Exit Poll is a series exploring the good, bad, and outright deranged films and events our editors are attending. This week: Sarah Nechamkin heads to IFC for a screening of Penny Lane’s new documentary Hail Satan?, in theaters April 17, which explores the rise of the Satanic Temple in a country increasingly hostile to difference.
Good cinema has a unique power to make you leave the theater with a jittery rush akin to that of downing trenta-sized iced coffee. In the case of the director Penny Lane’s new documentary, that buzz is coupled with the sudden realization that you may be a Satanist. I came into the theatre at IFC with a host of preconceptions about the Satanic Temple, expecting little but to be bemused at the perplexing activities of a bunch of eyebrow-pierced dudes in black cloaks. I was correct about the black cloaks thing: the film opened with a domestic scene of a couple members of the Satanic Temple, sitting in their Salem, Massachusetts headquarters — a lone black-painted Victorian home amidst a string of white ones — and stalking the stairs in what looks like the Party City version of a Lucifer cape. But Lane’s treatment of her subjects — perhaps some of the most unduly reviled members of contemporary society — reflects the Temple’s unique combination of self-referential humor and activist spirit. “Weirdly, these people are heroes,” Lane said with wide-eyed excitement in the post-film Q&A. “At the beginning of the film these words mean one thing, and at the end they mean something else entirely.” While it still felt viscerally uncomfortable for me to scribble the words “Hail Satan” in my notepad, it invited lighthearted laughs and a round of applause when one man opened up his question to Lane with a “First of all, hail Satan!” I, too, found myself drinking the black Kool-Aid, smiling and throwing up the Satanic sign of the horns for a photo against a green screen of a statue of Baphomet (with digital sunglasses thrown in for good measure.) That statue is the same one whose story provides the narrative through-line of the film, as it tracks the Temple’s much-publicized quest to erect the goat-headed deity alongside the Ten Commandments tablets that lie outside the Arkansas State Capitol building. The tenacity of the TST, led by the witty, understated, alluringly creepy Lucien Greaves, is on full display as they challenge lawmakers to justify their religious hypocrisy, and form a tight-knit community that exposes what they call this country’s widespread “Christian supremacy.” With clever displays of subversion, one of them involving BDSM adult babies, I’m fully convinced that the Satanic Temple is doing the Lord’s — er, the devil’s — work. If Hail Satan? is propaganda, it’s pretty damn effective — and uproariously fun to watch.