Sundance Review: The Sacred, the Profane, and the Silly in Realm of Satan
Playful portrait of the Church of Satan is a Rorschach test
By Richard Whittaker,
1:08PM, Sat. Feb. 3, 2024
There are certain films which serve as a kind of Rorschach test of the viewer. If you can watch Gone With the Wind without wincing at the "lost cause" nonsense, or view A Serbian Film without losing your lunch, that says a lot about you. So it is with Realm of Satan, the experimental documentary from Scott Cummings.
It's a sibling of sorts to his 2014 short "Buffalo Juggalos" in which he turned a clinical yet sympathetic lens on fans of Insane Clown Posse. The point, it seemed, was to point out the charming mundanity of a bunch of kids who paint their faces and keep Faygo Beverages Inc. in business.
Realm of Satan selects another purposefully outcast group: the Church of Satan, Anton LaVey's counter-culture sorcery club, and definitely not to be confused with practitioners of black magic. One subject gives the game away by casually mentioning they are an atheist, which has always sort of been the point of the church, an organization created on the basis of charming confrontation. Members hold both Christianity and devil worship to be equally ridiculous, instead using arcane symbolism and harmless societal transgressions as a way to ask a simple question: why? Why this rule, or this convention?
Cummings' near-wordless collage of tiny vignettes lurches between the profane (a woman suckling a goat), the mundane (a woman tidies the kitchen as a man sits at the breakfast table determinedly decorating his face with black-metal corpse paint), the insightful (a brief ceremony with knives and incantations), and the simply funny (a Satanist rendered as a satyr wanders across a kitchen to gaze blankly at the fridge, his cloven hooves clacking on the tiles).
That sense of humor is pervasive, playful, and undeniable. Take the graphically depicted PVC-clad orgy sequence, a moment that reminded me of a comedian’s bit about seeing a photograph by Robert Mapplethorpe of two men – one elbow-deep in the other – staring at the camera with the same calm demeanor of the father and daughter in American Gothic. To some, the comic explained, that’s an act of hideous perverse transgression. But if you’re cool, it’s just fucking hilarious.
The third response is that, between all the elegant lighting, the excessive choreography, and the amount of baby powder required to slip on all these crotchless body suits, it all just seems like so much effort. And maybe that’s where Cummings’ film finds its truest insight into the Church of Satan, that its more about performance than any philosophy or theosophy. Maybe that’s the real power of the Church of Satan and Realm of Satan: that they both burst the fallacy that just because you put a lot of energy into your beliefs, that doesn’t make it any more real than other superstition. The difference, Cummings implies, is that at least the Satanists are in on the joke.
However, not everyone gets the gag, and that’s where a brief period of drama and real peril appears, in the dismissive way news outlets handled the arson attack on the home of Joe Mendillo (better known as Joe Netherworld) in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.'s Witchcraft District. It's a subtle contrast with the film's playful depiction of Satanists, especially with the clear implication that this was a hate crime born of religious intolerance. And, honestly, who could be mad at Satanists? As Cummings shows, they're just like us – only they know they're silly.