Hail Satan? (2019)

“It’s a great day to be a Satanist! It’s a great day to be a human being.”

The longer I reflect on the movie in retrospect, the more I appreciate the question mark in Hail Satan?’s title. This is a film that constantly challenges your assumptions about what it means to be a Satanist in the modern world until you start to question whether you’re a Satanist yourself, and how you can strive to be a better one. If I were still a shithead contrarian mall-goth teen with a chip on my shoulder about having been raised Catholic, I might have preferred that titular punctuation to be an explanation point. Fuck yeah, Hail Satan! And down with homework too! The surprise of this half-documentary, half propaganda piece is how it makes you wonder whether that same youthful contrarianism could be weaponized into a genuinely productive tool for political activism. I went into the film expecting to roll my eyes at close-minded Richard Dawkins types who immaturely latch onto atheism as if it’s a belief system rather than an absence of one. I left politically Fired Up and questioning my own core beliefs. Am I a Satanist? Is it moral to be anything else?

As the documentary explains, “Satanist” used to be a pejorative term that political & religious deviants were labeled with by others, not something that was chosen as a prideful belief system. That changed with Anton LaVey’s publicity carnival The Church of Satan, which openly mocked Christian piousness & ritual in a celebration of the self & selfish pleasures. The main subject of this documentary, The Satanic Temple, reconfigures LaVey’s mission into something more purposeful & coherent. The group still values the worship of the self and the fixation on Earthly existence over preparation for an unlikely afterlife that LaVey “preached,” but they take an active, overtly political role in making that Earthly world a better place to live. The entire foundation of the Temple was designed to directly, purposefully oppose the escalation of the Christian Right’s unconstitutional involvement in American politics. They’re just as drawn to troll-job media stunts as The Church of Satan, but in this case the mockery is targeting the way Christian political groups defy the Constitutional separation of Church & State by officially endorsing candidates, erecting Ten Commandments tablets at state capitals, and promoting prayer in public schools. They’re taking a clear stand against the increasingly prevalent lie that “This is a Christian nation,” by countering, “Actually, that’s factually inaccurate and to disagree would be just as un-Christian as it is un-American.”

Of course, there is a certain level of contrarian trolling afoot in this us vs. them dynamic, and that’s partly what makes the documentary such a fun watch. Members of The Satanic Temple are mostly just wholesome, politically conscious nerds who’ve dressed themselves up in Sprit Halloween Store costumes to play the part of wicked Satanists. That’s what makes it so funny when Catholics & Evangelicals take their roles as harbingers of Evil at face value, visibly terrified of the threat they pose to humanity’s collective soul. They deserve the pushback too, as all the Temple is really doing is appropriating Christian Right political tactics to expose them as hateful hypocrisy & unconstitutional bullying, merely by applying them in another religious context. The Temple only wants to install a statue of Baphomet on state capital grounds in cases where the commandments are already represented – unconstitutionally. Their satirical publicity stunts are mostly aimed to draw attention to how often Christian political pundits overstep their bounds because they represent the “dominant religion” in a secular nation. If anyone else pulled this shit, they’d be immediately shut down with an indignant fury, yet we rarely challenge the intrusion because the Christian opposition seems so insurmountable, especially in the American South. Watching their own infuriating political tactics turned back on them like the barrels of Elmer Fudd’s gun is immensely satisfying.

As a documentary, Hail Satan? has very little interest in historical context or unbiased presentation of current events. It dials the clock back to the Christian doubling-down in American politics of the Cold War 1950s and the Satanic Panic 1980s, but only to clarify that the idea that United States is “a Christian Nation” is a relatively recent lie that defies the intent of the Constitution as it was written. Mostly, this is a work of pure propaganda, promoting a single organization’s effort to fight for free speech & political secularism in the US. Some artistic representations of Satan from pop culture touchstones like Häxan, Legend, and The Devil’s Rain illustrate the political platform presented here, but the strongest case the film makes for its allegiance to The Devil is to point out that Satan Himself was a political activist in Christian lore. He dared to challenge God, which sometimes feels just as daunting as challenging the political bullying of the well-funded, over-propagandized Christian Right. It turns out that teenage mall-metal shitheads who hail Satan to annoy their parents are accidentally stumbling into a legitimate, worthwhile political stance that could only benefit modern Western society if it were taken more seriously. So yeah, it’s the kind of propaganda piece that promotes its subject rather than questioning it, unless you count questions like “How could anyone in good conscience be anything but a Satanist?” and “How could I better serve & emulate Satan in my daily life?”

-Brandon Ledet

The Devil’s Rain (1975)

EPSON MFP image

three star
campstamp

I was lead to The Devil’s Rain by a peculiar image featured in the recent Scientology documentary Going Clear: John Travolta’s young, eyeless, melting, goop-hemorrhaging face. The film was cited there as an example of Travolta’s immediate success in landing roles as a young actor, his earliest minor part in a feature-length film. It turns out that Travolta is not actually in The Devil’s Rain for all that long. Bleeding green goop out of his eyeless skull is essentially the extent of Travolta’s role, but there were plenty of other names of interest attached to the project as well: William Shatner, Ernest Borgnine, Tom Skerritt, and the director of The Abominable Dr. Phibes, Robert Feust. Despite all these recognizable Hollywood personalities, however, the most notable contributor to the film was an occultist author & musician Anton LaVey.

Anton LaVey is credited in The Devil’s Rain as the Technical Advisor, a job he landed through his real life credentials as High Priest of the Church of Satan. As briefly mentioned in our Swampchat on former Movie of the Month The Masque of the Red Death, LaVey had achieved a sort of celebrity status by marketing Satanism (which more celebrates materialism & individualism than it does The Devil proper) to California hippies in the 1960s. He is credited as a “technical adviser” in The Devil’s Rain to give the film a sense of credibility, but the film’s Satanic rituals feel way more cartoonishly “Satanic” than what idealistic hippies were most likely up to in reality. The film features such clichéd (but totally rad looking) Satanic cultural markers as red hooded robes, voodoo dolls, stained glass pentagrams, and high priests with magically transformed goat heads. Its most ludicrous stab at credibility, however, is its insistence on saying “Satanus” instead of “Satan”, because I guess it sounds more authentic in Latin. I was lead to The Devil’s Rain by a documentary profiling one cult (of which to this day Travolta is still a member) and instead found the phony beginner’s version of another.

The Devil’s Rain’s most punishing flaw is in its glacially slow pacing. a fault mostly due to a downplayed score and a meandering plot. Although the Satanic imagery is fun to gawk at, the movie does get frustrating in its refusal to be in a rush to entertain you. However, if you yourself are not in a particular rush, it’s an interesting lazy afternoon viewing experience in which goat people worship Satanus and get their heads melted (a young Travolta included), their bubbling skin oozing a disgusting green. The Devil’s Rain is a memorable film through the campy virtue of its oddball cast and the legitimate strengths of its Satanic imagery alone. Anton LaVey may not have provided the film with a feel of Satanic authenticity or saved it from its own miserable pacing, but he did afford it enough memorable images to make it worthwhile for a casual cult film fan who isn’t in any particular rush to be wowed.

-Brandon Ledet