I don’t get the chance to review documentaries as much as I’d like to on Oh! That Film Blog, but with another slow week in terms of feature film releases, I thought I’d take the opportunity to have a look at something a little different. The online hype train for Hail Satan? had been choo-chooing away for some time now, and with a Rotten Tomatoes score of 96%, I went in hoping for something really great.
And for the most part, that is exactly what I got. The documentary takes the audience inside the daunting sounding Satanic Temple, exploring both its roots and its current iteration with a focus on the ongoing campaign the organisation has to install a statue of Baphomet on any state grounds that also has a Ten Commandments monument.
You might go into the documentary with preconceptions of what kind of bizarre, Louis Theroux-esque, blood drinking, human sacrificing scenes might unfold behind the doors of such a wildly named group, but in all honesty, you are more likely to come away from this film thinking ‘well shit, I guess I’m a Satanist then’. What becomes very clear very quickly is that rather than any kind of literal devil worship, the definition of Satanism in this environment is more of an opposition to what followers believe is the unjust dominance of Christian privilege within the United States of America and beyond.
As someone who firmly believes in the separation of church and state, and has very little time for mainstream organised religion in general, Hail Satan? is a delicious 90 minutes of measured debate, undeniable fact and of using self assured satire as a means to expose the injustices and double standards at the very heart of (in this case) American religious culture. The members of the Temple aren’t all as you might imagine. There are of course enough Gothic metal heads to satisfy the cliche, but the film also focuses on completely ‘normal’, friendly next door neighbour types that help the audience to see that what looks and sounds like an extreme organisation from the outside is actually just as proficient at attracting lapsed Christians and generally wholesome folks who care about things like religious freedom, egalitarianism and social justice.
There is a brief segment about the Detroit chapter of the Temple, who become so extreme in their views that they end up being excommunicated. A little more time spent on this divide within the camp might have been rewarding and interesting, but the filmmakers are clearly focused on the central Baphomet statue saga. In truth, the depths of The Satanic Temple are such that a full Netflix documentary-series wouldn’t go amiss. The documentary carries itself with a wry and light humour for the most part, but the brief look at the Detroit chapter, along with a mini history lesson on the Satanic panic of the 1980s and 1990s, hints at a much deeper, more sombre and sinister side to the wider story that is really worth exploring in a more extended fashion. It might not fit with the satirical nature of the this doc, but it gives the audience a sense that these things aren’t all just fun and games and a form of senseless trolling.
The cast of talking heads involved in the film make for some really endearing and interesting personalities to take the audience through this weird and wonderful world. Co-founder Lucien Greaves is chief mischief maker, a charismatic anti-hero with a twinkle in his eye who evidently loves nothing more than to beat down unprepared opponents with facts. Greaves is the unapologetic figurehead of the Satanic Temple, and he leads with a calmness and assuredness that makes anyone who tries to debate with him completely flustered and infuriated.
The dozen or so other Temple members that we are introduced to across the course of the film all have one thing in common, they are extremely likeable. Whether they have safety pins in their noses or cute little fitted suits with neat bow ties, they all have a burning desire for social justice and a resistance to the potentially damaging status quo of their country that is really admirable in my opinion.
What is most satisfying about the documentary in general is the level of clear minded, calm headed discourse that we are treated to, primarily from Greaves but also from multiple members of the organisation. Common sense talk about reproductive rights, about religious liberty, pretty much a liberal standpoint on any issue you can think of. It makes for excellent, inclusive viewing. That’s for someone of my persuasion and beliefs at least. For a conversation Christian, this film will be nothing less than a nightmare!
Overall, Hail Satan? is a fun and enlightening documentary that brings a layer of realistic, assumption changing truth to an organisation that from the outside might seem controversial, aggressive, even dangerous. Some of what they do may seem more than a little tongue in cheek, but underneath much of the inflammatory wording and visuals, the truth of what the film reveals is that on the whole, The Satanic Temple stand for all of the kinds of liberal and common sense values that I would hope my friends and family stand for too. So, I guess, Hail Satan!