Thursday, April 13, 2017

Cult-TV Movie Review: Satan's Triangle (1975)


“Within the last thirty years just off the east coast of the United States, more than a thousand men, women and children have vanished from the face of the Earth. No one knows how or why. This is one explanation.”

-Title Card, Satan’s Triangle (1975).


A coast guard rescue copter out of Miami flies to the dead center of the Devil’s Triangle in response to a distress call from a yacht, the Requite. Aboard the copter are pilots Lt. J. Haig (Doug McClure) and Pagnolini (Michael Conrad).

They soon find the yacht adrift in the Triangle, with the corpse of a Catholic priest, Father Martin (Alejandro Rey) swinging from the main mast. When the helicopter begins to develop engine problems, Haig decides to board the ship, and Pagnolini returns to port for repairs..

Upon exploring the dark vessel, Haig discovers more oddities. In one room, a corpse seems to be levitating in mid-air, his face frozen in terror.

The only survivor on the yacht is lovely Eva (Kim Novak), a prostitute who tells Haig her strange story. She reports that the yacht encountered Father Martin, adrift and alone.  Once the priest came aboard, however, the crew abandoned ship, leaving only the captain (Ed Lauter) and the passengers. 

Then, one at a time, the passengers -- including the man that Eva was with -- began to die horribly, and some in apparently supernatural fashion.

Haig is a non-believer, however, and refuses to believe that the Devil is at work in these waters, even though Eva warns that “there is no way off this damn boat.”

Haig is able to convince her that there is no supernatural intervention by providing logical explanations for all the deaths, even the one involving a levitation (the man is speared on a sword fish…).

Eva acquiesces, and the couple make love.

Soon, Pagnolini returns to rescue the survivors. But aboard the helicopter, J. Haig experiences his first face-to-face encounter with the Devil…


Satan’s Triangle (1975) is another one of those weird and wonderful made-for-TV movies of the 1970’s that is scarier than it has any right to be. 

Satan’s Triangle is scary beyond the meager resources that went into its making. It is scary despite the network restrictions on violence limiting filmmakers working in those years.  It remains scary, even though audiences realize the TV-movie is also, oddly, hokey.

When I study the made-for-TV film today, I assess that it works so well, in part, because of the film techniques it utilizes. 

Satan’s Triangle is in no way, shape or form a found-footage film, but nonetheless there is an almost documentary feeling to the film’s early scenes. The camera is perched in control rooms, in cockpits, and it captures all the action without much by way of dialogue or overly theatrical acting. In these early sections, artificiality is reduced.


Satan's Triangle, at first, feels more like a movie documenting the Coast Guard and a rescue mission than it does a movie about the devil. When Haig takes a rescue basket (via winch) to the deck of the stranded yacht, the camera captures it all in one long take, and water even splashes on the lens several times.  The characters don’t comment much, or talk unnecessarily, and so we are left to assess the images alone for their verisimilitude.

These moments hold up to scrutiny.

On the soundtrack, meanwhile is a weird, ubiquitous howling sound. Is it just the wind? Or is it…Satan?

The pseudo-documentary feel by director Sutton Roley changes once Haig is inside the ship; in the belly of the beast, as it were. The movie suddenly takes on a more overt (and theatrical) “haunted house” feel with dim-lighting, strange noises and odd occurrences. The appearance of the levitating body, for example, is quite shocking. 

There’s one amazing shot here in which the (levitating) face of the deceased man -- face frozen in a rictus of terror -- is perched in the foreground, and Haig and Eva are in the background. It’s a super-imposition of terror, and evil, over normality.

The movie also attempts to craft a legitimate theme, arguing rationality vs. irrationality. The script ultimately comes to explain every “supernatural” event as a factor of the natural world. The blow-back from firing a flare gun is what knocked Father Martin from the mast, and killed him.  The “levitating” man is just speared on a fish, suspended by the sword. Even the crew disappearances are explained (via speculative flashbacks.)

In short, Satan’s Triangle goes to great pains to establish that the world is not an irrational, supernatural one.  It may even convince you.


Until the bottom falls out.  

Until the movie collapses -- or perhaps ascends -- into a final scene of bizarre, utter madness. Haig finds that he has returned to the helicopter not with Eva but with the Devil.  Eva's body has been discovered on the ship with the rescuers. Instead, the pilot has brought the devil to the helicopter, in the form of Father Martin.

The Devil then attacks, and events descend deeper into chaos.  This denouement features a real dream-like, or more appropriately, nightmare-like quality.  Again, this third act functions as a very strong contrast to the almost-documentary feel of the movie’s start, and is thus doubly effective.


There are no real special effects to speak of in the finale, except an exceptionally nice stunt fall, as Haig is driven by Satan from the copter to the ocean far below. Instead of effects, the movie relies on Conrad’s ability to convey terror, and Rey’s expressive capacity to depict bug-eyed evil.

It all works perfectly.

I have peers, particularly a brother-in-law, who saw this film on ABC on January 14, 1975, and swear, to this day, that Satan’s Triangle is the most terrifying movie they’ve ever seen. Having not seen it as an impressionable child, I don’t know that I would make exactly the same claim.

Instead, I’ll just say that Satan’s Triangle, a low-budget, 74 minute made-for-TV movie, is eerily effective, and surprisingly well-made.  The film techniques save the day or at least this is "one explanation," for the movie's cult-status.

4 comments:

  1. John, excellent review of Satan’s Triangle(1975). Like your brother-in-law, as a young boy, I saw this on ABC on January 14, 1975 too. It was extremely scary to me back then and is yet another '70s telefilm gem. Amazing what an interesting script and good director with a low-budget could deliver. This '70s telefilm Satan’s Triangle plot was so engaging and when I saw the 1997 Event Horizon film I recalled it. They took the Bermuda Triangle/Yacht/devil and replaced it with the outer solar system/Event Horizon spaceship/devil, so similar.

    SGB

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  2. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ENhCjHjFLHk
    SATAN'S TRIANGLE(1975) on youtube

    SGB

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  3. Sheri2:03 PM

    I was, like SGB, going to mention "Event Horizon" as a parallel. The Bermuda Triangle was the subject of quite a large number of TV movies and documentaries. It's incredible how many wild, woolly, and yet surprisingly good TV movies were in the 70's. I think the restrictions in place at the time forced creative teams to really tighten up scripting, tease out directorial innovations, jettison a lot of ancillary material that added no value, and find suggestive and metaphorical opportunities with dialog. I think generally, the better TV movies had more limited casts and streamlined plots, while the lesser ones struggled to give enough material to too-large casts and threw the kitchen sink into the plot. I wish more of these things were circulated, as I remember a practically steady diet of good-to-excellent TV movies throughout my childhood and adolescence. Really an incredible number of them considering there were just three networks, although all three produced what seemed like at least one decent movie every week--in the case of ABC, more still. Not to mention summer time-fillers and after school specials. It began to seem as though television itself could not have existed without actors like Richard Crenna, Patty Duke, William Shatner, Arthur Hill, Robby Benson, John Savage, Dennis Weaver, and Linda Purl--all of whom were in a whole bunch of these things!

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  4. Hi John, holy $&#%! I do indeed remember seeing this as a kid. I was 7 years old at the time and the ending floored me. To this day I can't get that freaky Devil Doug Mclure ending out of my mind. Thanks for bringing the nightmares back!

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