An unexpected and truly bizarre thought might — no, will — occur to most viewers at during Penny “Hail Satan?,” though the lightning bolt of an idea is sure to strike different people at different points of Penny Lane’s provocative, hilarious, and latently enraging documentary about The Satanic Temple. For this critic, it happened during the opening sequence, as Temple co-founder Lucien Greaves gathers his flock on the steps of the Florida Capitol for their first rally in the winter of 2013.
Impishly protesting a bill that would allow for prayer in public schools, the group wears demonic masks and unfurls a massive banner that takes aim at the clear Evangelical Christian agenda underpinning then-Governor Rick Scott’s political agenda. It reads: “Hail Satan! Hail Rick Scott!” Greaves and his group are there in support! Kind of! Really, of course, they’re reminding people that America is not a Christian nation, nor a theocracy of any kind, and that inviting God into the classroom would also require schools to do the same for Satan. Constitutionally, it’s an air-tight argument from a nontheistic group who exists to spread “a message of good will and benevolence;” to promote social justice, expose hypocrisy, and support religious freedom in all its forms. Seeing those tenets expressed via such deliciously trollish action — and at the direct expense of a sanctimonious phony like Scott — might be enough to flick the switch in your brain. The film is just a few minutes old, but there’s a good chance you’ll already be asking yourself a question that may never have occurred to you before: “…Am I a Satanist?”
“Hail Satan?” chronicles the growth of Greaves’ movement over the last five years, and if the film often feels like a (very convincing) advertisement for The Satanic Temple, that might be a more damning commentary on the role of organized religion in our ostensibly secular country than anything else (for what it’s worth, Lane identifies as an atheist). At a time when evangelical groups are effectively attempting to retcon America into a Christian nation — a time when they’re eager to support godless men like Donald Trump so long as he pledges to advance their otherwise inflexible doctrine — there’s an urgent need for a sociopolitical counter-myth, and that’s exactly what The Satanic Temple exists to provide.
Members don’t worship the Devil, sacrifice virgins, or murder innocent people; in fact, they don’t murder people at all! Greaves’ might dress in all black and use an ominous pseudonym (to protect his family from Christian extremists), but his group flouts virtually all of the fear-mongering stereotypes that fomented the Satanic Panic of the ’80s and ’90s. It embraces Satan as the divine embodiment of the rebellion against tyranny, and so it’s easy to understand why this growing community might be especially attractive to queer people, social outcasts, and anyone else who can’t get a job at Hobby Lobby.
Lane’s documentary — which further cements her status as one of nonfiction cinema’s most fearless and unpredictable filmmakers, and proves as radical in thought as previous features like “Nuts!” and “Our Nixon” were in form — amusingly explores the idea that it’s possible to sow chaos with order as it is to sow order with chaos. Without ever losing sight of the Temple’s performative streak (Lane would never dare leave out the fact that Temple acolytes have adopted a highway on which they pick up trash with pitchforks, or overlook the time when they visited the grave of Westboro Baptist Church minister Fred Phelps’ mother, in order to posthumously “convert” her into a lesbian), the film keys in on the idea of blasphemy as an expression of personal independence.
Lane has an unmatched ability to strike the right balance between anger and absurdism, and frames the Temple in a revelatory moral light. She recognizes how small moments can shake a person’s faith in the arbitrary values (one of her talking-head interviewees remembers a Sunday school teacher who told him Gandhi went to hell because he wasn’t a Christian), and knows when to sink her teeth into the bigger picture.
In a film with many villains, Arkansas State Senator Jason Rapert emerges as the big bad when he gets into a grudge match with Greaves over a public monument to the 10 Commandments, at which point Lane backtracks through time to illustrate how the Temple’s liberal values have a longer, deeper history than the pop conservatism of a movement that takes most of its cues from Billy Graham and a Charlton Heston movie. As is often the case in “Hail Satan?,” context helps clarify that Greaves and co. are more than trolls, and how such visible grandstanding might be the only way to expose the ways in which the most insidious and anti-American ideas are the ones that wrap themselves in the flag and hide in plain sight.
It’s only toward the end of the film that “Hail Satan?” seems forced to compromise between comedy and sustainability. Lane is clearly interested in how feasible it really is for a glorified flashmob to grow into a legitimate movement, and she always leans in when Greaves laments having to fortify The Satanic Temple with any kind of centralized power structure.
Start-up culture is everywhere, whether you’re inventing Facebook or just pissing off Bill O’Reilly, and it’s all too easy for a good idea to be corrupted by its natural appetite for growth. How do you fight the power without being seduced by its strength? How do you preach a doctrine of tolerance without becoming intolerant of those who won’t listen? Lane could make an entire film about former Detroit branch leader Jex Blackmore, who causes the Temple’s most dramatic internal fission to date when she calls for a presidential assassination during a performance art piece. But “Hail Satan?” is more interested in the need for a counter-myth than it is in the means required to sustain it, and so it leaves us a bit uncertain as to where things might go from here. By that point, however, Lane has already made one thing perfectly clear: Satan is alive and well in the United States of America. Thank God for that.
“Hail Satan?” premiered at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Magnolia will release it in theaters on April 19.