If you were to ask your average person on the street to imagine Satanists, they would most likely give a vaguely broad yet similar answer: a group in hooded cloaks performing dread rituals to summon a demonic entity. Not only would this description be radically incorrect, but it would also largely miss the point of what Satanism has evolved to represent. Fortunately, filmmaker Penny Lane is on hand to rectify this with her latest documentary: Hail Satan?, an examination of The Satanic Temple (not to be confused with the Church of Satan) and its rise as a grassroots organisation advocating for religious freedom in the United States.
Composed of a combination of interviews with past and present members of the temple, along with news reports and archive footage from The Satanic Temple themselves, Lane successfully portrays her subjects in a way that is both respectful and free from judgement. It is a refreshing take that is a far cry from anything produced decades ago in the height of the Satanic Panic. Moreover, Lane never mocks or sneers, instead opting for a more detached role as director, with the focus being mainly on the organisation, and the end product is far more accessible as a result.
The question mark at the end of the title is important. After all, to the uninformed, admitting to being a Satanist is likely to cause a puzzled reaction. In fact, several of Lane’s interviewees have stories to tell of such interactions; in many ways, this self-awareness is paramount to the success of the film as a tongue-in-cheek sense of humour permeates throughout. Both Lane and her subjects seem to understand the ridiculousness of the situation and there’s an almost Iannucci-esque quality to Hail Satan? as a result. Shots perfectly capture confused reactions from onlookers and officials as they discuss plans to install a 10-foot statue of Baphomet – surrounded by adoring children – on government property.
There’s also something deeply pertinent about this film. The group’s struggle for religious pluralism in the US despite their non-theistic viewpoint is an important one, especially as LGBT+ and women’s reproductive rights are being quashed more regularly. While Lane falls short of making any definitive statement on the community – both wisely and somewhat frustratingly – it is clear that she is sympathetic to what The Satanic Temple stands for and the need for such a group. Hail Satan, indeed.