Beware, ye who dare deny the devil’s existence, for he is out there, powerful as ever. And in Realm of Satan, the debut documentary feature from longtime editor Scott Cummings (Menashe), we meet his disciples, hard at work spreading Lucifer’s gospel. Prepare to be disturbed.
Or perhaps entertained. For much of what we see is performance art, as much a product of artifice as belief. On the other hand, what I perceive as cinematic trickery could just be my refusal of faith. Maybe Cummings knows more than we can imagine.
Whether the onscreen antics are real, heightened reality, or entirely staged, the end result is a lyrical treatment of the bizarre, from a woman breastfeeding a goat to impossible card tricks, levitation, and more. There are also some comparatively mundane—though not suitable for work—acts such as sexual orgies with latex-covered participants. Pick your poison; if you die, the faster you’ll meet your hellish master.
Cummings presents each scene like a tableau, actions happening without commentary and without dialogue, though we are witness to prayers. “For the uninvited, there is much to fear,” reads a sign above someone’s home. Still, though we might at times be uncomfortable, we are never afraid, for the camera draws us in, events unfolding within magnificently composed frames.
There is no narrative to speak of, but many characters repeat throughout, and at one point a sports car drives across the country, dragging us with it on a mysterious journey. A blacksmith forges a dagger that then later reappears. What is its purpose? It’s not clear, though it does float in mid-air.
Dogma is a tricky business. All religions require submission of a sort. One of the beautiful aspects of filmmaker Penny Lane’s 2019 Hail Satan? was its portrait of the Satanic Temple and its followers, none of whom believed in an actual devil but used the ostensible presence of Satan to troll the Christian right. Here, we appear to be dealing with actual Satanists, even if the movie has such a constantly playful aesthetic that the truth of the matter is always up for debate.
Instead, the pleasures come from the disconnected—yet simultaneously interwoven—series of visual anecdotes that, by the end, create an enigmatic mix of magic and cinéma vérité. Anything is possible. Take this quote from the 1969 Satanic Bible, written by Anton LaVey, which opens the film: ““A glow of new light is borne out of the night and Lucifer is risen, once more to proclaim: This is the Age of Satan! Satan rules the Earth.” In this realm, he certainly does.
– Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@ChrisReedFilm)
2024 Sundance Film Festival; Scott Cummings; Realm of Satan