Wednesday, March 02, 2011

CULT TV-MOVIE REVIEW: Satan's School for Girls (1973)

All considerations of quality aside for the moment,  a conscientious reviewer has to give Satan's School for Girls (1973) some pretty serious plaudits over that incredible title. 

But then again, Satan's School for Girls comes to us from the great age of TV-movies; when they boasted colorful and memorable monikers such as Don't Be Afraid of the Dark (1973), or A Cold Night's Death (1973). 

As the title makes abundantly clear, this made-for-TV movie was also produced during the rarefied age of  1970s Devil film: the wonderful spell between Brotherhood of Satan (1971) and The Exorcist  (1973).

Specifically, this Aaron Spelling TV-movie first aired on September 19, 1973, and later earned a reputation, according to The New York Times, as one of the most "memorable" made-for TV horrors of the disco decade.  It was even re-made in the year 2000, with Shanen Doherty in the lead role.

The original Satan's School for Girls stars fetching scream queen Pamela Franklin (And Soon the Darkness [1970], Legend of Hell House [1974]) as Elizabeth Sayers, a young woman investigating the apparent suicide of her beloved sister Martha. 

To that end, Elizabeth masquerades as a new student at Martha's former school, the exclusive and 300-year old Salem Academy for Women.

Elizabeth enrolls immediately in two classes: Behavioral Psychology with creepy Professor Delacroix (Lloyd Bochner) and an art class with hunky Dr. Clampett (Roy Thinnes).   In the latter class, Clampett urges the female students to "hang loose" and remember that everything in life is both "illusion and reality." 

Elizabeth soon befriends several students, including resourceful Roberta Lockhart (Kate Jackson), popular Jody (Cheryl Ladd) and the troubled Debbie (Jamie Smith-Jackson).  Debbie, in particular, appears afraid...and has painted a creepy portrait of the dead Martha trapped in what appears to be an old cellar.

Elizabeth locates that ancient cellar in her very dorm, Standish Hall, and learns from Roberta about a creepy local legend; about eight Salem witches who were hanged in a cellar just like that

After Elizabeth discovers that Debbie has also committed suicide, she investigates the files in the office of the Headmistress.  She learns that all the students at the school have been orphaned; just as Elizabeth herself has been orphaned.  She also learns that student files on Debbie and Martha are missing...

Then, late at night, when the power goes out, Dr.Clampett evacuates the campus save for Roberta and Elizabeth.  

In the dark, quiet loneliness of the cellar, Satan soon makes his play for eight young, impressionable and father-less souls to replace the ones he lost in Salem all those years ago. 

"I welcome what man rejects," he tells his would-be acolytes with open arms

And he's reserved a spot  just for Elizabeth...

Now, I'm not quite old enough (but almost old enough!) to remember Satan's School for Girls from its original transmission  Rather, I first saw it sometime in the early 1980s in weekend syndication.  I probably saw it when I was eleven or twelve, and it has stayed with me ever since.

And now, after watching Satan's School for Girls again, at least I have a better understanding of why that's the case. 

The movie, released on DVD by an outfit called "Cheezy Movies," looks like a relic from another lifetime.  The TV-movie is simple, straight-forward and even innocent in a weird sort of way by today's standards.  Yet some of the horror moments really do get the blood pumping.  This is a major accomplishment, because it's clear the movie was made for next to nothing.  There are no real visual or make-up effects to speak of, and almost the entire film takes place in just four of five interiors.

But Laurence Rosenthal's steroidal musical score works over-time to build shivers and anxiety, and director David Lowell Rich does an effective job keeping to the basics.  Many scenes have been lensed entirely at night, or in the dark, Gothic passages on the campus.  Thunder roars on the soundtrack, lightning crackles, and heavy doors creak regularly.  The fear expressed here -- simply -- is of being alone at night, in the darkness, and wondering if something malevolent might be hiding in the impenetrable blackness close-by. 

Nothing more complicated than that.

Yet it's amazing how many modern horror movies forget that it is the simple things that scare us the most.  A basement in the dark.  A storm at midnight.  The intimation of the diabolical.  Roy Thinnes in tight polyester pants...

Okay, I try not to do snark, in part because there are so many other places on the Internet where you can so readily find it, but if you're inclined to laugh or giggle at Satan's School of Girls, it's probably easy to do so.  I can't, in good conscience, deny that. 

The performances -- much like the narrative -- are oddly naive and almost child-like   But  if you're willing to buy into the movie (and it helps if you have some nostalgia for it), Satan's School for Girls unnerves in a very efficient, very 1970s fashion.  You want to giggle and assure yourself that a cheap TV-movie effort like this couldn't possibly bother you.

But just try watching it alone in the dark.  At night.  The cheesiness sort of evaporates and you find yourself in the midst of this very sincere, very straight-forward and eminently creepy tale.  Everyone involved really committed to it (just look at that actress screaming for her life in the still near the top of this post!) so what the hell is our excuse for not doing likewise, right?

And, if you dig just a little under the surface of Satan's School for Girls the movie actually features some interesting  ideas.  It's a movie about girls who don't have fathers, and who try to find a father figure in either Professor Clampett or Professor Delacroix.  Clampett urges the girls to "condemn nothing" and "embrace everything" -- the 1970s equivalent of "just do what feels good," and Delacroix treats the students like rats in a maze; hoping to awake them from their "passivity" should they ever encounter real "terror."

If you've seen the film, you know which of these guys is really the Devil in the disguise -- either the liberal artist or the paranoid psychologist -- but the push-pull between the clashing philosophies at least gives the viewer something to think about between scenes of screaming ingenues.

Satan's School for Girls is worth a curiosity viewing just for the cheeky title (as well as the bizarre opening sequence in which Martha grows terrified -- terrified I tell you! -- at the  sudden, unexplained appearance of not one, but two strange old men).  But more than that, if you let yourself buy into the premise of this 1973 made-for-TV movie, you might just get a good schooling in old-fashioned terror.


  1. SteveW12:19 PM

    You're right--the title alone makes this a must-watch. Part of me has always wondered how '70s-era TV horror would play for modern kids. Obviously it made a big impression on me, since I was of the perfect impressionable age back then for TV movies like "Don't Be Afraid of the Dark," "Crowhaven Farm," "Trilogy of Terror," etc. But would it all be too tame/cheesy/low-rent for "kids today"?

    So I did do a little experiment and watched the PG-rated "Burnt Offerings" (theatrical release, I know, but directed by Dan Curtis and on Netflix streaming) with my own kids around Halloween, and was delighted that it scared the beejeezus out of them! My youngest accused me of giving him nightmares for days!

    So now I'm eager to dig up more stuff like this on DVD. Thanks for this one--I'll add it to my list!

  2. SteveW12:38 PM

    But I should ask: Didn't the era of '70s devil films really begin in earnest with success of "Rosemary's Baby"?

  3. Hi SteveW:

    You know, I agree with you: Rosemary's Baby seems the progenitor of such films (and in 1970 we had movies like Blood on Satan's Claw, too...). So yep, I think you're right. The Great Devil Age ought to be from maybe 1969 to 1976 (ending with The Omen, perhaps?)

    Your experiment about 1970s made-for-tv movies resonating with today's youngsters makes perfect sense to me. Though lacking in special effects or make-up effects, these films really focus on universal fears; on fear of the dark; on fear of the night; on fear of basements, and stuff like that. So they are enormously effective in some way (if you can get past the 1970s fashions...).

    I can't wait till my son is old enough to see some of these with me...

    Great comment(s)!


  4. Fine look at this (and a nice appreciation of those "TV-movies" of the time), John. They took up an enormous part of my television watching during my late teens, in fact. I'll tell you right now, any piece that mentions A Cold Night's Death is going to get my gratitude -- including the others of that time which starred the late-Robert Culp (Outrage and Houston, We Got a Problem).

    Satan's School for Girls was a pretty entertaining and creepy flick. Now, if you could only make this a series and include those mentioned (might as well throw in the notorious Linda Blair TV-movie, Born Innocent), I can die happy. Great stuff, my friend. Thanks for this.

  5. Hi Le0pard13:

    I hope to review a Cold Day's Night and Outrage here in the not-too-distant future. I've been wanting to get back to some of these classic made-for-TV movies...

    You know, I never saw Born Innocent. And I'm sure I need to...

    Thanks for the comment, my friend,

    warmest wishes,


  6. I'm a big fan of this movie. I think a lot of TV movies, from the 70s even moreso than the 80s, were an interesting combination of classic horror filmmaking and total exploitation. Of course, they couldn't really have too much violence or any nudity, so they generated some salicious ideas and then applied more traditional filmmaking techniques. It really works.

    I also liked the remake, but I'm sure I'm in the minority here. I'm a big Shannen Doherty fan. There, I said it!

    Also, anything with Lloyd Bochner and Roy Thinnes = WIN!

    Thanks for giving the small screen stuff some love!

  7. Hello, Amanda, my friend,

    We share a deep affection for this movie, no question about it; a 70s made-for-tv classic. But I don't remember the Shannen Doherty version...I need to see it. I remember at the time, Shannen was being compared to a devil in the press, so her starring in a movie about Satan seemed like a slam dunk.

    Anyway, I cherish the opportunity to give the small screen stuff some love, as you put it, and hope to review more tv-movies soon.

    Thanks for the great comment,



  8. I just had a 70's TV-movie binge recently, and Satan's School for Girls was among the selection. I was struck by how many elements of these movies showed up later in other movies. Dying Room Only (1973) had some similarities to Texas Chainsaw. Are You in the House Alone? (1978) was a bit like Halloween, at least at first. Terror on the Beach (1973) reminded me of The Hills Have Eyes. The Strange and Deadly Occurrence seemed to have POV shots much like Friday the 13th with a strikingly similar backstory. A Cold Night's Death is like The Thing. Home for the Holidays (1972), which I love, seems very close to another favorite, Black Christmas (1974), also. Definitely made me wonder whether some of the 70's-80's greats of the genre had at least been subliminally influenced by TV movies from the 70s. Or perhaps they were all influenced by similar things?

    I also enjoyed watching Scream, Pretty Peggy, How Awful About Allan, Don't Be Afraid of the Dark, Crowhaven Farm, Bad Ronald, Dark Night of the Scarecrow, The Devil's Daughter, Don't Go to Sleep (1982--an all-time fave due to my family composition and when I saw it), Gargoyles, The House That Would Not Die, The Initiation of Sarah, Locusts, The Killer Bees, Midnight Offerings, The Night Strangler/The Night Stalker/The Norliss Tapes, Scream of the Wolf, Someone's Watching Me!, Summer of Fear, This House Possessed, When Michael Calls... and so many more! Luckily, many are available now on hulu or even youtube in parts, if not on DVD already.

    Thanks for the article!

  9. slasherfan:

    AMAZING comment.

    I think you make a good case for the quality of 1970s made-for-tv movies here. They really are an amazing and creative bunch, for the reasons you suggest. They seem to have impacted a lot of what was happening in the genre at the end of the decade and into the 1980s.

    Just reading through that impressive list of titles in your post makes me want to see many, many more of these, and soon...

    best wishes,

  10. I consider this movie the badass 'pilot' for Charlie's Angels, like the Satanic para-mythic vortex version. The title alone haunted me all through my childhood Kate Jackson obsession, especially as I never got to see it until a few months ago. Damn cheesyflix for their halfhearted cheek and lack of respect, like was given to Night of the Scarecrow. This should be on Criterion! Glad you got scared a bit, the 1970s were scary!! Satanism ran rampant through pop culture.