Harriett Branch, as I inform you each year of the Halloween Horrors series, is a longtime friend of mine, and one that I’ve known since well before I ever thought of starting this site. As this series progresses, you notice that I say that about more than a few people. Maybe we should be thanking these people for this series as they were there with me for many of the experiences that would help lead me to one day create this website? Nah.
For her entry into this year’s series, Harriett has once again claimed a topic with which she herself is not overly familiar. While this undoubtedly must have presented a different type of “challenge” than finding the right words to discuss a film or Halloween special that we love and have seen dozens of times, I must applaud her using this opportunity to try something new.
Harriett’s topic for this year’s series, 1973’s Satan’s School for Girls, is a film that I will openly assume many others may not have experienced themselves (and I also hope they aren’t more familiar with the 2000 remake of the film, starring Shannen Doherty). I make this assumption based solely on the fact that I rarely see it discussed on horror-themed websites and social media accounts or hear regularly discussed in horror-fan conversations. Hopefully, by making it an early entry in this year’s series, some of you will add it to your Halloween playlist!
“Satan’s School for Girls”
1973 – 1 Hour 18 Minutes
ORIGINAL AIRDATE: September 19th, 1973
Review by Harriett Branch
Trigger warnings: Suicide; Satanism; spoiler alert; Bad 70’s acting; phone booth
A woman driving. Eh, it worked for Hitchcock.
So starts “Satan’s School for Girls“, the 1973 made-for-TV concoction produced by Aaron Spelling and Leonard Goldberg, the duo responsible for bringing you such classic TV gems as “Hart to Hart“, “Fantasy Island“, and “Charlie’s Angels“. The woman driving isn’t going towards something, as much as she is trying to get away from someone. She frantically drives her car around curves and constantly looks behind her. She finds a phone booth and decides to make a call. Who is she calling? Why is she so upset and paranoid? Why is she smoking? Oh, yeah,… it’s the 70’s.
We find out the woman’s name is Martha Sayers, and she is desperately trying to get to her sister’s house. We’re not quite sure who, or what, she is fleeing, but when she arrives at her sister’s house, she quickly locks the door, closes all the blinds, and then sees something that really freaks her out. The cops are called. Her sister, Elizabeth, eventually arrives, but with the chain on the door, is unable to get in. So, she has the cops break the door down. That’s when we find out the tragic news that Martha has decided to take her own life.
After her sister’s suicide, Elizabeth decides to pay a visit to Martha’s former school roommate to determine what exactly could have led her sister to such a horrible end. The roommate is cagey about anything being wrong with Martha while they were at school, but when Elizabeth says she plans to pay the school a visit, the roommate begs her not to tell anyone that Elizabeth has seen her. That pushes Elizabeth even more to find out exactly what is going on.
Welcome to Salem Academy, where the curriculum is paranoia, confusion, and… Satan? Elizabeth decides to hide her identity and go undercover at her sister’s school. She arrives at the Salem Academy for Girls and is welcomed with open arms by fellow students, Debbie, Roberta (Kate Jackson), and Jody (Cheryl Ladd, listed here as Cheryl Stoppelmoor, before she got married). The girls seem to enjoy the school and begin to show Elizabeth around and introduce her to the Headmistress, an imposing woman played by Jo Van Fleet. The Headmistress explains to Elizabeth that since they are so far from the city, they sometimes lose electricity and have to use lamps for light. So, oil lamp and schedule in hand, Elizabeth immediately begins to attend the school.
During Elizabeth’s first class, which is Creative Arts (overseen by Mr. Clampett, who keeps telling the girls to “hang loose”), she finds that Debbie has created a painting of her sister. The painting is dark, and her sister looks terrified. Elizabeth asks Debbie about it, but doesn’t let her know that it’s her sister. Debbie doesn’t seem interested in letting Elizabeth know much about the painting because she later tells her that she can’t remember where she has seen the location and that maybe it was a dream. Elizabeth is determined to find out the place the painting shows and why her sister looks so terrified.
During her first night at the school, Elizabeth sneaks out of her room, and flits across the campus in a long flowy nightgown to steal Debbie’s painting. She takes it to different parts of the school to try to match the background and to find out why her sister looks so scared. She finds herself in a cellar of the dorm building and discovers a hidden room and runs into one of the other professors, Dr. Delacroix. Too startled to do anything else, Elizabeth screams and runs back to her room.
As the film progresses, Debbie’s mental health declines and she eventually has a breakdown and is briefly confined to her room. On Elizabeth’s second night at the school, she convinces Roberta to come with her into the cellar where they discover Debbie’s lifeless body. She, too, has taken her life. Roberta and Elizabeth immediately alert the Headmistress, who calls the police (or does she?), and Mr. Clampett tells the two girls to go to his classroom and wait for the police.
The remaining girls at the school are removed to avoid any more chaos, and when Elizabeth finds Dr. Delacroix dead in her car, she and Roberta run down to the cellar to find a gun. Before they can leave the cellar, Elizabeth hears a noise. When she and Roberta go to investigate, Elizabeth realizes she has walked into a trap. Mr. Clampett has arranged seven other girls, including Roberta, as his own Satanic tribe. Elizabeth quickly throws her oil lamp into the cellar, starting a fire, grabs the Headmistress on the way out of the school, and makes her escape.
I picked this movie for several reasons. I like to watch and review films I haven’t seen before, and the title of this one intrigued me. Films made during this time briefly dabbled in the occult, the macabre, or with Satanism, and I often wonder if they had any hand in the influence of the Satanic Panic of the 1980’s. While I watched this film, I couldn’t help but notice its striking similarities to Dario Argento’s masterpiece “Suspiria“. The stories, and even filmmaking, are similar. The use of the color red is predominant in clothing, carpeting, curtains, and background. Although “Suspiria” is a full-length film and probably had more time and money thrown at it, “Satan’s School for Girls” is definitely worth a watch. It doesn’t come with all the gooey gloppiness of “Suspiria” and really tackles more of the subject of mind control than Satanism.
Watching young versions of Kate Jackson and Cheryl Ladd, nee Stoppelmoor, running around doing the dark lord’s work before moving on to “Charlie’s Angels” is entertaining as hell. There aren’t a lot of horror scenes in it, but a couple of disturbing instances regarding the death of a professor and, of course, the multiple suicides chalk this one up to a horror film. The movie is difficult to watch at times since it was made in 1973 and for television, so it could benefit from an upgrade, but these things usually don’t get the work they’re due.
I can easily recommend catching this if you get the chance. There’s not a lot of fluff, the subject matter is interesting even to this day, and they get right to the point. Hell, there’s even a female heroine to root for! A visit to “Satan’s School for Girls” is not a bad way to spend your evening. Happy Viewing!
Satan’s School for Girls – red hallway
Suspiria – red hallway