Reviews / October 29, 2019
The Halloween of my Northern English youth was more an informal folk festival than anything institutional, as a quick leaf through the TV schedules of the day will demonstrate: no pumpkins were deployed and you didn’t dress up; you just stayed indoors, turned the Herbert van Thal anthologies to the wall, and hoped to god no witches attacked, if you thought about it at all. This might have been due to Halloween’s proximity to the more spectacular Bonfire Night or to the country’s nominal—and deeply hypocritical—-rejection of superstition. Hypocritical because ghosts and the uncanny made up about 80% of all cultural production aimed at children, so apart from maybe a segment about apple bobbing on Blue Peter or a spooky story on Jackanory, there wasn’t really much in the way of Halloween programming required. With that in mind, I’m going to make up for lost terror by having a look at a couple of films that rode the satanic possession wave set in motion by 1968’s Rosemary’s Baby and 1973’s The Exorcist.
I spend a lot of time here at We Are the Mutants trying to appear far more perceptive, informed, and insightful than I actually am, so it’s always a relief when I get to turn my hand to the kind of lovable, shallow crap of which I can honestly claim to have an instinctive grasp: 1975’s Satan’s Triangle is just such lovable, shallow crap. Released the year after Charles Berlitz’s bestselling book made a patch of sea off Bermuda a worldwide synonym for eerie disappearance and five years before Barry Manilow’s panegyric would introduce the phenomenon into the lexicon of my nana, Satan’s Triangle peddles a now-neglected commodity of which I, a child of the 1970s, will never tire: that unlikeliest of matinée heroes and, for at least some of us Brits, one of the quintessential US males—Doug McClure.
The story is a pretty straightforward one: a Coast Guard helicopter rescue team composed of ladies’ man Haig (McClure) and the God-fearing Pagnolini (the great Michael Conrad—Sergeant Esterhaus of Hill Street Blues) is dispatched from Miami to find a ship that has sent out an SOS from an area of sea known as the Berm—sorry—the Devil’s Triangle. When Haig is lowered to the deck, he finds various dead bodies, including one which seems to be floating in air, along with sole survivor Eva (Kim Novak, in full dime-store Gothic romance paperback pomp), whose witchy ways and vanishing crucifix imply she might be behind the satanic skullduggery.
As Eva and Haig are being winched back up to the chopper, the cable snaps, and while Pagnolini rushes off to refuel, the two are left to explore the boat, at which point McClure finally dons his true uniform of office—-a cable knit sweater. Cue flashbacks in which Eva tells the story of how the fishing trip the boat was chartered for by her beau Hal (who we later learn is actually her client, and Eva a prostitute) and that strange things began to happen right after they took on board a marooned priest, Father Martin (Alejandro Rey), found floating on a snapped-off airplane wing. Once Eva has—inevitably—succumbed to McClure’s cable-knit charms (I mean, who wouldn’t succumb to that vast doughy face?), Haig embarks on a highly mansplainey debunking of the supposedly supernatural events. Needless to say, though, there’s a twist in the tail, and Satan’s Triangle ends with Doug McClure becoming the Antichrist: let that sink in.
Is it good? You might need to define “good.” Is it hugely enjoyable? Holy Christ on a bike, yes. Its director and writer were respectively Sutton Roley—who seems to have been responsible for directing two or three episodes of practically every TV show ever made—and Billy Woodfield—who seems to have been responsible for writing them—and you can immediately feel the smoothness of the skilled artisan’s hand at work. Despite this, the first 10 minutes of the film (which feature some beautifully-shot aerial footage of the U.S. Coast Guard’s Sikorsky HH-52A “Seaguard” helicopter, if you like that kind of thing) feel like some bizarre Situationist prank where the joke is that about 75% of the dialogue is simply Doug McClure endlessly repeating the name “Pagnolini.” Though at least I understood “Pagnolini”—I love Doug McClure, but I had forgotten how, with that singsong-mumble of his, it’s practically impossible to understand a fucking word he is saying. The many other idiosyncratic aspects of Satan’s Triangle include an iconoclastic approach to rendering the savage fury of the high seas, namely by filming on days with beautiful, clear blue skies through a lens covered with immobile splashes of water, which will make the experience familiar to anyone, like me, who wears glasses and grew up in a rainy country.
And yet despite—or because of—its made-for-TV production-line by-the-numbers-ness, Satan’s Triangle creates a perfect mood of cozy pseudo-fear, spiced up with the odd over-the-line touch of actual unnerving terror here and there. So perhaps not good, but definitely great.
Devil Dog: The Hound of Hell
Directed by Curtis Harrington
Regular readers of the site will be all too aware of my sorry habit of repeatedly trotting out the same lame theory—that the cynicism implicit in cheap knockoffs sometimes allows them to bring out aspects of the source material that a more earnest, sophisticated effort might miss—in the hope that it’ll catch on. No luck so far, so I’ve decided I need a high-sounding epithet to capture the idea and make me famous, and I’ve been toying with “revelatory mimesis.” Devil Dog is an excellent example of revelatory mimesis, plus it’s a mimesis that features my nemesis: the German Shepherd, known in the UK throughout my childhood as an Alsatian and given to chasing children—more specifically, me—around static caravan sites, playgrounds, cul-de-sacs, and other British places of natural beauty.
Both Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist highlighted the growing fear of children and young people that walked abroad in the America of the day while a generation of gullible parents decided that the good old generation gap was actually a fiery line between God’s grace and Satan’s evil, and Devil Dog takes as inspiration another bit of evil offspring devilry: Damien’s Rottweiler from 1976’s The Omen.
Written with enjoyable crypto-Christian hackery by husband-and-wife team Elinor and Stephen Karpf (also responsible for 1972’s enjoyable Gargoyles), rarely has the fear of white-bread teens turning into avatars of evil force been more ham-fistedly metaphorized—you can practically feel the momentum of what would become the Satanic Panic of the 1980s coalescing like curdled milk. Luckily, though, Devil Dog was directed by the talented Gene Curtis Harrington, who manages to produce something that, while completely adhering to the slick, fundamentally inoffensive prerequisites of the TV movie, possesses an undercurrent of exciting strangeness. Harrington, it turns out, was an associate of Kenneth Anger, Marjorie Cameron, and avant-garde film pioneer Maya Deren, as well as one of the forerunners of Queer Cinema. He apparently also owned a signed copy of Crowley’s The Book of Thoth, so presumably whoever hired him knew about his Magickal bona fides and assumed that he would do a sterling job with what, let’s be candid, is pretty ludicrous material.
After a great opening featuring a brilliantly lurid, low-rent Satanic Mass starring the always amazing Martine Beswick (star of one of the only two Oliver Stone films I actually like—1974’s Seizure), we’re introduced to the Barry family: Mike (Richard Crenna) and Betty (Yvette Mimieux), an “average American couple” with two kids, Bonnie (Kim Richards—gratifyingly alive again after being both shot while eating an ice cream in Assault on Precinct 13 and crashed in The Car) and Charlie (Ike Eisenmann, who co-starred with Richards in the subsequent Witch Mountain films).
After their old dog has been mysteriously run over, Bonnie and Charlie are targeted by the satanists, who, in the form of a harmless-seeming old fruit and vegetable seller, try and get the children to accept free apples; when that doesn’t work, they up the ante and offer them a free puppy. Still grieving for their recently deceased pet, the children obviously accept. On the basis of practically nothing, I’m going to interpret the apple as a metaphor for the pervasive original sins of the settlers who brought to the Americas the fucked-up Protestantism that proves so deadly for the film’s one representative of the continent‘s indigenous peoples: poor Maria the maid (Tina Menard), whose diffidence towards the new addition to the family leads to her coming a cropper after she lights one candle too many on her altar. Predictably, the Barrys seemingly give far less of a shit about Maria buying it than they did about their old dog.
Before long, Lucky—yes, the Devil Dog is called Lucky—is making Crenna almost stick his face in a rotating lawnmower blade and has got the kids answering back and producing impressive satanic art with… is that blood? Oh thank heavens—it’s only red ink! After a surreal sequence where we watch Lucky possess her through a series of back-and-forth cuts, Betty becomes a chain-smoking, nude-swimming canine euthanasia advocate who’ll happily seduce school counselor Cliff Barnes from Dallas if it’ll stop Charlie from getting into trouble, and Mike is forced to admit—to his doctor?—that something is terrible wrong.
After overhearing a news report about a man who has barricaded himself in his house with a gun claiming that his next door neighbor’s dog has been telling him to kill—shades of the recent Son of Sam revelations—Mike visits his local esoteric bookshop, where he learns that Lucky is actually a Barghest, an evil hellhound from Northern English folklore. Presented with the admittedly frightening fact that he has a dog from Yorkshire in his home that is not a Yorkshire Terrier, he decides it’s time for radical action. He heads off to Ecuador to consult with a shaman who explains to him how to fight back, and promptly returns home for a showdown in a factory where the Devil Dog reveals its true—and ludicrous—form.
Devil Dog broils with corny subtext, as you might imagine. Is the implication that it’s workaholic Mike’s neglect of his family that has led to this? Is satanic possession a metaphor for rebellion against the stultifying white-bread dullness of the suburbs? As subtext goes, it’s all pretty trite stuff that you’ve seen a dozen times before, but Harrington’s direction keeps the whole absurd thing feeling more alive than it has any right to be while also seeming to mock the sensibilities of those daft enough to buy into this nonsense caricature of evil in the first place. The cast is great, especially the always underused Yvette Mimieux who, despite playing yet another suburban drone, still manages to inject flashes of charisma.