Guest Star

Satan’s School for Girls

This week’s Guest Star Sara Century is a horror writer, podcast host, and a critic. You can find out more at www.saracentury.com

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When it comes to made-for-TV horror of the ‘70s, there are plenty of surprising gems for audiences that don’t mind the generally low production values and choppy, TV-episode style lead-outs and lead-ins for commercial break. Horror has seldom been a genre that relied on flash, so in many ways, the grainy footage and melodramatic dialogue can not only fail to detract, but can add feelings of nostalgia and, of course, discomfort.

Satan’s School for Girls (1973) is no doubt one of the more memorable and influential of ABC’s horror movie entries, so much so that it ultimately warranted a remake in 2000 starring Shannen Doherty and returning champion Kate Jackson. This was a Spelling-Goldberg production, and at least two of these actors, Kate Jackson and Cheryl Ladd, would soon be starring in Charlie’s Angels. Our protagonist is portrayed by Pamela Franklin, who made appearances in many movies and television shows, but horror fans will recognize her as one of the children from The Innocents (1961) all grown up, as well as the star of Necromancy (1972) and The Legend of Hell House (1973). The always-entertaining Jo Van Fleet makes an appearance as the stern-then-hysterical school mistress Mrs. Williams, and Lloyd Bochner portrays a terse and doomed Professor Delacroix. The smirking, flirty art teacher Dr. Clampett is brought to us by Roy Thinnes of The Invaders (1967).

Our story begins with us zooming down a winding, wooded road, tires screeching, veering wildly from side to side. This unsafe driver is Martha Sayers, who is racing to make it to her sister’s house. She is convinced she’s being followed, and keeps checking her mirrors as if expecting to see a car behind her. She stops briefly to place a call and smokes a cigarette, which is what you do in the 1970s when being pursued by people that want you dead, then continues on, reaching her sister’s house only to find that she’s gone out for groceries. Martha is murdered, but it’s been made to look like she took her own life. The end of the opening scene is surprisingly visceral, with a shocked Elizabeth Sayers discovering her sister quite literally hanging in her living room.

This opening scene doesn’t make narrative sense for a number of reasons, but it nails setting up an unsettling vibe that keeps you watching. Elizabeth refuses to believe that her sister would have raced to her home in the hills just to end it all while she was out running errands, and so she enrolls in, well, Satan’s School For Girls, known here as The Salem Academy For Women. This was the school her sister had attended, and Elizabeth is convinced that posing as another person and enrolling in classes is the only way to crack the case. Folks, we are off to the races.

Elizabeth quickly befriends Roberta Lockhart (Kate Jackson), Debbie Jones (Jamie Smith Jackson), and Jody Keller (Cheryl Ladd). Kate Jackson is an undeniable show-stealer, and her role here as a quippy, charming, and profoundly calm confidante adds a lot to the film. In their first class, they are taught art by the intense Dr. Clampett, who makes a handful of jokes and observations about perception. Student Debbie Jones is suffering from obvious long term trauma after being trapped in the school and watching her friends disappear or die. In class, Elizabeth sees Debbie’s painting of Martha Sayers looking absolutely terrified.

In their next class, the very weird Professor Delacroix teaches a …science? class, in which he keeps a large rat maze in the center of the room and grills the girls about what he’s hoping to do by confusing and misleading the rats. He is mean-spirited to Debbie, comparing her to a rat, before moving on to Roberta, who shrugs. Meanwhile, Elizabeth immediately knows what he’s attempting to accomplish. When he asks her why he’s doing the things he’s doing, she responds, “To make them passive so they won’t fight back.” The students disperse, but Debbie is openly upset, and begins screaming mid-sentence as they walk down the hall.

The rats are a recurring visual theme, and ultimately the imagery of a rat in a maze comes back to haunt Professor Delacroix in a very real way during one of the most genuinely unsettling and surprising scenes of the movie. The analogy falls apart in that our protagonist never particularly gives the vibe of being an hapless rat, but the sense of cruelty and arbitrary experimentation with living creatures gives a completely different, much more disturbing tone than it would have otherwise had.

Elizabeth stays up late during power outages and thunderstorms, wandering the campus in a wispy robe while holding a candle out ahead like a true gothic heroine. She makes a handful of discoveries; a cavernous basement, Satanic rituals, a history of disappearances, etc. As Elizabeth realizes that the troubles that have befallen her are worked deep into the bedrock of the institution, it becomes impossible for her to know for sure who she can trust.

This movie is silly, but it’s still surprisingly interesting and, most importantly, scary. Evil or haunted schools for girls are a dime a dozen in horror cinema, but that’s because it’s a genuinely unsettling premise. Women sent away to institutions where they have little interaction with their parents and are subject to a new rule system entirely set up by complete strangers can be a little suspect in and of itself, and for horror writers it’s not so difficult to adjust the settings on that idea until you find yourself with a Satan’s School For Girls on your hands.

Still, there is something haunting at the root of Satan’s School For Girls, and despite its jerky editing and plot holes, it still has quite a bit going for it. Compelling performances, entertaining dialogue, and some surprisingly visceral scenes all combine to make this the cult gem we know it as today.

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Sara Century is a horror writer, podcast host, and a critic. See what she’s up to at www.saracentury.com

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