoolery and compassion against a God character that wanted to punish Eve for eating the Fruit of Enlightenment. After showing the pearl and sign-clutching of street protestors who can’t fathom the joke, Lane goes back into an exhaustively researched history lesson through the melding of church and state in the 1950s, mostly tied to the promotion of Cecil B. Demille’s The Ten Commandments all the way up to the 90s Satanic Panic and the millennial hand-wringing of Fox News anchors. Granted, mocking Christians is about the quickest way to get a Hollywood producer to whip out their checkbook, but Lane – whose Nuts is one of the most fun, inventive documentary of the decade – finds a fresh way to do it and sews up the case pretty airtight.
The most charming thing about The Satanic Temple is that – unlike every single other political advocacy group in America on all sides – they don’t take themselves that seriously. They know the power of making themselves look ridiculous to disarm their critics. It’s for rebels of all shapes, sizes and colors who delight in confusing the establishment. This group looks like so much weird, gothic fun that the movie damn near becomes a recruiting video.
At 95 minutes the movie starts to feel winded heading into the 3rd act, not because it’s long but because the first two acts are paced so snappy. It slows down to detail the creation and construction of the Devil Throne statue that will be revealed in the finale. Hail Satan? is a great documentary. It’s a thoughtful history lesson that looks behind the headlines and does it in a fun, viciously entertaining way. If Nuts didn’t put Lane on the documentary filmmaker map, Hail Satan? should.