A scene from Penny Lane's "Hail Satan?"

Sundance ’19 Review: Penny Lane’s Riotous “Hail Satan?” is a Monumental Achievement

At this point, the most subversive film Penny Lane could make is one resembling a traditional documentary and after such formally adventurous films as “Our Nixon” and “The Pain of Others,” it speaks to the warped reality we live in that she has resorted to the cinematic language most accepted by the mainstream to tell the story of the Satanic Temple, a collective that may have organized under the guise of worshipping the Devil, yet as Lane discovers, has concerns that are far more down to earth. Although Lane indulges in doc cliches such as the backlit anonymous interviews, she does so with glee since hiding their identity doesn’t conceal the ridiculous horned helmets many wear and it becomes clear that a unifying principle behind the Satanic Temple isn’t a love of Beelzebub, but a hatred for self-seriousness. In fact, the devilish grins many wear in recounting the formation of the Satanic Temple under the leadership of Lucien Greaves is about the only real allusion to the god they claim to worship as Lane gathers an oral history of how such a motley group of followers came together.

But even as “Hail Satan?” lends credence to some ideas you may have about what a Satan worshipper would look like, following some into ceremonies where disciples strip nude with bags placed over their heads and red wine poured over their bodies, it’s illuminated as a last refuge of protest in a country where civil liberties have been quietly ebbing away, due in large part to a value system set by the Evangelical Christian movement. (As Jex Blackmore, who runs the Detroit chapter of the Temple explains quite eloquently, the nudity is merely a means of protesting oppression.) It turns out the pageantry is necessary when dealing with real evil and Lane builds a compelling case that indeed hell is other people, as you see how Greaves has created a trojan horse with the Satanic Temple, stealthily mounting a challenge to the Religious Right in America by shrewdly using their incendiary tactics against them. With the Temple using extreme publicity stunts to grab attention, the film finds a throughline in their constitutionally sound demands that in state capitols that have had statues of the Ten Commandments built on their grounds, there should also be space made for ludicrously ornate monuments of Baphomet, the goat god that’s become a symbol of the occult, making clear that they’ll abandon their efforts as soon as the Evangelicals abandon theirs to breach the separation of church and state.

It is here where Lane becomes the only one who could possibly do right by this story, unspooling a thorough and painfully funny history not unlike her animated profile of populist con man John Brinkley in “Nuts!” that illustrates how political activism has frequently been sold to the public under the banner of religion, exposing opportunistic Evangelicals as having as much of a connection to God as the Satanic Temple has with Satan with both needing an easily identifiable symbol to cut through the noise that they themselves helped create. While clearly admiring of how Greaves and company have co-opted the Evangelicals’ game plan, Lane doesn’t leave immune to criticism for their role in creating a feedback loop for political discourse, particularly on cable news, that needs a villain to subsist, though in rearranging the talking points, it’s evident the Temple has scored some clear victories.

As “Hail Satan?” presents members of the Satanic Temple of all creeds and colors in interviews, you see a group that reflects America far more than the one that has long held control of the airwaves, which makes both the Satanic Temple and Lane’s efforts to wrest control of the narrative back invigorating and renders the film’s generally straightforward approach as daring as anything the filmmaker’s done before. In an era where outrage has become a faith all its own, “Hail Satan?” finds that simply presenting reason and historical precedent proves to be audacious and Lane follows the lead of her subjects in showing that it can be done with enormous amounts of fun.

“Hail Satan?” will be distributed by Magnolia Pictures, opening in theaters on April 19th.

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