Made in collaboration with the Church of Satan, as stated in its opening titles, Scott Cumming’s Realm of Satan doesn’t seek to expose hidden secrets of the religion, investigate the church’s place amongst belief systems, or, for the most part, even hear from those who may oppose its teachings. Rather, solely through a series of inspired cinematic tableaus, we are invited to take a look from the inside to witness the practices and everyday lives of those who follow this atheistic path. Due to the welcome decision of not delving deeper into the minds of the subjects––as well as displaying little input on the part of the filmmaker apart from the frames he chooses to capture––Realm of Satan becomes a compelling Rorschach test for how one may perceive the religious.
With bubbling concoctions, magic tricks, skull-laden homes, and the tease of orgies with all participants donning full-body leatherwear, there’s a sense Cumming’s aim is to make this way of life look as cool as can be. After all, Satanism is less about any belief in the supernatural or an afterlife, and more about living one’s sole time here on Earth with as much joy and as many fantasy-filled experiences as possible––in whatever interpretation that may be for an individual. By extension, through a fanciful yet grounded incorporation of visual-effects sequences, Realm of Satan becomes a cinematic act of fulfilling one’s fantasy: we see humans morphed into creatures, bodies floating, and cars burning flame-fueled rubber. The inclusive nature of the religion is also touched on, particularly when the focus is on a member, who uses a wheelchair, ultimately envisioning the kind of total freedom only a film can imagine.
While Cummings, director of the short Buffalo Juggalos and regular editor for Eliza Hittman, is clearly attempting as little commentary as possible, it’s interesting to glean what he focuses on. We witness how one of its presumable leaders lives in luxury, giving his sports car a polish next to a giant Satanic statue. When juxtaposed with the millions of dollars that evangelical Christian megachurch pastors make from their non-profit organizations, at least with Satanism, living out a life of wealth is a noble goal and not something one should try to hide or make excuses for. There’s also ample room for humor: in one sequence we see someone hanging out their laundry to dry, including a massive Star Wars-branded towel, and in another a member is putting on demonic face paint in the foreground while his wife is unloading the dishwasher in the background. Indeed, no religion will release one from everyday, mundane tasks and consumerism gets the best of all of us.
As shot by cinematographer Gerald Kerkletz, some images will never leave my mind. From the early birth of a goat and subsequent, unconventional milking to a night-time ritualistic fire dance in the woods that the next A24 filmmaker will certainly rip off for their horror feature, Realm of Satan could easily be used as a promotional tool to encourage new memberships. While such an intent would likely rub many the wrong way if it were another religion, the anti-proselytizing nature and total freedom of Satanism make a propagandistic piece like this an easier pill to swallow. The few moments where the film breaks its formal conceit––where we see the backlash and targeted attacks some members face in their community––feel out-of-place with the whole.
Expressing an entirely different stylistic technique from Penny Lane’s documentary Hail Satan? a few years ago, Cumming’s feature directorial debut, with its strictly observational approach, gets to the heart of why someone may be interested in the religion. With an inquisitiveness based on ceremony and process rather than talking heads or investigative filmmaking, Realm of Satan requires no verbal declarations to convince what attracts one to follow this way of life. The images do all the talking.
Realm of Satan premiered at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival.