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Wrestling With Satan
Spreading the word of the Lord with suplexes
Loves: Good documentaries
Likes: Tales of do-gooders
Dislikes: Pro wrestling
Hates: Religious zealots, thieves who masquerade as religious leaders
It took a while to figure out what exactly the perspective of Wrestling for Satan might be. For most of the beginning, including a TV clip from a Christian morning show called At Home with Chuck & Jenni, it feels like an amazingly precise mockumentary, as it creates the world of the Christian Wrestling Foundation, a low-level Texas-based evangelical professional wrestling organization. The mix of religion and rasslin' seems ridiculous, and the characters feel exaggerated yet real, so you start to search IMDB to see how Christopher Guest was involved. However, this is just a straight documentary, and it seems like one that aims to show the CWF in a positive light, based on the frequent use of Bible quotes and the kid gloves used to handle the story's darker side.
Led by Rob Vaughn, who goes by the name Jesus Freak in the ring, the CWF puts on shows in gyms, churches and at amusement parks, where they also preach to the crowd, which is loaded with young, impressionable youth. Considering themselves to be a ministry, they aren't doing it for the money, though many of them do have aspirations to move on to bigger, better organizations. The angle is unique (footage of the wrestlers' bible study is interesting to see) and the group becomes big enough to draw some genuine names to the roster, including former WWE wrestlers like the late "Dr. Death" Steve Williams and AJ Styles. But the wrestling is just part of the story (probably the least interesting) as behind the scenes there's a great deal going on, including issues of loyalty, finances and the usual concerns that stalk any minor-league sports (or sports-entertainment) organization.
If the Bible quotes and chapter titles weren't a clue to the film's point of view, perhaps the Jack Chick-style illustrations that are peppered throughout provide a hint, especially the one included with this review, which is used when some of the subjects are talking about other religions. Flattering, it is not. The wrestlers talk of end times and the horrors of the world, and the apocalyptic imagery is so over the top that it's hard to take it seriously. It's also just creepy and emblematic of a problematic world view that's pervasive in the culture this film documents.
The thing is, there are bits and pieces here and there that feel like a more objective or even critical view, though it may just depend on your own personal perspective. It's easy to see a shot of a child wearing an "Abortion is Homicide" T-shirt and think of it two different ways, depending on your politics. This feels more like a promotional piece than an investigative one though, thanks to the lip service paid to some obvious issues. Though some questions are raised about Vaughn (and his stereotypical Tammy Faye-ish wife Anisa) by other wrestlers and a former CWF employee, in regards to money and personality, they are summarily dismissed by the film. (Interestingly, though the film covers the years 2000-2006, every wrestler in the film besides Vaughn is no longer associated with the CWF, and only two depicted are listed amongst the federation's legends.) Considering that the film was apparently released in 2009, and has only hit DVD six years later, an update would have been appreciated on what's happened in the nine years since the cameras stopped rolling, or at least answer some questions that should have been asked in the first place.
Packaged in a standard keepcase Wrestling with Satan arrives on a single DVD, which offers a static, anamorphic widescreen menu with options to play the film and check out the extras. There are no audio options and no subtitles or closed captioning.
The full-frame letterboxed transfer here is nothing to write home about, with blame likely assignable on several fronts, including in the original recordings. The video is low/no-budget video, with a mix of sit-down interviews (slightly better quality) and footage at matches and behind the scenes (decidedly less impressive.) Color is decent, as are black levels, but the level of fine detail is lacking in most places.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 audio track is the usual documentary affair, with balanced sound across the middle, and no notable punch, though the separation between the frequent songs (some truly kitschy tunes) and the dialogue. Nothing to really complain about here.
The extras include five CWF matches (though the box says seven) all of which include one of the former WWE performers, Williams or Styles. The matches, which run a combined 47:33 , were recorded either in a gym or at an amusement park, and are shot either from a long-range camera or home-video style from the crowd (resulting in one match featuring an unintended, muted commentary by a fan.) Among the elements that make these matches interesting are one where a crowd of people at a Christian evangelical event cheers a grown man spanking another grown man, while another features odd cut-aways to Vaughn, sitting in the audience watching, as the action in the ring continues off-camera. Very strange. Otherwise, it's very average wrestling action.
The Bottom Line
If it didn't have the feel of an official CWF release, Wrestling with Satan could have been a pretty interesting documentary, considering all the angles and the unique subject matter, but selling the party line leaves too many questions not only unasked but unanswered. The release's quality is not very high, and the extras will only be of interest to hardcore grappling fans, so there are a number of better options worth checking out.
Francis Rizzo III is a native Long Islander, where he works in academia. In his spare time, he enjoys watching hockey, writing and spending time with his wife, daughter and puppy.Follow him on Twitter
*The Reviewer's Bias section is an attempt to help readers use the review to its best effect. By knowing where the reviewer's biases lie on the film's subject matter, one can read the review with the right mindset.