Hail Satan?   (2019) dir. Penny Lane Rated: R image: ©2019  Magnolia Pictures

Hail Satan? (2019)
dir. Penny Lane
Rated: R
image: ©2019 Magnolia Pictures

The Satanic Temple is doing the Lord’s work. That statement is meant to be both provocative and ironic, just like the organization that Penny Lane’s documentary, Hail Satan?, examines. The film manages to be both hilarious and enraging. While it gets close to delving under the surface of The Satanic Temple’s leading members – most notably the tension between co-founder Lucien Greaves and TST Detroit chapter head Jex Blackmore – it never quite gets there. Hail Satan? stays at arm’s length from the people it’s documenting. That’s not the case with the ideas that Greaves, Blackmore, and other TST members are championing. The documentary does a fabulous job of explicating The Satanic Temple’s ideals and goals.

Chief among those goals is exposing the hypocrisy of the Christian supremacist movement in America. Christian supremacists, with a lot of help from elected officials within their ranks, are on a mission to destroy the separation between church and state. They want to declare America a Christian nation, often distorting the fact that the country was founded as anything but that.

Enter the good people of The Satanic Temple. Their tactics involve poking people who believe in a literal Satan (TST doesn’t) as well as challenging the actions of Christian supremacists in the court system. Hail Satan? becomes a thoughtful exploration of which strategy is more effective. It does so without ever picking a side, letting the viewer make up her or his own mind.

The movie gets the opportunity to highlight the opposing methods when Greaves and Blackmore come to their ideological impasse.

Greaves and a lawyer dedicated to TST’s cause challenge the wrongheaded notion that it’s OK to install a Ten Commandments monument on public grounds. They come up with the satirical idea of suggesting that a Satanic monument should go up right next to the Christian one. Their proposed statue is in honor of Baphomet, a goat-headed, angel-winged demon. It is an inspired design, and Hail Satan? chronicles its brilliant genesis and construction.

But, as the late, great comedian Bill Hicks once observed, fundamentalism breeds no sense of irony. So, instead of getting the point that the state shouldn’t recognize any religion because then it has to recognize all religions, the Satanists’ opponents just start shouting about evil. The Satanic Temple and the film reveal their hypocrisy with precision and hilarity.  

Meanwhile, instead of working within the system of lawsuits and city council meetings, Jex Blackmore uses provocative performance art to make her point. Her most head-scratching idea comes when she decides to protest an anti-abortion rally by showing up with other TST members dressed as babies in S&M outfits. The idea being that pro-lifers fetishize the unborn. It’s all fine until Blackmore calls for the assassination of Donald Trump during one of her Satanic rituals, which leads to Greaves taking action to excommunicate her.

Lucien Greaves granted Penny Lane total access to the organization to make her film. She does an excellent job of contrasting The Satanic Temple’s actual humanist beliefs with the witch-hunt like craze of the satanic panic of the 1980s and 1990s. That period – which Lane glosses over only because it could fill a documentary on its own – had America believing Satanists were lurking around every corner, ensnaring children with Dungeons and Dragons and backward-masked messages in rock music. Hail Satan? shows actual Satanists cleaning up litter on the side of the highway and fighting to strengthen the American ideal of a pluralistic, liberal democracy. It does so with a great amount of humor and wit.

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Why it got 3.5 stars:
- Hail Satan? doesn’t rise to the incisive and emotionally complex level of something like Minding the Gap, but it is entertaining and enlightening.

Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- There’s a potential pitfall to the work Lucien Greaves is doing in the courts, and a snippet of TV news coverage included after the credits of Hail Satan? hints at it. The Satanic Temple can’t expect governments to take their requests for Satanic monuments seriously, because so much of what they do can be seen as satire. I suppose that’s the reason for the question mark in the title of the documentary. That doesn’t negate the fact that they do have foundational principles about treating every human being with equal dignity and respect.
- I do have an issue with many of their tactics, which essentially involve trolling people. I don’t think it’s an effective way to go about things, and can be destructive to the cause in the long run.
- A maddening fact that Hail Satan? covers is the reason why there are so many Ten Commandments monuments on state capital grounds. Cecil B. DeMille sent them as gifts to the states as promotion for his 1956 film The Ten Commandments. Marketing and advertising is the true evil in the world.
- The schism between Greaves and Blackmore underscores the interesting dynamic of what happens when a fringe organization goes mainstream.

Close encounters with people in movie theaters:
- I was fortunate to catch this in the great Texas Theater, which champions small budget films . It doesn’t seem like the distribution company is making a big push to get this on a lot of screens. The small audience I saw it with certainly appreciated it. I saw several Satanic Temple shirts as I left the theater. I had to suppress an urge to give a “Hail Satan” to a couple wearing the shirts as I held the door for them on the way out.