Film Review: ‘Hail Satan’ Expertly Spotlights a Misunderstood Religion

Who would’ve guessed a Satanic organization would be the heroic figure of a documentary this year? Director Penny Lane (“Nuts!”) sets her sights on The Satanic Temple (TST) in her latest documentary, “Hail Satan.” The group has made national headlines recently with a variety of incendiary protests. Some may have seen Satanists dressed as babies to counter abortion protestors. Others followed their attempt At a Black Mass on Harvard’s campus. “Hail Satan” sheds a light on the group’s history and spotlights their worthy political ideals and cause. This terrific documentary captures the spirit of a movement. Furthermore, it re-contextualizes what it means to be a practicing Satanist in 2019.

The erecting of a Ten Commandments monument on public grounds, both in Oklahoma and Arkansas, serves as the major through-line for the documentary. In the Satanic Temple’s political mission for religious pluralism, they lobby for a statue of Baphomet to be placed at the same location as the Ten Commandment monument. The Satanists’ proposed shrine places their goat-headed deity center stage with wings outstretched and children flanking him on both sides. This draws shock, ire and head-scratching from a national audience. However, the Satanic Temple’s point comes through clear. With separation of church and state, TST argues that all religions should be allowed to have statues on public grounds, or institutions run by the state should cease to have religious affiliation.

One of the main interview subjects is co-founder of TST, Lucien Greaves. With a glass eye and persistent smirk, Greaves embodies his role as troll against the religious right perfectly. As the documentary continues, Greaves demonstrates his passion for the mission beyond The Satanic Temple. Shockingly, the religion revolves around critical reasoning and challenging authority, rather than literally worshiping Satan. Greaves takes the framework and tales from the Bible and creates these interesting counterpoint to tie his movement to the title of Satanist. He shows how TST uses shared knowledge to spin their points and savvily create media exposure.

Director Penny Lane finds the right tone to match the caustic nature of TST, while still honoring the seriousness of their cause. She structures the film well enough to catch viewers off guard initially. From there, she warms us up to the various characters within The Satanic Temple. Each interview functions on multiple levels that all layers up to this war against our nation being consolidated under one religion. We see various members chronicle their own journey to TST. Many grew up religious but felt shunned or othered by that community.

Additionally, the exploration of the tenants of TST make the group more approachable without sanding off their rough edges. Though it would’ve been helpful to establish these earlier on in the film, The Seven Tenets of the Satanic Temple clearly lay out what the group believes in digestible fashion. At a large level, the religion revolves around mindfulness, challenging the status quo and prevailing against the system for justice. It’s not lost on anyone that the group trying to remove the Ten Commandments seems to similarly have their own set of commandments.

Perhaps the most interesting element to the documentary is its chronicling of the growth of TST. What started as three people grew to 100,000 within three years. The founders created TST to speak truth to power and rebel against typical religious and governmental structures. Yet, TST eventually crafts these tenets and structures in order to expand on a global level. It becomes so large and strict in its adherence to its rules that Jex Blackmore, a co-spokesperson and early member of TST is removed from the organization after advocating for murdering the President during a meeting. This violates the group’s clear philosophy of nonviolence. As Blackmore points out, what happens when you’ve become the outcast of the outcasts.

Just as the film could have explored the growing pains of the religion more, there are other elements that seem glossed over in favor of more antics around the Baphomet monument. Near the latter part of the documentary, the members talk of the Satanic Panic in the 80s and early 90s. The culture’s fear of satanic rituals allowed the media to normalize the image of Satanists as child murderers and abusers. These stereotypes bled over into certain pop culture “gateways,” such as Dungeons & Dragons and heavy metal music. Rather than just be stigmatized, many people were wrongfully imprisoned based on false claims involving prejudice against Satanists. Documentaries around the West Memphis Three, such as “Paradise Lost” and “West of Memphis,” further detail how fear of the occult led to the wrongful conviction of three teenagers.

“Hail Satan” does more than just spotlight a group of misunderstood outcasts. It shows how those marginalized in society have to fight for their voice. Not only that, but it’s people on the fringes of society whose voices should be amplified rather than suppressed. On top of its demonstrations and fights for religious plurality, TST also elevates their communities. Their service extends to sock drives, providing feminine products to women’s shelters and even holding after school programs to teach kids critical thinking. What makes our nation great is the diversity of voices within it. Our Constitution contains language around freedom of religion so groups like The Satanic Temple can practice in this manner.

Magnolia Pictures distributes “Hail Satan,” which opens in New York on April 17th and Los Angeles on April 19th.

GRADE: (★★½)

What did you think of “Hail Satan?” Let us know in the comments below.