“Isn’t this a hoax?” we hear a reporter ask at the beginning of Penny Lane’s latest documentary, “Hail Satan?” The question arises at a protest organized by The Satanic Temple on the steps of the Florida Capitol. The Salem-based organization had been denied the right to put up a display on capitol grounds, something that other religions had been allowed to do.
Previous films such as “Our Nixon” (2013) and “Nuts!” (2016) established Lane’s bona fides as a post-Errol Morris aficionado of the offbeat. Actually, offbeat is too weak a word for The Temple of Satan. Is it a religion? An excuse for some really out-there dressing up and play-acting? (Expect to see more tattoos per square inch than in any other movie this year.) An admittedly outré — and surprisingly effective — vehicle for First Amendment teachable moments?
As Lane shows, the answer is all of the above. This means she needs to juggle some seriously different-size balls, and that poses major tonal problems. Goofy is easy. Earnest is easy in a different way. Disturbing is both easy and hard. They’re all dissimilar, and “Hail Satan?” has lots of all three. It’s impressive how rarely you feel as if you’re watching different movies. Lane does throw in the towel at the end, going for ho-ho-ho jocose, with the Hallelujah Chorus playing on the soundtrack.
Maybe a better description than juggling balls would be shuffling cards, and Lane is an expert croupier. We get movie clips, from the likes of “The Ten Commandments” (1956), “Rosemary’s Baby” (1968), and “The Devil’s Rain” (1975). In the latter, Ernest Borgnine plays a satanic priest. It may be the single scariest moment in a documentary that does not lack for such.
There’s lots of news footage. Funny how often it comes from Fox News. Those people know button-pushing when they see it. Or flipping the bird. The temple’s head, the creepily photogenic Lucien Greaves, denies that the temple is “a middle finger to the evangelical right.” But since when has Lucifer, let alone his minions, been on oath?
Lucien Greaves (Lucifer Graves, get it?) is one of many talking heads. He’ll be participating in a discussion after the 2 p.m. screening on Sunday at the Coolidge Corner. Even more than the aberrant subject matter, Lane’s interviewing skills show the documentary at its most early Errol Morris (which is a compliment): Her capacity for getting people to say the damnednest things.
Some of those talking heads are academics, like Boston University law professor Jay Wexler and Princeton University history professor Kevin Kruse. They offer illuminating points about, respectively, church-state issues and how anti-Communist hysteria in the ’50s inspired the injection of religion into civic life (that’s when “under God” was inserted into the Pledge of Allegiance and “In God We Trust” placed on currency).
In fact, some of the most jarring sequences in “Hail Satan?” have nothing to do with satanic rituals and the like. They’re shots of legal proceedings and debate in Oklahoma, Arizona, and Arkansas over temple-sponsored measures to end religious invocations at government meetings and having the Ten Commandments displayed on public grounds. Or there’s the temple-sponsored blood drive, solicitation of socks for homeless people, picking up litter along highways, and, yes, an After School Satan Club, in Oregon. Actually, the most jarring sight is the shot of a copy of “The Satanic Children’s Big Book of Activities” coloring book. Stock up on those red Crayolas, kids.
Most of the talking heads are anything but academic. Greaves’s name and manner (a bit of Bond-villain fire and ice) seem tame compared to those of Eve Vulgaris, Wonka, Shiva Honey, Detryck Von Doom (the best name?), Sadie Satanas, Lanzifer Longinus, Chalice Blythe (or maybe that’s the best name), Hollow Axis, Siri Sanguine, America Darling Curl, and Jex Blackmore.
The camera loves Blackmore: Fire has melted any ice. She’s head of the temple’s Detroit chapter. Or was: Her expulsion becomes another of those cards Lane finds herself shuffling. Blackmore’s fate is a big deal to this extent. The temple may or may not be a religion, but here it exhibits what is historically one of the inevitable attributes of a religion: schism.
An increasingly important narrative thread is the temple seeking to put up an 8-foot-tall statue of a devil figure, Baphomet, on the grounds of the state capitol in Arkansas. Not unexpectedly, this inspires heated controversy. “Blasphemy is not free speech,” a protest sign reads. “They just want to irritate, if you want to know the truth,” an anti-Baphomet demonstrator says. That’s the whole point, though. Who exactly wants to know the truth? More important, what is the truth? On that question, “Hail Satan?” remains splendidly agnostic.
Directed by Penny Lane. At Kendall Square and Coolidge Corner. 94 minutes. R (graphic nudity, language)