‘Realm Of Satan’ Review: Scott Cummings Experimental Doc Reveals The Ugly Truth About Satanism—It’s Corny [Sundance]

In the ‘80s, everyone was scared of Satanists. You know, the whole Satanic Panic era. But over time, especially with the ubiquity of the internet, the mystical veil covering Satanism was lifted, and everyone saw them for what they really were—fairly normal people with a slightly different take on religion. Oh yeah, and they love theatrics. By and large, they’re not scary, and often, they’re a bit… silly. Now, we have “Realm Of Satan,” an experimental film that blends fiction and non-fiction in a series of vignettes that showcase the real people behind the Church of Satan. And well, it’s exactly what you might expect from Satanists in 2024—it’s silly, boring, overly theatrical, and not at all scary. 

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First, we have to do a little bit of context. “Realm of Satan” follows folks who are members of the Church of Satan. These are the people who follow the works of Anton Lavey and actually worship Satan. These are not members of The Satanic Temple, a social justice organization that uses Satanic imagery to troll Christians, as the members fight for reproductive justice, inclusion, and religious freedom. (If you want to watch an incredible doc about them, check out Penny Lane’s “Hail Satan?”) “Realm of Satan” is focused entirely on the the followers of the Church of Satan, who, judging by this film, are more interested in chanting in dark rooms, performing outdoor rituals, and, uh, sleight of hand magic?

Filmmaker Scott Cummings has crafted a film that is very easy to describe. Through a series of vignettes, we get a static camera shot focused on one (sometimes two or three) members of the Church as they showcase a bit about their personal lives. Yes, one of those people is a vaudevillian performer/magician. Other scenes include a man putting on corpse paint (what Black Metal bands put on their faces to look like evil dead people), a woman doing a dance in a bar, and various people reciting Satanic prayers/invocations. There’s seemingly no rhyme or reason between what is shown and how the scenes are positioned in the film. You can go from a somewhat silly scene to a silent scene of someone sitting in their room to what is seemingly supposed to be shocking as we see a hardcore BDSM/kink scene play out. 

And it’s that latter bit that showcases the real fault of the film. It tries really hard to be edgy and shocking. The opening scene of the film, which this review will not spoil, serves no real purpose other than to set the tone that the following film is going to challenge you and shock you. Unfortunately, most of what follows is either incredibly dull or unintentionally laughable. As mentioned, the Church of Satan is no longer the boogeyman that your parents warned you about. “Realm of Satan” doesn’t just pull back the curtain to show you the personal lives of Church of Satan members; it shows the unspoken truth—it’s really corny. These aren’t people who are going to burn down churches and sacrifice your pets. These are (mostly) middle-aged white people living comfortable middle-class existences who like to dress up in black gowns and makeup from time to time and have the random skull in their living room. If you want real scares, you can find things exponentially more frightening in true crime docs or just on the news, as actual murderers and horrific people are much closer than you think. 

So, perhaps Cummings is here to show that everything here is a joke? Maybe that’s his thesis argument? If that’s the case, then this film is in really bad taste and really is mean-spirited in a way that isn’t fun, and it doesn’t explain the try-hard moments where the filmmaker is clearly trying to get a rise out of the audience by pushing boundaries of what is typically accepted in a film. 

Perhaps the biggest crime of “Realm of Satan” is the fact that you could randomly pick three subjects seen in this film, interview them about their lives, their interest in Satanism, and their experiences within the Church, and have something that is actually really intriguing. There is such a wide swath of what seems like truly fascinating characters, but we’re only given the most shallow view of their lives, which again is presented in a slightly exaggerated way. We learn nothing about these folks. We learn nothing about the Church of Satan. Ultimately, all we learn is that “Realm of Satan,” much like the Satanic Panic of decades past, is all uninteresting bluster with no real substance. [D]

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