Satan's School for Girls March 30, 2017
With magnificently lousy TV movies running rampant nowadays – Lifetime in particular seems to have an affinity for giving the biopic a bad name – it’s easy to forget that there was a time during which films made for television were coveted creations, escapist ditties to look forward to after a long day at work. The medium, despite never much being known for quality, especially became a hot commodity in the 1960s and ‘70s when ABC made it a tradition to broadcast a new product every week.
Though the television movie golden age roughly lasted from 1969-76, with most creations understandably having faded into obscurity, a few relics made a lasting impact on the legacies of prominent names aplenty. Steven Spielberg’s first feature, 1971’s Duel, was an ABC Movie of the Week and helped launch his career. The producers of many pieces within the “anthology,” namely Aaron Spelling (Charlie’s Angels, 90210) and David Wolper (Roots, The Thorn Birds), were assigned some of their most intriguing and reputation solidifying projects.
One such project, produced by Spelling and starring future Charlie’s Angels stars Kate Jackson and Cheryl Ladd, Satan’s School for Girls (1973), has become something of a cult classic in the years since its release. Perhaps as a result of its histrionic title, its weird conjoining of the greatest aspects of exploitation films and relatively old-fashioned horror, or its spooky maneuverings of the Satanic panic of the 1970s and ‘80s. Considered to be one of the most memorable television movies ever made by The New York Times, the feature was immensely popular upon release and eventually came to inspire a 2000 remake starring Shannen Doherty.
Watching it now, the fascination revolving around its name is understandable. While expectedly slight – a Spelling-backed work, especially one flirting with the horror genre, is never going to outdo Rosemary’s Baby (1968) – the movie is still incredibly effective in spite of its budgetary means.
It encapsulates the fears that come along when roaming a dark hallway with only a candle in hand, when exploring a decrepit basement in the wee hours of the night. It also draws on the freakish unknowns of Satan worship and religious cults with startling conviction. Clocking 10 minutes under 90, we wish it were able to elaborate on its atmospherics and its effectual sequences of suspense. But for what it is, Satan’s School for Girls is a fun little treat, a treat that could easily reach the heights of a modern classic if updated by a trusting studio.
The movie stars Pamela Franklin as Elizabeth, a winsome teenager mourning the shocking suicide of her sister, Martha (Terry Lumley). Though the police don’t suspect foul play, Elizabeth isn’t so sure. She remembers her sister as a relatively happy person, a free spirit too confident and fulfilled to have had problems with depression.
Dissatisfied with the brief investigation, Elizabeth takes it upon herself to find the answers she’s looking for. Suspicious that Martha’s elite private school, the Salem Academy for Women, might know more than meets the eye, she enrolls as a full-time student under a pseudonym. Only days into her stay is it immediately apparent that something is off about the institute – and Elizabeth is hardly afraid to uncover the truth for herself.
Sometimes looking and feeling like its own sort of small screen equivalent to the best of the classic Nancy Drew series, Satan’s School for Girls, despite a preference for the understated, is a horror potboiler that gets the job done. Its finale manages to unsettle in the most memorable of ways, and even Laurence Rosenthal’s score is able to generate goosebumps in the same caliber Halloween’s (1978) musical array could. And Franklin and her network of small-time leading ladies are well-matched to this kind of material.
Given that Satan’s School for Girls is so easy to track down – simply type its name in YouTube’s trusty search box and it’s the first thing that pops up – it’s an understatement to say that it’s worth a look, especially for horror fans with a weakness for terror trains released around The Exorcist’s (1973) initial theatrical run. It’s a terse, off-center genre feature with an abundance of good ideas, and considering its television origins, that’s something to applaud. B