The Remote Outpost by Mark Onspaugh
SATAN’S SCHOOL FOR GIRLS (1973) —DORMS OF THE DAMNED
“…this venerable institution has been providing young women with a quality education and an appreciation for the arts for over 300 years. Located on several acres that look deceptively Californian, this Massachusetts landmark features a small lake, treacherous woods and more thunderstorms than the Brazilian rainforest. In addition to private rooms, each student is provided with a flammable and fragile hurricane lamp in case of a power outtage, since a flashlight would be impractical for the third act.
…have been with us for years, perhaps centuries. The headmistress, called “The Dragon Lady”, seems more befuddled than mean. The head of the art department, Mr. Clampett, serves his students large amounts of wine and advises them to “hang loose.” And the professor of psychology, Dr. Delacroix, just may be an escaped Nazi scientist…
Prospective students often ask, “Why is it necessary I be an orphan?”, “Why did the last girl commit suicide?”, and “Is Satan on the faculty?”
- from the brochure for The Salem Academy for Women
SATAN’S SCHOOL FOR GIRLS is sadly not the name of the academy in this made-for-TV fun fest from Aaron Spelling, who would go on to help create horrors like DYNASTY (1981-1989), BEVERLY HILLS 90210 (1990-2000), MELROSE PLACE (1992-1999), CHARMED (1998-2006) and Tori Spelling. Aaron Spelling, whose house is about the size of Utah, also brought us CHARLIE’S ANGELS (1976-1981), which has a direct bearing on our hellish center of higher learning. (Listing Aaron Spelling’s credits would take most of the day, and there are some hugely successful shows we haven’t mentioned. Did he make a deal with the Devil? Is that why he got the Devil to do a guest spot in this movie? These are questions best left to professionals who aren’t afraid of ending up with a multi-eyed goat chasing them or having their face melt in some demonic weather anomaly… Neither of those things happen in this movie, which is too bad, but they happen with some regularity to those who piss off The Prince of Darkness, so I am going to let that sleeping three-headed-dog lie.)
We do not begin our adventure at the school, but with a pretty young girl named Martha Sayers driving a GM muscle car down a dirt road at a high rate of speed. POV shots show us she is all over the road and the tires squeal in protest. She keeps looking behind her for long beats, making me sure she was going to wrap her car around a tree or maybe one of Satan’s minions. Was this the school’s defensive driving course? Were the girls training to be chauffeurs for foreign potentates or possible GF’s for Jason Statham? The questions pile up as she passes a pay phone outside the standard “gas station in the middle of nowhere.” She stops, considers the phone. “Keep driving, you idiot!” I yell at my screen. She ignores me (they always do) and parks next to the phone. She tries to reach someone, but the party she is calling does not answer. She tells the operator that “Elizabeth” promised to be there. Before the operator can tell her this is not the phone company’s problem, our girl Martha sees a disheveled man lurch toward the phone. She tosses her cigarette and screams, runs to the car and peels out. He picks up the cig and takes a puff, and shakes his head in that world-weary way the TV homeless do.
Martha reaches a lavish house next to a lake, and pounds on the front door… No one is home. She looks through the windows, growing more and more frantic. An old man walks up carrying a sickle. Confirming that Martha is Martha, he tells her her sister had to go out to the grocery store and left the house keys with him… Martha, displaying more courage than sense, moves in close enough to take the keys… Ah, turns out he is old Mr. Red Herring, the caretaker. Martha lets herself in and does not get filleted. The old man shakes his head in that world-weary way that TV caretakers who are not murderers do.
It’s a nice home —just what does her sister do for a living? —and Martha is relieved. She looks out at the lake, thinking everything just might turn out all right… Then, she realizes something is standing behind her. She turns, and her eyes go wide and she screams —the actress, Terry Lumley actually looked crazy, which was unnerving.
NOW Elizabeth comes home. She’s played by Pamela Franklin, who was also in THE INNOCENTS (1961), NECROMANCY (with Orson Welles! 1972) and THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE (1973). She finds the caretaker and two cops at her front door. The caretaker heard her sister scream and called the police. Although Elizabeth is standing there, the cops try to break down the door—she pushes past them and unlocks it with her key. But the skimpy chain has been drawn—Elizabeth asks the cop to break in… In one of my favorite moments, he does not slam into the door, but SHOOTS THE CHAIN —had I made this movie, Martha would already have died, but now have a bullet wound, as well. Alas, this does not happen —although we never learn just where that shot went. Everyone barges in and we find that Martha has hanged herself. It’s one of the worst reunions ever.
Elizabeth is sure her sister was murdered, because she was so happy. No one has a clue that she was unhappy… Except the caretaker, who no one bothers to talk to… The little fact that he was the last person to see Martha alive seems to have been forgotten… But when cops are trying to break down doors and using bullets as keys, a lot must get lost in the shuffle.
Elizabeth decides she will find out what happened to her sister. In true 70’s transition, we see a jumbo jet take off and wing eastward. First stop, Martha’s BFF Lucy, played by Gwynne Gilford of BEWARE! THE BLOB (1972) and MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE (1987). Lucy serves sherry but keeps trying to get Elizabeth to drink some vodka… It’s a weird bit that never goes anywhere. When Elizabeth decides she will visit the school, Lucy freaks out and begs her not to tell anyone they talked. Elizabeth seems to take this is stride and leaves Lucy and her liquor cabinet for the gentle, rolling hills of Hell U.
Now, mind you, Elizabeth does not fill out any applications or go to some shady back alley for fake ID, transcripts, etc. She seems to have merely called ahead and is accepted that day for classes. This sort of thing only happens in bad movies and commercials for trade colleges. Elizabeth drives another GM muscle car (can you deduce who provided vehicles for SSFG?) and is met at her parking spot by two angels and a head case. Actually, that would be Roberta (Kate Jackson, an original Charlie’s Angel), Jody (Cheryl Ladd, the “cousin” of Farrah Fawcett’s Angel) and Debbie (Jamie Smith-Jackson), who we know is artistic because she wears a bandana on her head. Various ominous comments are made about the headmistress, who the girls call “The Dragon Lady.” To get Elizabeth ready for her first encounter with this gorgon, they give her a brandy snifter full of chardonnay —this is the sort of glass that serves as a fish tank in romantic comedies, but here it is just filled with wine, albeit, enough wine to get everyone in Hrothgar’s great hall drunk.
Elizabeth goes off to meet the headmistress, Mrs. Williams. She’s played by Jo Van Fleet who was in great films like EAST OF EDEN (1955), GUNFIGHT AT THE O.K. CORRAL (1957), COOL HAND LUKE (1967) and THE TENANT (1976). She welcomes Elizabeth to the school and gives her a schedule of classes that start immediately. I kept yelling at Elizabeth that it was a trap, but it didn’t matter —no one discovers Elizabeth’s subterfuge until she herself admits it much later.
We meet her first teacher, art instructor and department head Dr. Clampett, played by Roy Thinnes, who did a whole slew of roles, but is best remembered by us at the Outpost for his turn as David Vincent on THE INVADERS (1967-1968). Clampett is good-looking and all the girls are gaga over him. He reviews a couple of paintings by the girls, including Debbie’s. Debbie’s painting is of Elizabeth’s sister Martha in an ancient room, looking terrified. Elizabeth makes a mental note to grill the artist later… which is probably what the school founder (hint: horns, tail, pitchfork) is also planning.
Dr. Clampett encourages them to “hang loose,” and reminds the girls he is having a wine party that evening… Can we trust him? He certainly is the sort the magazine was thinking of when they asked “What sort of man reads Playboy?” —he has the groovy clothes and one can only imagine a state-of-the-art stereo and NaugahydeÔ furniture… Probably a GM muscle car, too (maybe a Barracuda or a Road Runner), but we never see anything but his classroom.
Elizabeth questions Debbie in the hall —who was in the painting, why did she paint it, was she influenced by Seurat at all? (Sorry, that last was just me showing off.) Debbie can’t remember much, but is pretty sure she was in that room at some point, which is “down under the building.”
Next, it’s off to Behavioral Psychology… Why they are teaching this course in a fine arts college, I don’t know. It may be that the rats in the class were all they could afford for a “creep factor,” though domesticated rats are pretty low on the spectrum. The instructor here is Dr. Delacroix, played with stern intensity by Lloyd Bochner, who seems to have guested on every TV show ever made, including the role of “The Old Vampire” in THE ADVENTURES OF SUPERBOY (1988-1992), which I must rent immediately, and THE DUNWICH HORROR (1970). Delacroix is teaching rats to run a maze and find food behind a red door. When they master that, he’ll switch to a white door, and then back again—over and over and over. While we puzzle over who is supporting such questionable research (my money is on Monsanto or McDonald’s), he demands the girls explain why he is torturing rodents. Only newcomer Elizabeth knows the answer, to “make them passive.” Delacroix takes this metaphorical ball and runs with it, saying such minds would become pliable and could be made to do anything. He’s like a Bond villain without the budget, and you kind of feel sorry for him.
After class, Debbie starts raving and freaks out, collapsing in the hall and going on about rats and red doors. Do the girls call the nurse? Do they call for a teacher? Nope, and don’t expect one to show up, either. Either the staff is deaf or students go mad with some regularity. It’s off to bed with a cold washcloth on her forehead. Roberta says they’ll watch her —if she’s not better by morning, they’ll tell the Dragon Lady. As if on cue, Debbie rouses and wants to gnaw on… a vegan snack. Or granola.
Clampett’s wine party does not, I am sorry to say, take place in his groovy bachelor pad. Just in the art studio. He is, however, the only adult and the only male. This is the sort of situation that either becomes a sitcom, a Police song or an episode of Law & Order SVU. The girls drink, Clampett leers, and a good time is had by all…
Idyllic campus life is interrupted by the news that alumni Lucy has committed suicide. Debbie remarks, “That’s two of us,” and Elizabeth pumps her for more info. During a storm of epic proportions (thunder like Thor’s hammer, doncha know), Elizabeth steals Debbie’s painting of Martha from the art studio and goes searching for a room that matches it… She goes down into the basement with just her hurricane lamp and the painting, past a room full of creepy theatrical props. Going through an empty wine cellar (no wonder, with the way everyone on campus is swilling the stuff), she finds an ancient-looking door. Beyond that door is the room in the painting. Elizabeth is scanning the room for signs of what killed her sister (cabalistic symbols, demon spoor, a hoof print or two) when she sees someone in the shadows with a straight razor. Not being a fool, Elizabeth hightails it out of there, fast.
Elizabeth goes to Roberta since she seems the most level-headed. She tells Roberta what she has seen and says that Debbie is terrified of the room in the sub-sub-basement. Roberta tells her that’s because a group of girls supposedly hung themselves in a basement room during the time of the Salem Witch Trials. She agrees to help investigate the spooky room with Elizabeth, who is now certain she saw Delacroix with the razor.
The next evening, poor Debbie makes a break for it, running off campus. Later, Elizabeth and Roberta find her in the secret room, strangled with pantyhose. They go to the Dragon Lady, and tells her it looks like Debbie is another suicide… Eh? Dragon Lady mutters she must call the sheriff. She does the old “dialing while I have my finger on the disconnect bit.” She tells the girls to wait. They look for files on the girls who committed suicide —they are missing, including Debbie’s… So is Delacroix’s file. Elizabeth tells Roberta that she is actually Martha’s sister. They search for the missing files in Delacroix’s classroom and find them conveniently placed next to his rat maze. Delacroix confronts them, sure they are in league with you-know-who. He panics at something unseen and jumps out a window.
Enter heroic and handsome Dr. Clampett. He learns Elizabeth’s true identity and tells the girls to stay put. Rather than wait for the sheriff who isn’t coming, he is sure he can talk Delacroix into giving himself up.
Delacroix runs through the woods, tripping over every root, rock and shadow. He then blunders into the lake. In a mildly creepy scene, he is nearly surrounded by girls on the dock and on shore who poke at him with long poles. In case you were wondering, none of the girls is wearing a PETA shirt, since that organization won’t be founded for another seven years.
Clampett goes to the Head Mistress and tells her he wants the school evacuated. While Roberta and Elizabeth wait patiently, all the other girls are being loaded onto buses and a van… Only eight girls are left, but Clampett assures the others he will see to them. Elizabeth, hearing the buses leave, runs out to see what is going on. Seeing that everyone is being evacuated, she goes to her own car, only to have dead and soggy Dr. Delacroix spill out of the driver’s seat.
Elizabeth goes back to Roberta, who lures her back to the secret room. She shoves Elizabeth in, where Clampett (in a black robe) waits with the other girls (all in white). Roberta, of course, is one of his girls. In a rather cool aside, she tells Elizabeth that he is “Malleus Maleficarum,” or “The Witches’ Hammer”—I had to look this up, and it’s a famous medieval treatise on witches designed to help priests and magistrates identify witches. Not sure how Clampett came by the title, but it does sound kind of cool, especially if you don’t know what the Malleus Maleficarum really is.
Clampett then explains that he “lost” his girls a long time ago, and it’s taken him “many years” to find replacements. All I can say is, this particular Son of Darkness is a real underachiever —it’s taken him over 300 years to find the right girls? Dude’s been spending too much time drinking chardonnay and listening to bebop.
Elizabeth now takes her trusty lamp and throws it at the ground. It shatters and flames spread quickly. Elizabeth makes a run for it, and no one stops her. Clampett tells his comely disciples to wait, that soon they will all be together. Elizabeth manages to get Mrs. Williams out and throws another unsafe lantern into Clampett’s path. He smiles, and goes back to the secret room, now an inferno. With no more concern than stepping into a tepid bath, he walks on in…
Elizabeth watches her brief alma mater go up in flames, sure that the guilty have been punished. On a nearby hillside, Clampett watches the fire and smiles, then fades away, leaving a patch of scorched earth with a little wisp of smoke… If you were hoping for even a cheesy devil head or man-in-a-rubber-demon-suit, I am afraid this is the only evidence you get that Clampett was indeed Satan, or, at least, one of his more suave minions.
For all my carping and sniping, this is not a horrible movie. True, the constraints of television at the time (1973) mean no nudity and almost no gore. Budget constraints were probably the reason we do not get a cool reveal of Thinnes as the Devil—even some modest horns and bad skin would have been fine, but alas… However, the acting is all good across the board, and Pamela Franklin’s Elizabeth is brave, committed and strong —she is proactive and every bit the heroine, never wimping out or seeking help from (the admittedly small pool of) males.
The movie was remade in 2000 with Shannen Doherty, another Spelling favorite. Kate Jackson returned to play the Head Mistress, now called the Dean. It looks like the remake is much more centered around a mini-coven of five witches who want to rule the world. I wanted to compare and contrast the movies, but only snippets of the remake seem available at this time. If I can hunt down a copy we may revisit these not-so-hallowed halls again.
One last note: I am not sure I understand the motivation of Satan finding seven orphan girls only to have them kill themselves—seems like the guy should have plenty of souls by now (almost as many as hamburgers served by McDonald’s). Why not train them to go out and spread misery and malice around the world, corrupting and terrifying the populace—wouldn’t that be more devilish and hellish? I guess when you spend all your time looking cool for teenage girls and finally manifesting your demon side as charred grass and less smoke than a Camel cigarette, our expectations of you as a The Fallen One should be very, very low.
Remote Outpost… out.
© Copyright 2012 by Mark Onspaugh
(Mark Onspaugh is currently editing an anthology entitled The Forsaken with Stoker Award winner Joe McKinney for 23 House. His essay, “Evilution: A Short History of Monsters from Black & White to Blood Red” appears in “Butcher Knives and Body Counts: Essays on the Formula, Frights and Fun of the Slasher Film” edited by Vince A. Liaguno for Dark Scribe Press.)