The Process Church of the Final Judgment was a lot of things, but it turned out to be most famous for what it was not. That is to say, while most people would consider it a cult, it was not a criminal organization. Through multiple viewpoint interviews, a focus on original documents and photographs, and a dash of Terry Gilliam style animations, Neil Edward’s Sympathy For the Devil: the True Story of the Process Church of the Final Judgment (2015) does an admirable job of telling the truth about this strange and oft-maligned religious movement of yesteryear.
In 1966, Robert and Mary Ann DeGrimston split from Scientology and started Compulsions Analysis, which they soon rechristened as the Process. The messianic-looking husband and enigmatic wife gathered a following of young people who sought meaning in life by pondering the mysteries of Jehovah, Lucifer, Christ, and Satan. They traveled from England to the Caribbean to find their holy land and eventually settled in remote Yucatan where they experienced much hardship and some validation. It was then and there that the Process truly gelled. Thence, to the USA to put on black robes, spread their eschatological gospel, and sell thousands of copies of their sinister, psychedelic magazine. After inadvertently getting hitched to the Manson Family mythology, the Process became even more frightening to the general public. With the DeGrimstons’ divorce in 1974 the Process functionally ended, but after a dormant period, its influence on American history only grew. In The Ultimate Evil (1987) Maury Terry proposed a conspiracy theory that the Process remained alive and evil as a Satanic cult of assassins responsible for the deaths of Robert Kennedy and David Berkowitz’s victims. No concrete evidence supported Terry’s assertion, but rumors of untrue crimes proved more glamorous than the humdrum reality; the members of the Process never hurt anyone and they didn’t even worship a literal Satan or Lucifer.
Taking a generally chronological approach, producer and director Neil Edwards focuses on their history rather than their complicated, dialectical theology. Suffice it to say, “the Gods” were emblematical of personality types, as is made apparent from interviews with original inner-circle members Timothy Wyllie, Malachi McCormick, Sabrina Verney, Edward Mason, Hope Thornton-White, and Sammy Nasr. Except for photographs of the duo, the Process founders remain off-camera. (Robert DeGrimston Moore lives in relative anonymity and the rarely photographed Mary Ann MacLean died in 2005.)
The documentary is at its best when interviewing Process magazine’s graphic designer, Timothy Wyllie. He ultimately characterizes the Process as religious satire, “Dada meets Aleister Crowley.” The members’ witchy appearance scared away many, but attracted a few who helped popularize the Process. George Clinton, in particular, promoted the fledgling religion in Funkadelic album liner notes. The film benefits greatly from the inclusion of four early Funkadelic songs. John Waters admires the Process for being anti-hippies, but also (witty as always) pokes fun at them by stating, “You can’t look threatening wearing a cloak. Ever. It’s a bad fashion choice for a Satanist.” Finally, Lucien Greaves explains how the legend of the Process fueled the fires of the so-called Satanic Panic of the 1980s and 90s. As co-founder of The Satanic Temple, he knows a lot about Satanism, both in non-theistic practice and popular imagination. For him, Sympathy For the Devil had direct consequences. Filmmaker Penny Lane, intrigued by Greaves’ introductory remarks at a Boston screening , decided to investigate The Satanic Temple. The result? One documentary follows another. Working Hard Movies’ Hail Satan? premieres at the Sundance Film Festival on January 25, 2019 and has a general release date of April 19th.