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With unprecedented access, Hail Satan? traces the rise of The Satanic Temple: only six years old and already one of the most controversial religious movements in American history.

Courtesy of Mongrel

  • Hail Satan?
  • Directed by: Penny Lane
  • Classification: 14A; 95 minutes

rating

Toward the tail-end of Rosemary’s Baby, the leader of an upper-crust Satanic cult pleads the case for his Dark Lord before Mia Farrow’s devil-spawning Manhattanite housewife: “He shall overthrow the mighty and lay waste their temples! He shall redeem the despised and wreak vengeance in the name of the burned and the tortured!” To which one might reasonably respond, “Sounds awesome.”

Originally, labelling someone a “Satanist” was a form of “othering.” It was a way for Christians to mark someone as un-Christian. As Satan was exiled from heaven for (so the story goes) his defiance of God, so, too, were those called out as “Satanic” cast out of good, God-fearing, Christian civilization. A new doc from Penny Lane (Our Nixon) concerns itself with a more newfangled iteration of Satanism, in which the term is self-applied, in order to recast Satan not as the embodiment of all evil and earthly sin, but as a radical, adversarial avatar. These modern Satanists see the devil not as wily tempter warring with the man upstairs over the souls of humanity, but more in the terms of those Rosemary’s Baby-vintage Satanists: as someone who will redeem the despised, the downtrodden, the othered.

The Satanic Temple is known for such high-profile, media-baiting activities as protesting plots to sneak prayer into American elementary schools and dolling up in S&M gear to counterprotest pro-life picketers.

Courtesy of Mongrel

Hail Satan? follows the Satanic Temple, a Salem, Mass.-based activist group who made headlines in 2014 after launching an online crowdsourcing campaign to fund a massive Satanic statue to be installed on the green pastures of Oklahoma’s State Capital building. Provocative, certainly. But more than this, it was a response to a similarly garish monument of the Ten Commandments, and was meant as a comment on Oklahoma’s unconstitutional yoking of the state to the (Christian) church.

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Equal parts political agitation, non-theistic religious assembly, and performance art, the Satanic Temple is known for such high-profile, media-baiting activities as protesting plots to sneak prayer into American elementary schools, hosting Pink Masses (in which LGBTQ+ couples make out over the graves of religious bigots and their families) and dolling up in S&M gear to counterprotest pro-life picketers (who “make a fetish” of the human fetus). These are stunts, sure. But the same could be said about chucking a bunch of tea into Boston Harbor.

In keeping with the Temple’s highly endearing sense of humour, Lane’s doc approaches their activities with an irreverence that never feels mocking. In interviews with members from the Temple’s various chapters (which have cropped up worldwide in the past few years), Hail Satan? grapples with the pluralistic, intersectional appeal of Satanism’s 21st-century rebrand. Gone is the Nietzschean nihilism and “Do what thou wilt!” self-centredness of Anton LaVey’s 1960s-era brand of Satan-worshipping occultism. This new Temple of Satan draws an eclectic mix of anarchists, atheists and constitutional hardliners, all differently (but equally) disturbed by the role religion plays in turning ostensibly secular states into religious theocracies.

There’s little-to-no mention of other Satanic cults, or of more theistic strains that seriously revere Satan as a figure of anti-Christian evil.

Courtesy of Mongrel

Certainly, Lane’s collection of outcasts, metal-heads and trans-rights activists are more appealing (and recognizable) than the Confederate flag-waving Christian demagogues who gather to protest their activities. The Temple of Satan’s brand of trolling is, at the very least, harmless. At best? It feels genuinely progressive.

If there’s a glaring oversight in Hail Satan?, it’s in the film’s singular devotion to the Temple of Satan. There’s little-to-no mention of other Satanic cults, or of more theistic strains that seriously (and often dangerously) revere Satan not as a symbol of human rebelliousness, but precisely as a figure of anti-Christian evil, and who co-opt the iconography of Satanism to advance sinister agendas of neo-Nazism, Aryanism and so on. In effectively declawing the mythical figure of Satan, the Temple of Satan may well have created a benign – and even benevolent – organization. But not all Satanists are created equal. The devil, as they say, is in the details.

Hail Satan? opens May 3 in Toronto and Vancouver, and May 10 in Montreal.

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