Reviews / October 28, 2019
Of all the mutually reinforcing influences that compelled the mainstream popularization and commercialization of the horror genre in the 1970s, the role of made-for-TV films gets short shrift. Quite simply, they reached millions more viewers (impressionable kids included) than theatrical releases: not just because they were free, but because the stigma still attached to such “lurid” fare didn’t reach into the privacy of one’s own home—even though the home itself was the locus of so much of the terror. What we would now automatically categorize as horror was at the time billed with the more legitimate “thriller” tag, but the result was the same: essentially in-house B films, generally cribbed from theatrical money-makers and churned out so quickly that the anxieties of the moment often emerged in visceral ways. Aaron Spelling, though best known for dishing fantasies of affluence and opportunity to the middle-class, produced several of these tubular scares for ABC’s ratings-saving Movie of the Week, including the memorable Satan’s School for Girls.
Spelling’s first excursion into horror was The House That Would Not Die (1970), a gothic tale about a woman who inherits a country home that is haunted by dueling Revolutionary War-era ghosts. Another Spelling production, Crowhaven Farm (1970), about a married couple who move into a New England farm with ancient ties to a Satanic cult, premiered less than a month later. The introduction of the Archfiend and the town’s coven of conspiring witches was no accident: Ira Levin’s 1967 novel Rosemary’s Baby and its subsequent 1968 film adaptation possessed the puritanical American psyche like nothing before—and defined modern supernatural horror. It’s no surprise, then, that Satan’s School for Girls, written by Arthur A. Ross (Brubaker) and directed by David Lowell Rich (Eye of the Cat), owes its narrative push to Levin’s text; much of the story itself comes from the Val Lewton classic The Seventh Victim (1943), a likely influence on Levin.
Satan’s School for Girls opens with hysterical young Martha (Terry Lumley) driving at unsafe speeds down a lonely stretch of road. She soon arrives at her sister’s posh lakeside home in Los Angeles and locks herself inside. We know that she’s fleeing an unknown assailant, and, just as she begins to relax, we find out that the pursuer is closer than she thinks. When her slightly older sister Elizabeth (Pamela Franklin) arrives, she’s met by the police, who are responding to reports of screams. The cops force the lock and burst inside, where we see Martha swinging from a rope. Refusing to believe that her sister, “lonely” but “happier than she’s been in years,” killed herself, Elizabeth decides to investigate on her own: by enrolling at Martha’s alma mater—the Salem Academy for Women, a college of fine arts exclusive to “girls of good breeding”—under an assumed last name.
Martha is eagerly befriended by several Salem students, including Roberta (Kate Jackson), Debbie (Jamie Smith-Jackson), and Jody (Cheryl Ladd), all of them beautiful and seemingly normal (i.e. independent and somewhat rebellious) young women who refer to the stiff and conservative headmistress (Jo Van Fleet) as the “dragon lady.” Very much in line with the gothic pulps of the ’60 and ’70s, Elizabeth investigates the dank cellars and buried secrets of the 300-year-old institution by the light of a gas lantern (the headmistress has forewarned her of “erratic and exasperating electrical failures”) and the sound of howling winds. More girls commit suicide, and Elizabeth and Roberta, who Elizabeth finally confides in, implore the unbelieving but obviously frightened headmistress to take action. The name of the film itself gives away the last act, and although we’re meant to think the increasingly deranged psychology professor Professor Delacroix is the culprit—his class consists in little more than fatalistic manipulations and observations of rats in a maze—it is obviously the dashing and heavily crushed-on head of the fine arts department, Dr. Joseph Clampett (Roy Thinnes), who remarks in his painting class that the “artist needs to dare to see things that have never been seen before.”
Although the “afflicted” women of this Salem are not referred to as witches, that’s the implication, and the white-robed line-up of the finale makes it very clear what their virile master has in store for them. Roberta calls Clampett/Satan the “Malleus Maleforcum, the hammer of witches,” a mispronunciation and misunderstanding of the Malleus Maleficarum, a 15th century “treatise” on witchcraft calling for the extermination of its practitioners—“lustful” women who are “seduced by the illusions and phantasms of devils.” Witchcraft and Wicca were rediscovered and reinvented in the 1960s, especially as a means of female empowerment, and it did not go over well with the patriarchy (consider Samantha of Bewitched, a powerful witch who must suppress her magic to play the suburban housewife for her dimwitted husband).
Satan’s School for Girls is, probably without knowing it, a cautionary tale about what happens when the “weaker sex” is left to its own devices at a liberal arts boarding school where there are wine parties and at least one attractive older man. The social anxiety surrounding young adults going off to college, removed from the guiding Judeo-Christian morals of their parents and guardians, is well-represented in the horror genre: the aforementioned The Seventh Victim is a good example, as is Dario Argento’s 1977 Suspiria, which borrows a number of plot points from Satan’s School for Girls. To make matters worse, all of the girls here have money (remember Elizabeth’s lakeside bachelorette’s pad) but no parents and no families. They are “unwanted,” “abandoned” by proper society. “He wanted it that way,” Roberta says: “It has to be that way.” These young women of independent means and rooms of their own enrolled in Salem Academy to be “groomed into young ladies of culture and refinement,” and they became exactly that, or exactly the opposite, depending on your definition of culture and refinement. Sensible and headstrong Elizabeth survives, naturally, but her deception has cost several of the girls their lives, and Satan walks.
It’s interesting to note that the slasher genre developed partly out of the gothic pulp tradition so prominent in these early TV features, Satan’s School for Girls included. In 1972’s Home for the Holidays, for example, another Spelling-produced “thriller,” a father calls his four daughters home to protect him from their stepmother, who he believes is trying to kill him. The young women are stalked and two of them murdered by a deviant dressed in a yellow rain slicker and carrying a pitchfork (like 1980’s Friday the 13th, the killer is a woman). It was written by Joseph Stefano, who penned the screenplay for Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), the original slasher.
Kate Jackson and Cheryl Ladd went on to star in Spelling’s immensely popular Charlie’s Angels (1976-1981), of course, a series both maligned as “jiggle TV” and celebrated as a feminist text. Spelling Television’s Charmed (1998-2006), a supernatural spin on the same concept, met with the same reaction, but by this time popular perceptions of witches and witchcraft had changed: the show follows three sisters in San Francisco (erstwhile epicenter of the counterculture) who discover that they are powerful witches—powerful good witches, whose magic is stronger when combined—charged with protecting innocent mortals from ever-encroaching demonic forces.