Review: The Good Work of the Devil in Hail Satan?

One of the very best reasons to make a documentary is to provide a glimpse into a lifestyle, culture or movement to which audiences might not otherwise be exposed. The more specific the subject matter the better, allowing us to go far down a single path and really gain an understanding of the world the filmmaker chooses to introduce. Hail Satan?, Penny Lane's (Nuts!, Our Nixon) latest documentary, is one such treat, a film about the modern Satanic Temple movement, the people who identify with it and the very real impact they're having on their communities. Hail Satan? Image courtesy of Magnolia Pictures Context is key in gaining an appreciation for this motley crew, so Lane smartly begins by reminding us of the "Satanic Panic" of the '70s and '80s, when parents and policy makers were convinced that heavy metal music and goth style were gateways to devil worship. From putting warning labels on albums to "experts" appearing on talk shows warning of the dangers of it all, it was all a trumped-up frenzy that never really amounted to much. Fast forward a couple of decades and the kids who were the misfits and outcasts in high school are now adults, contributing to society and searching (just like everyone else) for somewhere to belong. Key among them where the film is concerned is Lucien Greaves (an alias), the dry-witted, super-smart leader of the movement that would come to be known as the Satanic Temple. Not defined by a physical space at all, nor particularly comfortable with being referred to as a religion, Greaves and a small group of like-minded friends started out dabbling in civic activism, garnering news coverage for their protests and demonstrations around freedom of religion and the separation of church and state. Lane keeps one eye on this aspect of the group's existence as events unfold around a particularly genius form of protest: lobbying for a statue of Satanic demi-god Baphomet (a half-goat, half-man creature sitting on a throne) to be erected alongside any installation of the Ten Commandments proposed on government property. Simultaneously, the filmmaker explores the growing pains and internal politics that arise when a movement or organization finds its momentum building faster than it can keep up with. All of a sudden, a group defined by its outsider nature needs bylaws and chapters and a central governing body. And when one founding member goes particularly rogue, crossing lines even this contrarian mini-society deems too far, discipline is swift and decisive. The question mark in Hail Satan?'s title might seem odd at first glance, but its deliberate usage becomes quite clear as the film reveals how little the group has to do with the devil of days gone by. Even brief moments with Satanic Temple members from around the country serve to humanize a movement that, in more ways than you might expect, is actually a force for good. Their aesthetic may not be for everyone (which is sort of their point), but chances are most open-minded moviegoers will find a lot to appreciate in this surprisingly poignant, timely documentary.

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Lisa Trifone