Sundance Review: “Hail Satan?”

A look at the intersection of religion and activism, tracing the rise of The Satanic Temple: only six years old and already one of the most controversial religious movements in American history. The Temple is calling for a Satanic revolution to save the nation’s soul. But are they for real?

by Mark Elijah Rosenberg

At the Q&A after the world premiere of Hail Satan?, an audience member asked the film’s director Penny Lane if she always expected for the film to be as funny as it is. The audience had been laughing throughout the film. Lane said that, yes, she always knew it would be funny—the surprise to her was that the film turned out to be so inspiring as well. She never expected to make a film about prank Satanists that would raise so many vital social issues, and teach so much about the fundamentals of American democracy.

The Satanic Temple, led by the impishly clever and devilishly intelligent Lucien Greaves, is a creative organization like no other. Begun (sort of) as a political prank, it evolved to espouse deeply held beliefs that go beyond law, legislation or laughs. Sure, the name was chosen because it was available, and early actions were derived as twists on It’s a Wonderful Life (instead of angel’s getting their wings, dead people are turned gay), but there’s meaningful historical roots in the chosen iconography, and powerful, egalitarian depth to the social construct created. The Satanic Temple is pointing out many of the contradictions inherent in society today—the collapse of the separation of church and state, the blustery sanctimony of many who call themselves religious but themselves preach hate and division, the hypocrisy of the Boston Catholic Church calling the Satanists evil after years of covering up pedophilia—and they do it with humor and style.

The film is a joyful civics lesson (did you know that “In God We Trust” was only added to American currency in 1956?), and like the Temple itself, it successfully provokes discourse via disturbance. Perhaps the most beautiful and charming part of the Satanic Temple’s growth is that through and beyond the social-political messaging, they have developed a dynamic community. As Lane pointed out in the Q&A, learning about TST inspired her to think about her own fellowship, who the people around her are whom she could call on for support, for camaraderie, for like-minded action. We could all take a lesson from the Satanists on that.

Through the Rooftop Filmmakers’ Fund, we awarded Hail Satan? our largest cash grant in 2017, and I look forward to stirring up lots of trouble (at Rooftop and elsewhere) with this amazing documentary.