My long search for solace and meaning in the world of international cinema has led me down a long and winding road to the doorstep of Satan’s School for Girls, a 1973 tv movie which sees Old Nick branching out into the educational sector with unsuccessful results. Of course, this is a tv movie version of Lucifer, small in aspiration, limited in resources; even when we get to see the kind of chalk-face classroom teaching that goes on at his school, it looks a lot like a normal college circa 1973. Yet despite visual blandness, Satan’s School for Girls has a good reputation, if that’s not an oxymoron; so what DO we talk about when we talk about Satan’s School for Girls?
The Salem Academy for Women is the proper title for this institution, a good name for an indie band, but also the guise under which Satanism is undermining the honest souls of Los Angeles. It’s an institution under investigation from Elizabeth (Pamela Franklin) who is keen to find out the secrets behind her sister’s death. What follows feels like Suspiria rewritten as a Nancy Drew mystery, as Elizabeth infiltrates the girls’ school, ruled over by matriarch Jessica (Jo van Fleet) and attracts the interest of classmate Roberta (Kate Jackson). So what’s really going on at the cheese-and-wine parties of the mysterious Dr Clampett (Roy Thinnes)?
Unlike the latest Suspiria remake, where characters’ head snap back like Pez dispensers to projectile vomit fountains of gore, this is a quite staid piece of work, with endless scenes of Elizabeth of wandering down corridors by torchlight. Satan’s art class, however, is quite something, with the girls encouraged to set aside their conservatism and ‘let you mind hang’ while being offered such tried and tested educational advice as ‘everything is illusion and reality.’ Occasional phrases like ‘act as you wish’ suggest Aleister Crowley’s brand of hedonism is bubbling just below the surface, but David Lowell Rich’s film is firmly stuck in PG content mode.
A title like Satan’s School for Girls promises all kind of attractions, but neither Satan, when he eventually appears, nor the school are particularly remarkable. Yet with both Kate Jackson and Cheryl Ladd from Charlie’s Angels on campus, the girls just about make it worth attending class, if only to catch up on the educational aims and objectives of yesteryear.