Film Reviews

Film Review: Hail Satan? (2019)

Director: Penny Lane

Cameron Miller

No matter who you are or what your beliefs, Hail Satan? will surprise, challenge and confront you. Me, I’ve always loved Satan. As a literary, mythological or pop-cultural figure, I mean. I first encountered Him in the many archetypal Dark Lords rife throughout the fantasy genre, and he would later show up in my favourite games and the lyrics of my favourite metal bands. Whether appearing as a spin on the trope or as Himself, he lends himself to the kind of story I like: dark tones, big themes of Good and Evil, unabashedly camp and nerdy. I also have a sense of admiration and affinity for anyone making it their mission to piss off religious fundamentalists. So I approached an opportunity to learn about The Satanic Temple with a kind of amused affection for a group of weirdos playing dress-up to troll Christian America. What I completely underestimated was the degree of genuine integrity and passion on display by its members, and the degree of sympathy and inspiration they would instil in me.

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The trolling and theatricality are there, of course, from the opening scenes of Hail Satan?. A “priest” practices his lines to the camera, complete with a little gimmicky flash of fire from his hand that seems less than reliable. The camera lingers on cellophane wrapped dollar store costume robes. The soundtrack establishes itself early and remains consistently excellent, here laying a jaunty, bouncy backing track that underwrites the inherent silliness of what we are seeing.

We are at the very beginning of The Satanic Temple’s emergence into the public eye, and director Penny Lane does an excellent job of structuring her narrative as their exploits evolve from tongue in cheek provocation to serious political activism.

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Hail Satan? quickly becomes a story about the hypocrisy and oppression in American culture that The Satanic Temple holds a mirror to, and even more fascinating, the changes that create in turn on the Temple and its members.

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The usual MO for The Satanic Temple is this: find an aspect of public life Christianity is encroaching on (for example, after school prayer groups), and assert their equal right under the US constitution to encroach there also (an after school Black Mass). Even if their image is fairly silly, the backlash from conservative Christians and politicians is deeply held and gravely serious. We see protest marches, angry confrontations, even death threats.

Hail Satan? quickly becomes a story about the hypocrisy and oppression in American culture that The Satanic Temple holds a mirror to, and even more fascinating, the changes that create in turn on the Temple and its members.

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“Satan” means adversary, and The Satanic Temple is moulded and defined by the forces they oppose. It would be a resiliently dogmatic viewer that was not forced to examine their own values and ideas about the forces of Good and Evil in the world, when faced with images of Satanists fighting for the rights of women and marginalised sexualities, against a supposedly secular democracy seemingly determined to enforce the morals of one specific religion.

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Penny Lane

Lane frames the unfolding drama with enlightening segments on the little known, sometimes absurd historical relationship between Christianity, the US government, and US culture. She herself is almost exclusively silent behind the camera, allowing her interviewees to respond to her questions entirely in their own words. The results are a highly sympathetic portrayal, and my one criticism of the movie is that at points it felt Lane was letting her subjects off a little easy, as responses to the external or internal conflict were allowed to stand largely on face value. Even with that nitpick, what began seeming like a fun bunch of trolls eventually left me with an impression of a diverse, accepting swathe of people deeply committed to ideas of autonomy and justice.

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Everyone should see this, everyone has something to learn from it, everyone will find themselves questioning their assumptions and ethics afterwards. As far as I’m concerned, we can alter the punctuation in the title to be a more definite endorsement. Hail Satan!

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Tickets to Hail Satan? can be found at the New Zealand Film Festival 2019.

Written By: Cameron Miller