SUNDANCE REVIEW: “Funny yet thought-provoking” – Hail Satan? (2019)

The question mark seems apt. “Hail Satan” isn’t particularly a phrase you here everyday and yet it is the slogan of The Satanic Temple.

Recognised as a church, this observational documentary follows the non-theistic religious group, led into the dynamics of the organisation by leader: Lucien Greaves. Centring on engagement with political activism, particularly in the US, Hail Satan? makes a compelling case for the need of a group such as The Satanic Temple.

Expectations for Hail Satan? were similar to Louis Theroux’s My Scientology Movie, a film held-back by its inability to actually include individuals involved in Scientology. But unlike Theroux’s film, Penny Lane’s documentary finds itself at the heart of The Satanic Temple as they engage in the political culture war in the US. Lane has direct access to the leadership and organisational team that inform the actions of The Satanic Temple.

The Satanic Temple gathering with posters

Starting off on a rather expected path, individuals are introduced comedically: an impressive trick where fire erupts from under a cape is particularly amusing. Yet Hail Satan? is quick to sidestep becoming a documentary that only laughs at its subject, instead, finding its footing as a thought-provoking film.

It is no surprise that The Satanic Temple picked Salem, Massachusetts for their headquarters. From their black-painted building, The Satanic Temple are formalising themselves as an institution in order to be taken seriously, which as seen, still remains to be a challenge. With groups popping up in New York, London, Chicago, Santa Cruz and Los Angeles, The Satanic Temple is movement that is growing in numbers. With this growth, comes the desire for unification. Hail Satan? captures this aim for a reputation and a continuity of beliefs to be shared amongst the group.

The Satanic Temples' satanic monument

Where the documentary really hits its stride is the focus upon The Satanic Temple battling the presence of then ten commandment monuments being erected on capital grounds. Protesting that the monuments represent the undermining of religious plurality in the US, they demand either: have this removed, or, to have their own satanic movement placed alongside. Believing what the Ten Commandments Monument symbolises is unconstitutional, they use the laws of the system against itself, The Satanic Temple presents a captivating attempt to deliver a form of justice.

Hail Satan? becomes unique for how the film has access to the internal reality of the ‘fringe group.’ Lane is able to investigate the credibility of The Satanic Temple through a non-confrontational approach. Presenting an internal reality of the group, the film finds ample room to delve into the values of the group and to be presented with the thoughts behind their actions. Balancing an external perspective is not a priority for Hail Satan? as it engagingly immerses itself in the beliefs and values of this community.

While the documentary makes a clear effort to tackle the existence of The Satanic Temple, the film cannot fully delve into the internal conflict of involved individuals for reasons that are brushed away from conversation. Noticeable, there are disagreements with how radical their behaviour should be.

The group claim to be uplifting the voices of the marginalised, aiming to protect religious pluralism across the US. A place for those who feel ‘othered’ by the values and actions of the government that is supposed to represent them. The Satanic Temple is shown to offer a sense of belonging that fosters a community of like-minded individuals. It is here where Hail Satan? does exactly what a documentary should, giving access to this group in a way that the mainstream media may not be likely to show. The film displays that The Satanic Temple are not just talking the talk, they are active in pro-choice, LGBTQ+ inclusivity and widely accept ‘outcast’ groups of society in their attempt to make society equal. They embrace this communal identity: voluntarily cleaning beaches and roadsides, organising sock donations for the homeless, donation sanitary products to women’s shelters and even participating in local blood drives.

Although the documentary does manage to inquire about numerous aspects that are particularly interesting for a group that are cast aside. Acting as a reactionary group and a political tool in the culture war, Hail Satan? remains a focused documentary for its dealings with this group, establishing a fairly well-grounded handling of The Satanic Temple. Hail Satan? is a wonderful example of a documentary that makes the effort to challenge the preconceived notions of what is expected, an enjoyable film that holds time for both laughter and contemplation.

Dir: Penny Lane