Jan 23, 2024

'Realm of Satan': Meet the Church's Magicians, Porn Stars, and Broomstick Makers


Come to the new documentary “Realm of Satan” for the woman breastfeeding a goat. Stay for the disco-dance routine led by a woman wearing antlers.

Nick Schager
The Daily Beast
January 22, 2024

PARK CITY, Utah—Satanists are inherently nonconformist, so it’s fitting that Realm of Satan—a documentary that premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival on Jan. 21 —upends expectations. Focusing on a collection of diverse international disciples of Anton LaVey, the founder of the Church of Satan, director Scott Cummings’ feature debut is a unique non-fiction affair that provides no background information, little context, and scant dialogue. It also boasts zero fly-on-the-wall material, instead presenting a series of carefully staged portraits of its subjects that aim to convey their lifestyles, personalities, and philosophies. Think of it as an 80-minute art installation in which Satanists are rendered—and deliberately render themselves—performative characters in a diabolical play of their own making.

Whereas Satanists sometimes argue that their religion is merely one about freedom—of thought and desire, and from rules and judgement—Realm of Satan contends that they’re far closer to the devil worshipers that movies, books, and TV shows have made them out to be for decades. Since everything in Realm of Satan has been self-consciously orchestrated to highlight these individuals’ dark and demonic visions of themselves, there’s nothing particularly scary about their appearances, attitudes, or practices, most of which come across as over-the-top affectations.

Nonetheless, Cummings’ film does occasionally strike upon a legitimately unnerving sight which suggests that these folks aren’t just playing around but, in fact, sincerely want to commune with the abyss. Of those, none are better than an early scene in which a woman, clad in a black-and-red hooded robe that obscures her face and flows over the bales of hay upon which she sits, breastfeeds a baby goat that we’ve just seen emerge from her mother’s womb—a jaw-dropper that’s all the more malevolent given that, once the animal stops nursing, the woman coaxes it to continue by gently rubbing its throat.

That tableau is an early highlight of Realm of Satan, which affords plentiful glimpses of random people whose names and locations are never identified. A montage of those folks separately reciting a Satanic prayer in different languages indicates that some are British, German, Scandinavian, and American, and later news reports about a fire that consumed the home of Joe Netherworld indicate that some of them—who eventually congregate for the finale—live in the Hudson Valley’s “Witchcraft District.”

Such details, however, illuminate little, on purpose; Cummings cares less about crafting an educational primer on Satanism than capturing the eccentricity of these men and women. Collaborating with cinematographer Gerald Kerkletz, he fashions one largely wordless display after another in an attempt to tap into their macabre spirit and energy.

Among its participants, Realm of Satan includes a rockabilly magician, a white-bearded blacksmith, a table-making artisan couple, a woman who weaves homemade witch’s broomsticks on her front porch, an elderly gentleman smoking a cigar at his dining room table, and a group of nominal porn actors dressed in full-body latex get-ups that cover everything except their crotches, the better to facilitate their orgiastic on-camera performances.

There’s additionally a close-up of a goat that morphs into the visage of an older gentleman who, along with his wife, turns out to be the master of ceremonies for the ritualistic gathering that takes place toward the conclusion of the film. That shindig is attended by a motley array of souls, including a songstress who croons a ballad in front of a bar and a CRT television that’s been converted into a fish tank, and a trio wearing homemade animal and devil masks created by another Satanist with a distinctly Brian Setzer-inspired style.

Realm of Satan depicts these figures in their “natural” habitats, by which I mean, their homes. Some of these settings are decorated in the most outlandishly ornate manner imaginable, and others simply resemble average middle-class abodes. The juxtaposition between run-of-the-mill domesticity and diabolical Satanism is constant, and typified by snapshots of a husband and father donning corpse paint (the preferred make-up of black metal musicians) at a kitchen table while his wife empties the dishwasher in the background, and before he ventures into the backyard to hang items (including a Star Wars bedsheet) on the clothesline.

Those contrasts ostensibly speak to the fact that Satanism exists among us, although they don’t subvert the idea that the religion remains a niche faith embraced by outsiders; a later shot of the corpse paint dad smoking in a sleeveless hoodie on an urban street as families walk by in the bright daylight underlines the conspicuous divide separating Satanists from the rest of society.

Be it Cummings and Kerkletz’s visual framing or their subjects’ line readings, outfits, arm-waving and bell-ringing, everything in Realm of Satan is painstakingly polished, and its calculated form turns much of the material unintentionally funny. This isn’t because the film’s male and female blasphemers love Satan (or at least the idea of him); rather, it’s that they take him—and their allegiance to him—so seriously that it reduces them to borderline jokes. The director doesn’t mean to condescendingly sneer at them but, instead, to celebrate them in all their idiosyncratic occult glory. Yet it’s difficult to do likewise when they don’t appear to recognize the campiness of what they’re up to—all of it predictably shrouded in darkness, illuminated by candlelight, and decorated with black and red velour clothing and curtains.

A nocturnal disco-dance routine by a troupe led by a woman wearing fiery antlers atop her head evokes the simultaneously silly, sensual, and sinister vitality of Satanism. Alas, too much of Realm of Satan comes off as unreasonably poe-faced, which not only neuters the proceedings’ sense of giddy transgression but feels at odds with these characters’ comical bizarreness. Following the destruction of Netherworld’s home, a female acquaintance hammers a sign into the now-barren plot which announces that anyone who comes forward with information leading to the arrest and conviction of those responsible for the crime will earn a reward of $6,666. Were that brand of cheekiness more prevalent throughout, Realm of Satan might have won some new converts. As it stands, however, it seems likely to keep Satanism in its much-beloved shadows.

Nick Schager

Entertainment Critic



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