Retro Review: Satanis: ‘The Devil’s Mass’
In 1966, occult fanatic and counterculturalist Anton LaVey founded the Church of Satan in San Francisco. Naturally founding a church devoted to the entity believed to be the father of all evil is bound to be met with shock and criticism to say the least. If, like me, you grew up in the Bible Belt, you likely heard countless tales of the horrors they commit every Halloween season. In 1970, LaVey hoped to dispel some of the rumors floating around about the Church of Satan while still allowing it to maintain its mystique. As such he turned to documentarian Ray Laurent who would end up making Satanis: The Devil’s Mass a cult classic documentary exploring not only the church and its beliefs but LaVey as its leader.
The movie opens, fittingly, with laypeople on the street giving their thoughts on LaVey’s church filled with criticisms and dismissal no doubt mirroring what many viewers may think. Immediately this is followed with footage of a ritual seemingly taken from a Hammer Horror. If this were all of the movie you would believe that the Church of Satan is indeed worthy of its reputation. Then as soon as the ominous organ music ends, almost like a play LaVey pretty much says “cut!” and everyone becomes people once again. It these first few minutes that pretty much sum up Satanis, it tears down the expectations many have of evildoers donning black robes and conducting sacrifices and shows they are simply ordinary people. Behind the camera, Laurent portrays the mundane, and even dorky, nature of being a follower of the Church of Satan. For better or worse, these people seem to enjoy LaVey’s preachings that humans should indulge in sin as their base human nature. As we see in talking head segments this is a double-edged swords, as he encourages selfishness which is never good but at the same time encourages tolerance to people of all walks of life, even homosexuality which was a taboo at this time.
Part of the problem with showing the ordinary nature of the Church of Satan is that Satanis can induce boredom for good stretches. An hour and a half runtime of listening to hippies go-on about their beliefs can definitely get grating. It is clear during his talking heads that Anton LaVey has a very high opinion of himself and listening to his arrogant philosophizing does get old. Luckily, we get some fun parts to break up this monotony .I particularly like the with interviews with his neighbors who talk genuinely about how nice and polite he is/ Though they do take issues with things like, LaVey owning a lion for a while or conducting ceremonies in the open where their children can see the nudity of whoever happens to be on an altar. The grand climax of Satanis: The Devil’s Mass is naturally the devil’s mass ceremony. While it is filled with black drapes, red lighting, organ music and all other things we associate with such an act, the fact that Ray Laurent has taken away much of the Church of Satan’s mystique it comes across as more laughable than anything else.
Mixing devil worshippers and sixties counterculture has made Satanis a favorite among cult film fans. Initially they likely look forward to the horror that is bound to unfold but ultimately are surprised by how mundane and at times dull it all is. But in the end it is appreciated for what it is as a documentary. There are no grandiose production values or anything of the like it is simply an honest look at a topic seen by many as taboo.