Director: Penny Lane
IFFR 2019 review
Penny Lane’s Hail Satan? is a surprisingly uplifting demystification of an organisation that possibly relies on being misunderstood. Though the sinister public image of The Satanic Temple is immediately taken for the silly pageantry it is, Lane’s film also evokes the underlying seriousness of the group’s organised trolling, which demonstrates with each inflammatory campaign how progress is built on acts of sacrilege.
To an extent, The Satanic Temple (or TST, for short) is a satirical organisation comparable to some of the popular memes in atheist circles, using the absurdity of its imagery and activity as leverage to advance practices of secularism and religious pluralism. Where there are Christian groups trying to enforce prayer in schools or erect monuments on government property, TST is on hand to share Satanic children’s books or put up a goat-headed Baphomet statue as a reminder that when you let God into these institutions, you let the Devil in too.
But while the group doesn’t hold a collective belief in a literal Beelzebub, the cultish symbology of TST still maintains a significance that goes beyond blunt provocation, turning evangelical America’s iconography of good and evil against itself. As Lane punctuates her zippily edited footage with clips from Rosemary’s Baby, Black Sunday, Fantasia, and other works that draw on Satanic imagery to embody absolute evil, Hail Satan? questions what it really means to brand a way of living as ‘unholy’ or ‘godless,’ and asks why we regard these labels as having anything to do with morality.
The topic of sexuality comes up repeatedly in discussions with TST members, some of whom were once religious themselves and all of whom would probably agree that Eve was perfectly right to eat that forbidden fruit. Many are quick to point out the hypocrisy of religious groups that demonise others for ‘giving into temptation’ while covering up the sexual abuse in their own lot, but more broadly, the question posed here is just who gets to decide what’s evil. Historically, the Church has long been the official answer to that question, prompting those who reject the contemporary moral code imposed on them to embrace Satan as a symbol of rebellion against tyranny, and commit blasphemy as a declaration of personal independence.
Channelling this contrarian ethos into an increasingly formalised and rapidly growing organisation such as TST inevitably comes with its contradictions, which Lane astutely observes when one of the group’s leaders get the boot for calling for the execution of the president. Not only does the incident show that TST has its limits for how subversive it’s willing to get, but the section also asks whether the group can continue to flourish as a structured and politically active movement without creating its own form of dogma.
Generally speaking, however, Lane’s film is only willing to go so far in questioning the methods and ideology of its subjects, especially when there’s vicarious pleasure to be taken in the thrills and theatricality of life as a Satanist. But if the complexity of Hail Satan?’s vision is compromised for the sake of immediate charm and impact, the work still resonates as a call for personal liberation and a challenge to social conditioning that’s delivered with warmth, humour, and an irresistible sense of mischief.
Hail Satan? screened as part of International Film Festival Rotterdam 2019.