The felicitously named Penny Lane might be documentary film’s most compellingly cockamamie social historian. In 2013, she made her feature debut with “Our Nixon,” compiled almost entirely of Super-8 home movies taken by members of the eponymous president’s staff during their years in the White House. Her next foray was “Nuts!,” which chronicled the bizarre tale of a medical entrepreneur who parlayed a potion made from goat testicles into a far-reaching radio empire. In both films, what began as quirky slices of hitherto unseen American life became brilliant disquisitions on the contours of power and popular culture.
Lane delivers a more formally conventional film with her latest, “Hail Satan?,” But her focus, and amusedly acute point of view, thankfully remain intact. In this lively, equal parts funny and discomfiting film, she follows a group of self-identified Satan-worshipers to interrogate their beliefs and practices. Consistent with her oeuvre, what she finds is surprising and much deeper and more important than the surface of goth makeup, unsettling rituals and weird symbolism initially suggests. What might strike the viewer as a bunch of attention-seeking provocateurs interested in upsetting the bourgeois apple cart for its own sake instead become unlikely patriots, a brave, idealistic band of misfits and rebels dedicated to such values as reason, personal liberty, bodily autonomy and secularism in the public square.
Crazy, right? Well sometimes, yes. As “Hail Satan?” opens, Lane catches up with members of the newly formed Satanic Temple in Tallahassee, where they are alerting the media to an upcoming event — sorry, “convening” — where they will honor then-Gov. Rick Scott and his push for school prayer. Chanting “Hail Satan, hail Rick Scott” to a bemused press corps, the hooded activists praise Scott for opening the door to religious practice in public schools (bring on the pentagrams!). Their intended target is the hypocrisy embedded in the state favoring one religion over another, which is clearly forbidden in the Constitution’s establishment clause.
It’s at this point that one of the Temple’s co-founders, Lucien Greaves, decides to take playful provocation many steps further, establishing an actual headquarters in Salem, Mass., and spearheading what will become a national and international movement. Over the course of “Hail Satan?” Lane introduces the audience to a collection of thoughtful, creative, passionate people who are linked not by their belief in evil or a mythical fallen angel but by their shared outsiderism and insistence that, in the words of Detroit Satanic Temple leader Jex Blackmore, “framing the lack of free will as salvation was one of the greatest tricks ever played on mankind.”
She is referring to the Adam and Eve story, which Lane illustrates with lots of kitschy instructional films. (Her research and collage skills are unrivaled.) “Hail Satan?” also includes illuminating talking-head interviews with such scholars as Kevin Kruse, who puts even the most sophomoric and silly antics of Temple followers into serious political context, crediting them for waging front-line battles on behalf of free expression and the separation of church and state. Yes, these are outliers and freaks, people who aren’t afraid to dress and behave in strange, disrespectful and sometimes offensive ways. But their core tenets — which include compassion, empathy, rectification of harm and respect for scientific understanding — coexist happily with the most humanistic impulses of traditional religions. What’s more, as one Temple leader points out, the Catholic hierarchy that calls for a counterprotest to a nonviolent “black mass” held in Boston is the same institution that covered up sexual abuse within its ranks for decades. “And we’re evil?” he says.
As Lane catches up with various Temple activities throughout the country — from sponsoring blood drives to putting up monuments to the satanic god Baphomet on statehouse lawns — she encounters an inevitable schism, when one chapter deems the national leadership insufficiently confrontational. The filmmaker also gives viewers a useful primer in such seminal figures as Anton LaVey; how religiosity entered the public sphere through such leaders as Billy Graham; and the PR efforts of Hollywood and the “satanic panic” hysteria that took hold in the 1990s.
As a history lesson every bit as clarifying as it is cockeyed, “Hail Satan?” possesses unarguable value. But it also serves as a reminder of why we embrace nonconformity, pluralism and tolerance. You don’t have to see the movie’s punks, rebels, freethinkers and agitprop performance artists as heroes to admire their willingness to take a stand. Even at their most outre, they’re utterly of a piece with the American way.
R. At Landmark’s West End Cinema and the AFI Silver Theatre. Contains graphic nudity and some strong language. 95 minutes.