Movie review – Satanis: The Devil’s Mass

A heart-warming, feel-good story about a poor-but-honest religious separatist named Anton LaVey who gets together with his friends to put on a show and save the local church. In a world where he’s treated by scorn and derided by neighbors, he rises up against injustice and…

OK, enough of the joke.

Satanis: The Devil’s Mass (1968) is a low-budget film about the Church of Satan. It alternates between scenes from CoS rituals, LaVey and his followers talking about the Church’s philosophy, and interviews with people on having these activities going on in their neighborhood.

I’m going to give LaVey and the filmmakers as much slack as I can: I don’t know how the film would have been received in 1968. Perhaps folks back then would have been shocked, horrified, or even entertained by naked women (and a couple of male backsides) in a ritual space filled with inverted pentacles and the like. I’m viewing the film 44 years later, from the perspective as a Wiccan of 21 years. My opinions and judgements are decidedly biased.

With that said…

The film is boring. Yes, the production values are low, but that’s no excuse for the poor direction and amateur camera work.

The interviews convey the “message” of the Church of Satan well-enough, I suppose, but that message seems trite and self-indulgent to me. They accept all manner of sexual perversion? My reaction: so does the Coven of Dark Eros, and those are intelligent folks with good communication skills. The neighbors’ reactions are more interesting that the CoS interviews, but not by much.

Only about 20-30% of the film consists of a Satanic mass, probably staged for the cameras. Based on a number of visual clues, it looks like at least two different rituals were edited together; e.g., one participant’s glasses magically disappear and reappear during the course of the ceremony. I have to give some credit here: it’s not easy to make a naked woman dancing with a huge snake (who I certainly hope was over 18, given the intimacy of their contact) look boring, but they manage it.

The naked women look bored. The participants in the ritual look bored. The guy in the pope hat who has his naked buttocks scourged (LaVey pronounces “scourge” to rhyme with “gorge”) looks bored, even has he’s being lowered into a coffin with a (bored-looking) naked woman to presumably have sex with her. I’ll try to be fair: None of them are professional actors. Maybe they were trying for to look solemn or intense or formal, and it comes across on camera as boredom.

Anton LaVey does most of the speaking during the ritual. Perhaps he had a more dynamic ritual presence during rituals that weren’t on-camera. I can only judge him by what’s in the film, and his delivery is overly-solemn, monotonous, and… well… boring. Of course, some of the rituals he’s mocking (like the Catholic mass) are boring as well, but mockery can be overdone.

There’s only one reason why I bothered to watch the film, and why I’ve devoted so many words to describe it: One of the participates in the Satanic ritual is a 17-year-old Isaac Bonewits; it’s his glasses that do the disappearing trick. Isaac is the youngest one in the ritual, by at least a decade; I can’t help but wonder if this was to add a touch of pedophilia into the proceedings.

Isaac would later say that people began to come to him for magical advice instead of LaVey, and this led to Isaac being thrown out of the CoS. The film lends support to this idea. Twice during the film, Isaac is reading various portions of scripture backwards (e.g., the Lord’s Prayer) while LaVey intones phrases from the Black Mass. Isaac’s monotone has more inflection and warmth than LaVey’s, even though he doesn’t appear to be consciously trying to outdo LaVey.

The high point occurs about three minutes before the end of the film. LaVey holds a sword to Isaac’s head, blade making contact with scalp, and asks Isaac what he desires.

I won’t repeat Isaac’s response here; I’m saving it for the biography. If you can’t wait, Satanis: The Devil’s Mass is available on DVD, and can be rented from Netflix. It’s also available on YouTube, but just the interviews; the “pornographic” parts are edited out and you won’t see Isaac.

I watched this with some members of Acorn Garden, my Wiccan group. As we listened to Isaac’s request, we burst out laughing. We weren’t the only ones. After Isaac finished his request, and LaVey is intoning a response, the camera jerkily circles around to show the smile evolve on Isaac’s face. It’s all he can do to keep from laughing himself.

Again to be fair to the CoS, after this was filmed Isaac went on to five marriages, many lovers, and Goddess-knows-how-many festival flings. One can’t say with certainty that Isaac’s request wasn’t granted. So “Hail Satan!” I guess.

Postscript: I just re-read My Satanic Adventure, and Isaac says he was the one in the pope outfit. I didn’t notice this at the time. I’ll check in a few months, when I think I can stomach watching the film again.

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  1. wgseligman

    Probably no one will ever read this entry again, but for my own records:

    No, Isaac was not the one in the pope outfit. Perhaps he wore it for other scenes that were not included, or maybe it was the tyranny of memory playing tricks on him. Certainly I have a Memory Tyrant of my own!

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