The Devil was one of the biggest success stories of the 1970’s, along with John Travolta, The Eagles, microwave ovens, and the Senate Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities. For this you can thank (or blame, if such is your inclination) William Peter Blatty and his runaway best seller The Exorcist, which got the decade off to a hell of a start when it was published in 1971.
Everyone knew that The Exorcist would make it to the silver screen sooner rather than later, and so it was; in 1973 blockbuster novel was followed by blockbuster movie, and the film directed by The French Connection’s William Friedkin became the year’s biggest hit, grossing one hundred and ninety-three million dollars (and that’s in 1970’s money).
However, three months before the premier of The Exorcist another film appeared that is, to my mind, the definitive celluloid treatment of the Fallen Angel and his diabolical dealings with Middle America. On September 19th, 1973, the ABC Movie of Week granted us a true glimpse of the abyss; during the seventy-eight-minute running time of Satan’s School for Girls, viewers truly knew what it was like to be one of the damned.
The ABC Movie of the Week specialized in cheese of all flavors, but perhaps the tastiest varieties were to be found in its science fiction and horror offerings. “Classics” like Killdozer, Moon of the Wolf, Haunts of the Very Rich, and The Stranger Within enlivened next-morning conversations at middle schools throughout the land, and occasionally there was an MOW good enough to merit real celebration, boob tube legends like Trilogy of Terror or The Night Stalker.
The inexplicably excellent, the not too bad, the memorably goofy, the god-awful — they all have their places in our memories. What category does Satan’s School for Girls fall into? You can’t really be serious. As of about five minutes ago, the movie had a 5.2 IMDb rating, and the only quarrel I have with that is with the overly-optimistic placement of the decimal point.
Since it was an Aaron Spelling production (the man responsible for Charlie’s Angels, The Love Boat, Fantasy Island, T.J. Hooker, Dynasty, Beverly Hills 90210 and Melrose Place was the real Prince of Darkness of pre-prestige era television) Satan’s School for Girls features not one but two future Charlie’s Angels, Kate Jackson and Cheryl Ladd (billed as Cheryl Stoppelmoor — Beelzebub, always a reliable source of showbiz counsel, must have advised her to change her name), enmeshed in supposedly spooky goings-on at Salem Academy for Women, a small private college that looks like it was located a lot closer to Burbank, California than it was to Boston, Massachusetts.
When Martha Sayers is found hanged after fleeing Salem Academy in a panic, her sister Elizabeth (a too spunky to live Pamela Franklin) refuses to accept the verdict of suicide. What’s the only possible way for Elizabeth to find out the truth about Martha’s death? Enroll in the school herself, of course, and pretend to be a student, the way everyone else at college does. (Elizabeth feels a special burden to get to the bottom of the situation because the girls were alone in the world, their parents having died sometime before.)
She isn’t at the school long before two more students kill themselves — one of them an extremely twitchy young woman named Debbie who, before bowing out, shows Elizabeth a picture she painted of a terrified-looking Martha standing in a dank and creepy looking room.
A rash of suicides is bad enough, but the real horror resides in having to sit through classes taught by instructors who spout drivel like this, offered up by art teacher Dr. Joseph Clampett (Roy Thinnes): “Alright, just remember, everything is illusion and reality, except for the grade you get at the end of the term. Until then condemn nothing, embrace everything and hang loose.” Hang loose?! Can you even say that at a girl’s school?
Cheryl and Kate – Before They Were Angels, They Were Devils
At this point, if Elizabeth had a lick of sense, she would forget investigating her sister’s death and seek the answers to more pressing questions, such as just how much a unit am I paying for this, and where can I pick up a drop slip? She should have known something was amiss her first day, when the school’s headmistress, Mrs. Williams (Jo Van Fleet) welcomed her with “We here at Salem Academy feel that girls of good breeding are more easily groomed into ladies of culture and refinement.” Yup; culture and refinement are just what you’ll need, working the snack shack at the roller disco.
After a little digging in the hallways and dorm rooms, snooping in the headmistresses’ filing cabinets and the spooky cellar (that — eureka! — looks exactly like the room in the late Debbie’s painting of the late Martha), and networking at the wine and cheese party (this is, after all, an institution of higher education), the sinister truth begins to emerge — Salem Academy is a hotbed of Satanic activity; it seems that Lucifer himself is recruiting students for his own private coven. Why here rather than somewhere else, like the University of Phoenix, where busy adults can earn an online degree while working at their own pace? (Aside from the fact that this is the 70’s and that oxymoron “online education” didn’t even exist yet?) Because this school was the site of 17th century witch trials (the academy’s main building goes back to that era — don’t even ask about the plumbing) and back in the day, eight accused witches were hung in that dark, dank cellar.
Eventually, the possible diabolic ringleaders are reduced to two of the Academy’s teachers (the only two we ever meet, naturally) — the aforementioned art teacher Dr. Joseph Clampett, smooth, suave, sympathetic, supportive, “hip”, and psychology professor Delacroix (Lloyd Bochner, so unpopular he’s not even given a first name), short-tempered, tightly-wound, grinding his teeth and seething with frustration at the stupidity of his students, all the while declaring how easily these dumb females can be conditioned and manipulated. (At one point he makes an unfavorable comparison of their intellects with those of the lab rats that are constantly squeaking in the background during his excruciating lectures.)
Guess which candidate is a red herring and which one has a red tail and pitchfork? The shocking truth is revealed one night during one of the school’s frequent power outages, when Delacroix’s students chase him out into the woods, chuck him into a lake, and hold him under the water with long poles until he drowns. Are they operating under instructions from their Satanic Master, or did they just get a peek at Delacroix’s grade book? Either way, if they had shown this much dedication and preparation in class, they wouldn’t be on academic probation.
The whole thing comes to a head once Delacroix is out of the way, when Roberta (Kate Jackson) tells Elizabeth how Dr. Clampett has always taken care of her and given her wise counsel (which she always exactly follows), just like he’s done for so many of the girls at Salem Academy — especially the ones without families… like Debbie and Martha and Roberta herself. She declares that Clampett has given her a belief in her own power, the
Power to live, power to never feel vulnerable again, never feel like your life is right on the edge of being wiped out… he can’t help you if you fight him, he can’t help you if you resist him.
This prompts Elizabeth to confide her real identity as Martha’s sister to Roberta, thinking that even if the dynamic art professor can’t explain the difference between impressionism and expressionism, maybe he can help her discover the truth about her sister’s mysterious death. Once Roberta relays this information to Dr. Clampett, he quickly engineers another power failure and uses it as a pretext to evacuate the school for the night.
Soon Roberta has led Elizabeth down to the creepy basement room, where she discovers a black-robed Dr. Clampett and six white-robed girls. Commencement rehearsal? Nope. As Roberta dons a white robe herself and joins the rest of the gang, Clampett goes through the syllabus, so to speak.
We’ve waited for you, Elizabeth. Look around you; eight of my girls died here. Eight, all unwanted — like you. Like all of them. I have waited too long. Now I have found eight to take their place.
Just who is this guy and what does he want? Is he putting together an intramural volleyball team? Roberta makes it clear — Dr. Clampett is actually “Malleus Maleficarum, the Hammer of Witches. Some call him Satan.” Then the sometime professor makes his final pitch (because his class could be dropped if not enough students register for it):
I welcome what man rejects. I beckon what man despises. I forgive what man will not… tonight they will sacrifice their mortal souls, willingly, here where it started, and they will return with me.
With all this welcoming, beckoning, and forgiving, the guy must be a very easy grader.
There’s room for one more. Martha and Debbie died because they declined to join this fiendish sorority; would Elizabeth like to accept the invitation to become the eighth and final member? “No!” Elizabeth screams, and throwing the kerosene lamp she’s been carrying against the wall, she runs like… well, she runs away real fast. As the room goes up in flames, Clampett tells his smiling and glassy-eyed acolytes, “We shall meet when I have the eighth.” Next semester, presumably. But there will be no next semester at Salem Academy, because on her way out, Elizabeth sets fire to the whole building.
While the police and firefighters arrive, Clampett, still wearing his goofy Dracula-collared black robe, escapes by walking nonchalantly through the flames; the last we see of him, he’s puffing on a cigarette as he watches the college burn, before slowly vanishing, leaving only a smoldering patch of grass behind. He has, Elizabeth says, gone “where he belongs.” Where would that be? Hell, I don’t know. Bob Jones University, maybe. Then the credits roll and the damned thing is over.
The orphaned girls apparently weren’t the only one under the Evil One’s spell; some knucklehead at the New York Times actually declared that Satan’s School for Girls is “one of the most memorable television movies of the 1970’s.” It depends on how you define memorable, I guess. Remember COVID?
And if you still want proof that Satan is alive and well on planet Earth, this thing was remade in 2000. Kate Jackson played the headmistress the second time around, while Shannen Doherty struggled manfully… or womanfully… well, she struggled, anyway, with the part of the snooping undercover student. Remember the original Satan’s School for Girls’ whopping 5.2 IMDb rating? The remake grabbed a 4.2. Is there a tenth circle of hell?
But who am I to complain? God help me, I love this wretched movie, which is inept in every possible way and only occasionally reaches the level of laughably bad. You can watch it on YouTube if you dare; I paid good money for a DVD of it, which sits on a sulphur-smelling shelf right next to my copies of Trilogy of Terror, The Night Stalker, Killdozer, The Stranger Within, Haunts of the Very Rich, Duel, Terror at 20,000 Feet (send me money now and I’ll promise to never write about that one) and a bunch of the malodorous, dead-on-arrival, unpicked-up science fiction pilots that Gene Roddenberry tried to barge back into television with after the cancellation of Star Trek.
Like so many of these ABC MOW’s, it’s hard to fault Satan’s School for Girls for failing to meet a standard it never aspired to. It’s impossible to get mad at it; it’s so darn happy you’re watching it, it’s like a puppy that piddles on the carpet every time you come in the door because it’s so excited to see you. Satan’s School for Girls certainly deserves to be hit on the nose with a rolled-up newspaper, but I just don’t have the heart to do it.
All of which is to say, that if, like me, you’re one of the miserable souls who grew up watching television in the 70’s, you were probably predestined for damnation from the very start. Abandon all hope, ye who love the ABC Movie of the Week.
To conclude on an even more personal note, this marks my 100th post here at Black Gate (counting the two I’ve done for Hardboiled Bob Byrne). I once imagined that if I ever reached this exalted mark, I would celebrate it with a definitive dissertation on War and Peace or something. Instead, it’s a paean to Satan’s School for Girls. Oh well; there’s always my 200th piece. In any case, thank you to our Grand Poobah, John O’Neill, for graciously giving my family a break by letting me rant here instead of in my kitchen, and thank you too to everyone who has read and commented on my rambles and ruminations.
Thomas Parker is a native Southern Californian and a lifelong science fiction, fantasy, and mystery fan. When not corrupting the next generation as a fourth grade teacher, he collects Roger Corman movies, Silver Age comic books, Ace doubles, and despairing looks from his wife. His last article for us was So Many Choices, So Little to Choose