‘A perfect 666’
Satan’s School for Girls is a 1973 American supernatural horror made-for-TV feature film. It was directed by David Lowell Rich (The Horror at 37,000 Feet; Eye of the Cat) from a screenplay by Arthur A. Ross (Creature from the Black Lagoon; The Creature Walks Among Us). The Spelling-Goldberg production stars Pamela Franklin, Kate Jackson and Lloyd Bochner.
A mysterious person seems to be chasing student Martha Sayers (Terry Lumley), who drives to her sister’s lakeside house in Los Angeles. The same day, the police and Martha’s sister Elizabeth (Pamela Franklin) find her hanged in the living room. The police rule her death as an unmotivated suicide, but Elizabeth refuses to believe this and investigates further.
She decides to visit the exclusive academy that Martha attended, The Salem Academy for Women, despite warnings from Martha’s roommate, Lucy Dembrow (Gwynne Gilford). Under the assumed name of Elizabeth Morgan, she enrols at the college, where she is welcomed by her classmates Roberta Lockhart (Kate Jackson), Debbie Jones (Jamie Smith Jackson) and Jody Keller (Cheryl Ladd)…
Satan’s School for Girls is an early example of the kitschy titling that would later bring us the likes of Satan’s Cheerleaders, and is one of the few TV movies to have been remade (in 2000, with Shannen Doherty in the lead role).
The original stars Pamela Franklin as Elizabeth Sayers, a woman whose sister committed suicide under mysterious circumstances while attending Salem’s School for Girls. Suspicious of her sister’s death, Elizabeth enrols at the school in order to investigate and soon, with the occurrence of another suicide, she finds herself caught in an increasingly complex web of dark and anomalous happenings.
Odd behaviour abounds: the headmistress, played astutely by acting maven Jo Van Fleet, is at first stiffly composed almost to the point of repressiveness, projecting an aura of smothered perplexity; Roy Thinnes is impeccably smooth as Mr. Clampett, the hip art teacher professing mind-expanding theories of perception bordering on the delirious in order to get his students to reach a deeper level of creativity; and Lloyd Bochner gives a typically vigorous performance as Mr. Delacroix, the brittle and unsettled psychology instructor fixated on the breaking of wills; Kate Jackson’s Roberta, on the other hand, is one of the few characters to come off relatively stable, adding a poised buoyancy to the otherwise increasingly thick atmosphere.
Notwithstanding the death which opens the story, the first half of the film is brightly lit, with frequent outdoor scenes counterbalancing tense indoor moments; the second half, on the other hand, bubbles with a deepening dread accentuated by cinematographer Tim Southcott’s murky lighting and judicious framing as characters weave in and out of adumbral hallways, bosky night time locales, and a shadowy basement that anyone in his right mind would avoid.
Director Rich, whose career capably spanned many genres, here delivers fitting, if not scintillating, imagery while seemingly allowing actors to pull out their own performances, not always to good effect; Debbie’s (Jamie Smith-Jackson) neurasthenic hallway crackup approximately twenty-one minutes into the film makes the viewer shriek from laughter rather than unease, and Cheryl Ladd is merely present for most of the film, with only a hasty moment of well-done classroom befuddlement before fading back into the scenery.
Arthur Ross’ script is strictly a journeyman’s effort, competent but unremarkable; everything follows logically from everything else, all the right notes are played, tensions gradually build through a sound three-act format, and the conclusion is vaguely haunting without being too convincing.
As is so common from the era, scriptwriter Ross obviously knows very little about the occult, and therefore, wisely avoids delving too deeply into details, which helps keep the whole thing from tumbling into catastrophic silliness; unfortunately he, like most tradesman writers of the time, mistakenly conflate witchcraft with Satanism, melding the two most prominent bogeymen of a casually dabbling viewership into one, giant, shudder-some, cloven-footed fiend. It works, if you put your mind on hold and don’t sweat the shorthand.
The truly weak spot in the film, though, is the naked foreshadowing of every vital plot point, a safe telegraphing which was expected at the time but has since fallen out of favour, leaving the modern viewer feeling slightly cheated.
Ben Spurling, HORRORPEDIA
This review is a re-edited extract from a chapter about satanism and the occult in 1970s made-for-TV movies in the book Satan Superstar, published by The Reprobate Press in 2018.
Order Satan Superstar from The Reprobate Press
“The finale is actually fairly atmospheric and while the movie has ‘fad cash in’ written all over it, at least it does what it does well. A classic? No, not a classic, but if you like supernatural seventies horror and don’t necessarily need the more explicit content that this film’s R-rated theatrical counterparts bring to the screen, you can certainly have a good time at the movies with this one.” Ian Jane, Rock! Shock! Pop!
” …since the title gives it away, about the only mystery left is “Who is Satan?”, and practically every review I’ve read gives that away. It has a couple of good moments, in particular a scene in which a bevy of women with long poles prevent a professor from escaping from a pond and causing his death.” Dave Sindelar, Fantastic Movie Musings and Ramblings
“Given the film’s title, the big reveal at the climax doesn’t come as much of a surprise. The seventy-odd minutes preceding it, however, are a cavalcade of seventies centre-partings, moody lighting, mildly terrifying suspense, two-thirds of Charlie’s Angels and Luciferian evil.” Rich Flannagan, Are You in the House Alone?
“If one were to seek it out, Satan’s School for Girls would provide some decent entertainment but it is not really one of those must-see films that would even warrant having been looked for. It is good yes, but worth only to catch if it were playing on T.V. or if one was a major fan of the actresses within.” The Telltale Mind
” …even with the lowly production values and implicit television censorship, it isn’t a bad little flick. The story is predictable, but not boring. There’s one satisfying murder (beware sorority sisters bearing poles, that’s all I’ll say), and either Roberta is given some reasonable dialog or Kate Jackson has talent (and I’m putting my money on the second).” The Film Atheist
“It’s alternately creepy and cheesy, and occasionally both at the same time, but the acting is generally fine. Jackson is perfectly eerie, and Ladd is game, but her part is very small.” Michael Karol, The ABC Movie of the Week Companion
- Pamela Franklin as Elizabeth Sayers – The Food of the Gods; Thriller TV series; The Legend of Hell House; Night Gallery; Necromancy; And Soon the Darkness; Our Mother’s House; The Nanny; The Innocents
- Kate Jackson as Roberta Lockhart – Sabrina, the Teenage Witch; Satan’s School for Girls (2000); Death at Love House; Killer Bees; Night of Dark Shadows; Dark Shadows TV series
- Lloyd Bochner as Professor Delacroix – Legend of the Mummy; The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries: ‘The House on Possessed Hill’; Crowhaven Farm; The Dunwich Horror; The Night Walker
- Jamie Smith Jackson as Debbie Jones – Night Cries; Bug; House of Evil
- Roy Thinnes as Dr. Joseph Clampett – Dark Shadows TV series; Rush Week; The Norliss Tapes; The Horror at 37,000 Feet; The Invaders TV series
- Jo Van Fleet as Mrs. Jessica Williams
- Cheryl Stoppelmoor [Ladd] as Jody Keller
- Frank Marth as Detective – Kolchak: The Night Stalker
- Terry Lumley as Martha Sayers –
- Gwynne Gilford as Lucy Dembrow – Fade to Black; Beware! The Blob
- Bill Quinn as Gardener – Lucky Stiff; Dead & Buried; Psychic Killer; Night Gallery
- Ann Noland as Kris
- Bing Russell as Sheriff – A Taste of Evil; Billy the Kid vs. Dracula; The Munsters
In 2000, Satan’s School for Girls was remade with Shannon Doherty in the lead role. Kate Jackson returned but this time as the college dean.