Film Review: ‘Hail Satan?’ is Damned Decent

{All images used courtesy Magnolia Pictures.}

Note: this article was also published on Contents May Vary.

Hail Satan?, directed by Penny Lane. Produced by Magnolia Pictures. Copyright 2019. (Seen April 11, 2019.)

I have to admit: it’s hard for me to be unbiased in this review. I’ve been a fan of the Satanic Temple for a while now, and a strong supporter of their cause. While similar to the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, the Satanic Temple has been much more political in their battles to support the separation of church and state in the United States. Add in that this movie was mentioned on Pop Culture Happy Hour’s “What’s Making Us Happy?” segment in March, I knew going in that I was most likely going to enjoy this film.

Directed by Penny Lane, the documentary is a series of interviews with the co-founder Lucien Greaves and others with the Satanic Temple as well as historical notes about the rise of the organization, the concept of Satanism, and the rise of the religious right in the United States. What started as a commentary on Florida Governor Rick Scott for signing a bill to allow prayer in public schools turned into a battle against the “dominant religious beliefs” of the country.

The movie not only goes into why they chose the name ‘Satanic Temple’ (“The name wasn’t taken,” Greaves jokes), but also how the various ways they’ve gone about fulfilling their mission. From having a ceremony on the grave of the mother of Westboro Baptist Church founder Fred Phelps to asking for equal time at a government council meeting that started in a prayer, they originally didn’t think they’d get much notice, and most media attention treated them as simple trolls. It also delves into the charity work the Temple does, and the most moving segment of the movie is near the end where it goes into the seven tenants the Temple follows.

The film also goes into the history of the rise of Satanism as a concept in the US: from the explosion of it in the 50s thanks to Billy Graham and the rise of communism (which is where God was added to the Pledge of Allegiance and on our money) to the Satanic Panic of the 1980s (which several people are still serving sentences because of it).

However, when Oklahoma decided to place a monument to the 10 Commandments on the capitol grounds, it became a turning point for the organization. The film goes into the Temple’s decision to request their own religious monument: a near 9-foot-tall bronze sculpture of Baphomet, with lap (so people can take photos of themselves there) and two children gazing up at him. Through a Kickstarter, they managed to get the funding to build the statue and have since used it in various similar battles across the nation.

Baphomet monument in front of the state capitol building in Little Rock, AR.

The movie doesn’t stay away from an internal controversy of the Temple: primarily, the story of Jex Blackmore, the founder of the Detroit branch of the Temple, who at one event called for the assassination of President Trump and as such was ousted from the main Satanic Temple group.

The movie isn’t perfect, however. On a silly note, I was sad that the song over the end credits wasn’t “The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton” by The Mountain Goats.

On a more serious note, the movie was definitely biased: there wasn’t really much in the way of discussing the other side of these fights outside of clips from Fox News. Additionally, despite several quotes from the opposition about how the United States was supposedly founded as a Christian nation, there wasn’t much historical commentary on how this is not true. Finally, the movie just kind of ends. Admittedly, this may be the point, to show that the work the Temple does is still going, but it still is a bit jarring.

The movie is funny, educational, and — at least for me — depressing yet hopeful all at the same time. It’s well worth watching if you have any interest in the rise of religion in politics. Hail Satan? is in theatres April 17, and you can find out more about the film and find theatres near you showing it on their official website.

A Los Angeles ritual.

Q&A Write Up

At the screening I attended, there was a Q&A that followed: director Penny Lane, co-founder of the Temple Lucien Greaves, Ryan Bell of USC (founder of USC’s Secular Student Alliance), and Spencer Windes of the ACLU of Southern California, moderated by Entertainment Weekly‘s Clark Collis.

In the Q&A, Collis asked Lane how she came about the topic. She said that she had heard about the organization through the news, and like many others thought the Temple was either a joke (“that was being used to make a really smart and political point”) or simple trolling. It was reading a reported article on the Temple that made her realize that there was something more that could be done here.

Collins then asked Greaves what made him (and the rest of the Temple) decide to give this much access to Lane, as the organization had been approached by many to do a documentary on their organization. They had a very specific philosophy of no cameras in the Temple, so they could focus on the issues rather than the people. However, it was through talking to her and seeing her previous work that let him realize that she would approach the topic with respect. He was quick to clarify that the Temple had no say in how she edited the film or what material she would use, but he would be happy with it if it was honest.

Bell discussed the importance of the Satanic Temple in creating community with strong political vision. “It combines that post-theistic need for connection with a real commitment to social change,” Bell stated as to why the Satanic Temple is different from similar organizations.

After School Satan Club open house welcome sign.

Windes talked about the bigger picture that’s at stake. “I like to say that the ACLU is the greatest defender of religion in America,” he says. He then went on to discuss his family’s history with religious discrimination and how that is why it’s so important to him that the United States has a separation of church and state. He clarified that the ACLU has, “always taken the position: exercise your religion. Stand in the public square, say what you want, put up your cross in front of your house — it’s great. That’s what being American is. Just don’t make the government do it.”

Collins then asked if there was something about the times we’re living in now that has made the Satanic Temple so popular with people in the last five to ten years. “I really think that the time is now,” Greaves stated. “I think some of it has to do with how people perceive the Satanic Panic now.” He went on to talk about the rise of theocracy in the country.

Bell agreed that it is due to the rise in theocracy, and how that’s a problem. “Over 40% of our incoming freshman at USC are unidentified with any religion,” he stated as to why this is an issue that needs to be addressed.

Windes added that he does feel that there is something changing in the country. “We’re kind of taking stake of how far right this country went in the Reagan years and post-Reagan years,” he stated. “We’re seeing a lot of things that were happing 50 to 60 years ago.” He then went on to briefly talk about the rise of laws that have been cropping up under the guise of religious freedom, stating that this is not really a new tactic. “It’s trying to reframe religious liberty, because none of these people really want religious liberty. Religious liberty is the last thing they want, because religious liberty means religious equality.”

The discussion then turned to questions from the audience.

You can see more of Angie’s work and her social media connections over at her website.

Post Author: Angie Fiedler Sutton

I am a writer, photographer, and all-round fangirl geek. I have done everything from data entry to managing, and I love a wide range of geek culture. In fact, when I can, I freelance, covering geek culture, entertainment, and the performing arts. I have been published in Den of Geek, Stage Directions, LA Weekly, The Mary Sue, and others. I also produce my own podcast, G33K Out with Angie Fiedler Sutton, where I interview geeky people about geeky things. You can see my work and social media connections over at my website angiefsutton.com.