In horror movies, anyone invoking satanic tropes as part of a joke or performance piece will inevitably be revealed in the third act to be a conscious agent of Satan, deliberately doing his evil bidding here on Earth. However, this is nothing like a horror movie, because horror movies are fun to watch. Instead, we get a constant stream of political statements from the prankster-activists of the Satanic Temple in Penny Lane’s documentary, Hail Satan?, which opens today in New York.
Supposedly, the Satanic Temple is dedicated to the preservation of secular humanist values, most definitely including the separation of church and state. However, instead of campaigning against Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) (which is practiced by some remote Christian sects, but not Evangelicals), the growing influence of Sharia Law, and women forced to wear veils and burkas, most of Lane’s doc focuses on the Temple’s campaign against a proposed Ten Commandments monument on the grounds of the Arkansas state capitol.
Granted, a statue of Moses’ stone tablets sounds like a total waste of tax-payer money, but if you opened the Arkansas state budget to any page you could probably find costlier boondoggles. At least, the monument has the virtue of being a one-time expense—or at least it would, were it not for the periodic vandalism requiring extensive restoration work. Regardless, the Temple thinks it is all very funny petitioning to have a statue of the demon Baphomet placed next to it, but the truth is, their crusade is a fundraising gift from God to the sponsor of the Commandment monument, State Sen, Jason Rapert, a former clergyman. Seriously, how perfect is it for his messaging to have the Satanic Temple openly campaigning against him? A more insightful film would have explored that symbiosis, but this is more like an extended commercial for the Temple.
In fact, watching Hail Satan? is like sitting through a lecture from the People for the American Way, with some added pitchfork and cloven hoof imagery. Lane never challenges anything the Temple activists say nor does she offer the other side any opportunity to speak for themselves. As a result, the film is such a puff piece, its only value is as a recruiting tool for the Temple. Although Lane’s previous doc Nuts was quite interesting and entertaining, Hail Satan? is so nakedly biased, it calls into question her credibility as an independent filmmaker.
Of course, the real irony is everything the Satanic Temple ascribes to their Evangelical bogeymen applies to them with equal or greater force. They obviously have no interest in understanding other points of view, because of their overwhelming confidence in their moral superiority. Rather, they prefer to demonize (so to speak) those who disagree with them.
So, let’s ask what would the Satan of William Peter Blatty novels want us to do as a nation? He would want us to assume the worst about each other. He would want to maximize polarization and distrust, while minimizing dialogue that seeks common ground. Based on the activity Lane presents, it is safe to say the Temple is doing his work here on Earth. That is not funny. It’s depressing. Not recommended, Hail Satan? opens today (4/17) in New York, at the IFC Center.