Hail Satan?, the latest documentary from Our Nixon director Penny Lane, explores the history of the Satanic Temple, a growing religious movement (of sorts) that’s rooted in political protest. Founded in 2013 by Malcolm Jarry and Lucien Greaves — who soon emerged as its dry, charismatic spokesperson — the Temple began as an attempt to reinforce the divide between church and state by taking that line’s erasure to its absurd extreme. Want prayer in school? Why not allow prayers to Satan too? Want to erect a sculpture of the Ten Commandments at state capitals? Why not make room for a lovingly rendered depiction of the demon Baphomet instructing children in the ways of the Dark Lord?
For the Satanic Temple, which bills itself as a nontheistic religion and eschews the supernatural in favor of science, Satan is more a source of rebellious inspiration than an object of worship. Which isn’t to say that the Devil — at least as a symbolic concept — doesn’t get big ups from the Temple. Lane’s film paints the movement in a highly flattering light as a form of political protest that mixes humor, camaraderie and badass heavy-metal imagery to get its point across.
But is Hail Satan? the most flattering depiction of Satan ever put to film? We surveyed some other contenders in an attempt to find an answer.
The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941)
After Jabez Stone (James Craig), a down-on-his-luck New Hampshire farmer, expresses a desire to sell his soul to the Devil in exchange for financial success, the Devil, in the form of a rapscallion calling himself Mr. Scratch (Walter Huston), obliges. Stone pledges his soul in exchange for seven years of good luck, then turns to the local political hero Daniel Webster (Edward Arnold) to plead his case when time is up.
Satan’s good points: As played by Huston, Mr. Scratch is a charmer. He’s quick with a witty line and a good drinking companion. He’s also true to his word, making good on his promise of prosperity even if he deemphasizes the cost. (“A soul is nothing. Can you see it, smell it, touch it? No.”) And he genuinely seems to enjoy it when Stone starts to commit the greatest sin of all in a film that does little to hide its distaste for inequity and capitalist excesses: taking advantage of his fellow citizens.
Is this a more positive depiction than Hail Satan?: Webster ultimately wins his case — decided on by a jury of the damned that includes Benedict Arnold — by arguing that condemning Stone would be un-American. Hail Satan? portrays the Satanic Temple as an organization committed to upholding Constitutional principles. As charming as Mr. Scratch is, he doesn’t have the same reverence for the American Way as Greaves and the other Satanists, and it seems likely Daniel Webster would land on the Temple’s side in its clashes with local governments.
Dudley Moore plays Stanley, a humble hamburger cook who wants nothing more than to catch the eye of one of his co-workers, Margaret (Eleanor Bron). He’s so willing, in fact, he makes a deal with the Devil (Peter Cook), who grants him seven wishes, each of which leads to a skit-like fantasy scenario in which Moore, Cook and Bron play various characters, sometimes joined by the Seven Deadly Sins (as played by Raquel Welch and others).
How does Satan come across? Cook’s Devil has a pretty great sense of humor. Or at least he’s great at amusing himself as he holds Stanley to the letter of his every wish. (A wish to be a fly on the wall turns him into a literal fly on a wall, har har har har.) But he’s also unexpectedly generous. After he’s done with Stanley (and once Cook and Moore, a popular comedy duo at this point in their careers, have cycled through a bunch of funny characters) he takes pity on Stanley and lets him keep his soul after all. (A different sort of loophole saves Brendan Fraser from the clutches of Elizabeth Hurley in the 2000 remake.) True, this is because he’s already collected a billion souls, but nice is nice.
Is this more positive than Hail Satan?: Ultimately, no. There’s the matter of the billion souls the Devil picks up before letting Stanley go and the additional matter of all the sadistic (if comical) torment he puts Stanley through first. Not believing in souls, the Satanic Temple doesn’t have much interest in collecting them, before or after putting their initiates through the wringer. Point: Satanic Temple.
Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
Struggling actor Guy Woodhouse (John Cassavetes) and his wife Rosemary (Mia Farrow) move into a swanky New York apartment, where they meet their neighbors Roman and Minnie Castevets (Sidney Blackmer and Ruth Gordon), a kindly old couple who welcome them to the building and even give Rosemary a cool pendant for good luck. They also, with Guy’s consent but without hers, arrange to have Rosemary impregnated with Satan’s child.
Satan’s good points: Apart from the whole raping and impregnating Rosemary against her will, Satan at least emerges as an entity who keeps promises (shades of Mr. Scratch). Guy immediately starts to experience professional success and though Rosemary grows ill and starts to crave raw meat, she at least gets support from the attentive Castevets. As a bonus, the final scene suggests that a global network of Satanists will lend a helping hand with childcare. It takes a village, after all.
Is this more positive than Hail Satan?: On the whole, no (the allure of free babysitting aside). The Satanic Temple would doubtlessly frown at the nonconsensual sex and on Rosemary having no choice over the fate of her unborn child. Its website’s FAQ also draws a line between its beliefs and the Anton LaVey–inspired Satansim depicted in Roman Polanski’s film, noting, “TST does not forward supernatural theories.”
Race With the Devil (1975)
Motorcycle dealers Roger (Peter Fonda) and Frank (Warren Oates) and their wives Alice (Loretta Swit) and Kelly (Lara Parker) pile into an RV and embark on a fun getaway that will take them to the skiing paradise of Aspen, Colorado — but only if they can get out of Texas first. This proves more difficult than usual when Roger and Frank stumble on a ritual Satanic sacrifice, then have trouble convincing the locals that there’s anything wrong, locals who seem like they might know more than they let on. Car chases, snake attacks, and dog murder all follow.
Satan’s good points: If nothing else, Satan seems good at community building, having established an underground network of like minded cultists across Texas.
Is this more positive than Hail Satan?: Lane’s film similarly depicts the Satanic Temple as an organization skilled at uniting followers in a common cause, but that cause has a more positive agenda than killing Peter Fonda and Warren Oates.
The Omen (1976)
Robert Thorn (Gregory Peck), an American diplomat, fails to inform his wife Katherine (Lee Remick) that their child died shortly after being born and that he’s agreed to raise an orphan born at the same time as their own. Oops! Turns out young Damien (Harvey Spencer Stephens) is actually Satan’s spawn.
Satan’s good points: In fairness, Damien could be worse. Sure there’s the whole matter of screaming at the thought of being taken into a church. And compelling a nanny to kill herself. And forcing his mother (or “mother”) to miscarry. And facilitating the death of a priest. And other not-so-positive qualities. But he is polite. And neatly groomed. You can’t take that away from him.
Is this more positive than Hail Satan?: Not really. Part of what makes Lucien Greaves (not his real name) such an effective spokesperson is his unnerving reasonableness. Speaking to the media, he’s gentlemanly, soft-spoken, and never raises his voice as he presents clean, logical arguments. And has he ever decapitated a photojournalist with a sheet of glass? He has not (to our knowledge).
Okay, technically Tim Curry plays Darkness not Satan in this Ridley Scott-directed fantasy film. But come on: the horns, the hooves, the red skin, the grody nails — he’s not fooling anyone. Determined to plunge an edenic fantasy kingdom into, well, darkness, Darkness wants nothing more than to slay the unicorns that protect it from corruption. To this end, he sends a bunch of goblins to attack the unicorns, which they’re able to do after a pair of lovestruck mortals named Jack (Tom Cruise) and Princess Lili (Mia Sara) unwittingly show them the way, forcing the (more or less) pure-hearted Jack into a highly symbolic battle with Darkness.
How does Satan come across? Wretched and horny. There’s not a lot of subtlety to this film, in which the repulsive Darkness lusts after the pure, beautiful Princess Lili. Nor should there be; it’s just not that sort of movie. But anyone looking for the Devil’s positive qualities should look elsewhere.
Is this more positive than Hail Satan?: Definitely not. Fashioned as a kind of fairy tale for grown-ups, Legend brings the fear of sex at the heart of many of those stories to the surface. The Satanic Temple, on the other hand, comes off as pretty sex positive in Hail Satan? And where Darkness tries to take Princess Lili by coercion, the Temple’s counter-protests of anti-abortion activists affirm it as an organization dedicated to upholding a woman’s right to choose.
Tales From the Hood (1995)
Clarence Williams III hosts this horror anthology film as “Mr. Simms” a “funeral director” who promises a trio of young drug dealers a cache of drugs. But first, he must tell them three stories, each with shocking — but instructive — twist endings. (Also, spoiler, he’s Satan in disguise and they’re all going to Hell.)
How does Satan come across? Williams plays Simms as creepy as hell, but also oddly well-intentioned. It’s too late for the dealers who’ve stumbled into his lair, but his stories all have strong, socially conscious messages in which white supremacists, child abusers, and murderous gangsters all get what’s coming to them. He’s very into taking the dealers’ souls, but also in imparting some strong lessons to the moviegoers watching the film.
Is this more positive than Hail Satan?: It’s closer than you might think. The Satanic Temple’s program includes a kid-friendly after-school study program designed to introduce kids to “free inquiry, rationalism, and scientific understanding.” In both cases, the Devil makes some pretty good points (though Hail Satan? probably has the edge here simply by not depicting anyone gleefully damning others to hell).
The Devil’s Advocate (1997)
Keanu Reeves stars as Kevin, a lawyer whose successful defense of an accused child molester attracts the attention of John Milton (Al Pacino), a high-powered New York attorney eager to work with Kevin and grant his every wish. (Because [whispers] he’s Satan.) How far will Kevin go before he says no? Pretty, far, as it turns out, sticking with Milton even as his wife Mary Ann (Charlize Theron) and others send out some pretty strong warning signs that he made have made a deal with, well, you know who.
How does Satan come across? Satan lays it on a little thick, to be honest. The film arrived at a point in Pacino’s career when he wasn’t afraid to go extremely big with his performances, and what better opportunity to do that than Satan? Still, if his temptations seem a little familiar (sex, money, the usual stuff), they’re classics for a reason and Pacino chews up dialogue that lets him offer logical, reasonably arguments about why going down the road to Hell might be a pretty good idea.
Is this a more positive depiction than Hail Satan?: Honestly, Satan seems like kind of an asshole here.
House of the Devil (2009)
In ’80s New England, college student Samantha (Jocelin Donahue) takes on a babysitting job at a remote estate, a gig that starts out fishy then keeps getting fishier as her employers the Ulmans (Tom Noonan and Mary Woronov), reveal that she’ll actually be caring for a sick older woman. Still, they keep raising the price, so she agrees anyway, only to stumble onto some strange goings-on involving pentagrams, a goat’s skull, and a dark ritual — all created with her in mind.
Satan’s good points: There’s not a lot to recommend Satan here apart from a Machiavellian sense of business savvy. The Ulmans negotiate a more-than-fair price for services rendered then leverage their position to extract more from the deal than originally negotiated.
Is this more positive than Hail Satan?: This bargain, which leaves Samantha in the Rosemary-like position of carrying the spawn of the Devil, seems pretty unfair, even given the parties involved. It’s the sort of thing the Satanic Temple would doubtlessly frown upon.
The Witch (2015)
Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) is just your ordinary teenaged Puritan exiled with her family (and their goat, Black Phillip) to live in the New England woods when a religious disagreement leads them to split with other members of the Plymouth Colony. It’s there she loses her newborn brother during a game of peekaboo, seemingly to a witch determined to kill him for her magic ointments. Harsh. Even harsher, the witch then begins alternately to attempt to seduce and terrorize Thomasin’s family.
Satan’s good points: Satan, in the form of Black Phillip (who in term takes the form of a husky-voiced man), invites Thomasin to join him and “live deliciously,” a lifestyle that involves pretty dresses and, best of all, the “taste of butter.” And, to be fair, that sounds pretty great. Not that there aren’t strings attached: Thomasin has to sign a book presumably giving away her soul, and this requirement comes on the heels of Black Phillip and/or the Witch and/or Thomasin herself killing Thomasin’s family. On the other hand, Thomasin’s Puritan life seemed pretty awful. And decidedly butter-free.
Is this more positive than Hail Satan?: This one’s the closest we have to a toss-up. Part of the evil charm of Robert Eggers’ film comes from the way it makes Thomasin’s potential deal with the Devil look pretty good when compared to a life of privation, sacrifice and self-denial. Still, Lane’s film makes the Satanic Temple seem like the sort of organization that would be free and loose with butter distribution and would never require the slaying of family members in order to acquire said butter. If that alone doesn’t make Hail Satan? the most positive depiction of Satan yet, then what does?