Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Satanis: The Devil’s Mass (1970)

          Among the many charismatic figures who achieved notoriety in the late ’60s and early ’70s by popularizing alternatives to mainstream belief systems, few courted controversy as actively as Anton LaVey, who founded the Church of Satan in 1966 and spent the next two decades preaching dark gospel from his home base in San Francisco. An expert at cultivating media attention, he cheerfully showcased the most sensationalistic aspects of his style of worship—nude women, ritual sex, sadomasochism—while arguing that Church of Satan principles are more intrinsically honest than ideals promulgated by conventional Judeo-Christian faiths. This documentary, which reached theaters with an X-rating, features footage of LaVey officiating a black mass, interspersed with man-on-the-street comments from neighbors, remarks from representatives of other religions, and sit-down interviews with LaVey.
          As a record of a noteworthy personage, Satanis: The Devil’s Mass is valuable, though the filmmakers took such a kid-gloves approach that the movie sometimes feels like a recruitment video. As an entertainment experience, Satanis: The Devil’s Mass is nearly a dud. The ritual scenes are repetitive and ridiculous, while the interview scenes are dull and flat. To the filmmakers’ credit—and, by extension, to LaVey’s—the ritual scenes aren’t juiced with over-the-top elements, so don’t expect suggestions of human sacrifices or anything truly horrific. Yet this restraint creates a viewing challenge, because it’s boring to watch LaVey proselytize at exhaustive length with no one challenging his dubious assertions.
          The ritual scenes, of course, are the real draw. LaVey officiates in a silly-looking costume, wearing a dark cape and a skullcap adorned with horns. Various female church members take turns sitting spread-eagled atop an altar, nude but for the strategically positioned skull prop they use for modesty. Chalices and knives get passed around while LaVey recites gobbledygook and leads chants. Snakes are integrated into the service at one point, and the “highlight” involves a dude climbing into a coffin with a compliant woman for some ritual humping. It’s basically a softcore sideshow, with a guy in a skull mask playing organ for accompaniment.
          During the interview scenes, LaVey explains that his version of Satanism is based on indulgence rather than abstinence, providing an alternative to the fear of punishment that defines Judeo-Christian faiths. This argument goes only so far, because LaVey can’t resist using shock-value anecdotes to make his points. For instance, he describes a man who found joy by increasing his number of daily masturbation sessions, trading the Christian notion of self-denial for the Satanist tenet of self-pleasure. As for the S&M angle, the film features a long and uninteresting scene of a woman whipping a man’s fleshy posterior. Presumably one reason for LaVey’s participation in the project was to show people that Satanists are harmless, and the film certainly makes the one black mass captured on camera seem relatively innocent. No one’s slitting open goats and drinking blood here. Still, it’s hard to reconcile LaVey’s mellow rap about shedding inhibitions with the traditional connotations of Satanism. Accordingly, the lack of journalistic scrutiny makes Satanis: The Devil’s Mass as deep as a puff piece on the evening news.
          FYI, this picture is not to be confused with another title released in the same year, Witchcraft ’70. Made by an Italian company, Witchcraft ’70 is another X-rated survey of Satanism, complete with appearances by LaVey, but it appears that much of Witchcraft ’70 was staged. Satanis: The Devil’s Mass is goofy, but it feels like the real deal.

Satanis: The Devil’s Mass: FUNKY

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