BUFF18, Film

BUFF18 REVIEW: Sympathy for the Devil (2016) dir. Neil Edwards

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As cults go, The Process Church of the Final Judgement is a little like Hungarian filmmaker Bela Tarr: more often namedropped than actually experienced or understood. If referenced at all today, it’s likely in reference to their alleged connections to the Manson Family and David “Son of Sam” Berkowitz. That infamy, along with their enigmatic name and brief vogue among the ‘60s rock elite, makes the Process a popular presence among the conspiracy-minded set, often working in conjunction with the Illuminati, Bohemian Grove, and the reptilians. But what is The Process?

That question, as illustrated in a Terry Gilliam-style comic strip from the Process’ in-house magazine, serves as a central motif of Sympathy for the Devil, Neil Edwards’ affable new documentary on the sect. The cartoons, along with interviews with several prominent ex-Process members, provide the first clue that, perhaps, The Process isn’t as scary as they made themselves out to be.

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Founded in early ‘60s England by the wonderfully named Robert de Grimston and his wife, Mary Ann, The Process quickly attracted attention with their all-black attire, occult leanings, and collection of enormous German shepherds with names like Satan and Lucifer. Amassing a sizable following of similarly disaffected proto-goth hippies, the group moved from their posh townhouse in London’s Mayfair district, to an abandoned factory on the coast of the Yucatan peninsula, to the bacchanalia of late ‘60s New Orleans, where they were accepted by the American counterculture and celebrated by such offbeat notables as George Clinton and John Waters (both interviewed here, both charming as always).

For a group that paraded around in black cloaks, revered a holy trinity of Jehovah, Lucifer, and Satan, and identified by a distinctly (if apparently accidentally) swastika-like emblem, The Process comes off in Sympathy as less sinister than community-oriented. The members interviewed are enormously likable (if a bit daffy, as aging British hippies tend to be), and while they’ve all moved on with their lives, none seem to view their time with The Process as an especially dark period. There are, of course, intimations of emotional and financial manipulation by the Grimstons, but for most, the experience seems to simply be a silly, youthful adventure, albeit one involving Black Masses and occasional public self-flagellation.

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Unusually for a cult exposé, Grimston himself is frequently relegated to background status; despite being the charismatic face of the group (one tabloid headline dubs him “The Christ of Carnaby Street”), he seldom factors into the members’ anecdotes. A possible reason for this surfaces in the last half hour: by all accounts, Grimston was more or less a figurehead, with Mary Ann serving as the true brains behind the outfit. An ex-prostitute and former Scientologist with a gift for reading people*, Mary Ann comes off as a genuinely remarkable and fascinating woman. Unfortunately, she was also good enough at being enigmatic that she remains a somewhat blurry figure; there seems to be some debate over when – or even if – she died.

If Sympathy for the Devil has a central fault, it’s a lack of drama. The group’s two most notorious associations are roundly rebuked (though The Process’ Father Malachi did make the questionable decision to solicit an editorial from a jailed Charles Manson for the group’s magazine), and without a Jonestown-style cataclysm or a central figure as arresting as Manson (or even Mel Lyman, Boston’s own hippie cult leader ripe for the documentary treatment), the film occasionally feels like a bit of a shaggy dog story. But as shaggy dog stories go, it’s a damn good one, filled with entertaining characters, unbelievable situations, and great music (mostly courtesy of classic Funkadelic records, as well as electronic composer Nicholas Bullen). More importantly, it’s a thoroughly informative account of a sorely undocumented subject; even as someone who’s spent a disproportionate amount of time researching devil cults, I’ve always been a bit unclear on the group’s details. And you won’t find a more charming group of devil-worshippers to spend an hour and a half with – even if they were, in the words of Hope “Mother Greer” White, “a bit apocalyptic and end-of-the-worldy.”

* – Interestingly, all three of these descriptors also apply to Charles Manson.

Sympathy for the Devil
2016
dir. Neil Edwards
106 min.

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