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Satanic Panic Part One: The Wicked Cults of American Cinema In the 1970’s

Anton La Vey

Anton La Vey

When the Church of Satan was established by Anton LaVey in 1966, he declared it “Annos Satanas,’’ – the first year in the “Age of Satan.’’  A man of great charisma and considerable celebrity status already, it wasn’t long before his newfound thematic practice became the focus of a media sensation, in turn making Satanism more mainstream than it ever was before.  At the time, America was a country experiencing a transitional period; the Civil Rights Movement was underway, which not only fought for and acquired rights for African Americans, it also typified an emerging culture challenging and rejecting archaic values and belief systems.  Then President Lyndon Johnson endorsed liberalism in politics established by JFK prior.  The rise of rock ‘n’ roll was taking over and encouraging young people to break free of conservative shackles, question authority and embrace free love and autonomy.  Still, despite being merely a reflection of cultures spawning which sought to reject or redefine traditional values, anything or anybody associated with Satan was the cause of much distress and widespread fear in America.

With society changing, so was cinema.  The emergence of New Hollywood during the 1960’s spearheaded a rise in a new breed of innovative films that subverted the cinematic norms of before.  When Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby was unleashed in 1968, it fuelled the Satanic renaissance period transpiring at the time.  The film was a massive success, but its influence would extend far beyond the multiplexes, becoming infused with the masses’ uninformed and terrified perception of Satanism perpetrated by the media and religious groups.  Accusations of blasphemy were thrown around by fundamentalists, while concurring that Satan’s minions were hidden in plain view as our neighbors and congregating in secret to perform the Black Arts.

rosemarys babyThe inception of The Church of Satan and the popularity of Rosemary’s Baby made the occult mainstream.  However, the publication of Mike Warnke’s book The Satan Seller in 1972 played a significant part in inaugurating the ‘Satanic Panic’ phenomenon that would gain full-speed momentum in the 1980’s.  In his book, Warnke claimed to have been a presiding officiate of occult activities; these included ritualistic sex, rape, murder, and magical ceremonies where demons were summoned.  It also discussed his reformation and conversion to the ways of Christ, and would go on to become a best-seller in Christian communities.  With his newfound stardom among evangelical Christians, he would become a popular speaker at their meetings, preaching to people who were unaware that his story was entirely fabricated.  The Satan Seller might have later been revealed to be a farce, but for religious groups adamant to believe that Satanic cults did exist, it was as powerful as gospel texts.

Going back to Polanski, his association with Satanism didn’t end after Rosemary’s Baby. In 1969, his then wife, Sharon Tate, was brutally murdered – along with four others – by Charles Manson’s followers at the behest of their leader.  Though not Satanically motivated, the ritualistic nature of the murders – which ‘The Family’ believed would trigger Helter Skelter, an apocalyptic battle between blacks and whites on the back of the civil rights movement – meant that they could be spun as such by the media.  Regardless of the beliefs harbored by Manson and his sect, their atrocities fed cult hysteria in America going into the ‘70’s, and filmmakers were more than happy to pander to audiences fear of counter-cultures by supplying their sensationalized fantasies about them on film.

The world might have been terrified of the notion of the Devil and his human followers, but the movie business was embracing it, and the following decade would see filmmakers take full advantage of the fear and fascination with Lucifer’s wicked cults.  However, most of the movies of this ilk were anything but scary, instead opting for cheap schlock and entertainment.  Satanic cinema did hit a peak during this era with films like The Exorcist and The Omen giving it the power it deserved, but films involving devil cults were mostly relegated to bargain basement entertainment at best.

i drink your bloodIn true exploitation fashion, the 1970 film I Drink Your Blood had no qualms about capitalizing on the Manson Family crimes for its own sleazy benefit.  Directed by David Durston, the film follows a cult of hippies – led by Horace Bones (Bhaskar Roy Chowdhury) – who go by the name Sons and Daughters of Satan (guess who they worship?).  The film opens with a ritual in the woods, where their prophetic leader informs us that the Prince of Darkness loves to partake in recreational drug use.  When the hippies start running amok in a small town, one of the residents poisons a batch of meat pies with infected blood and feeds it to the devil-worshippers, giving them rabies.  Soon, all hell breaks loose and blood pours in admirable gallons for a film of this time period.  The film revels in sleaze, though it does contain some interesting social commentary about America’s negative perception of the hippie movement, with Satanism serving as a metaphor for drug use as the nation’s liberal-minded youth were discovering LSD and other narcotics.

The Brotherhood of Satan, released in 1971, is an unsung gem which stands out from its low-budget period peers as the schlocky elements are minimized in favor of creating a genuinely unsettling, ambiguous, and wholly intelligent horror film.  Directed by Bernard McEveety (famed for his work in television on shows like Knight Rider and Gunsmoke), the story takes place in a rural New Mexico town where the children are going missing at the hands of an elderly coven who seek to revivify their youth.  To divulge any more details would be doing the film a disservice as well as future viewers yet to experience its forbidden spells.  The films non-linear approach to storytelling gives it an air of occult mystery throughout, while its themes of youth being corrupted by dark forces is a wonderfully cruel – and somewhat satirical  manifestation of the fears of parents caught up in the tidal wave of frenzy at the time.

Rosemary’s Baby was still a property worth milking during the ‘70’s.  With success comes pale imitators, and Polanski’s masterpiece was no different. Bert I. Gordon’s Necromancy – released in 1972 and starring Orson Welles – wasn’t a clone as such, though a re-edited version was re-titled Rosemary’s Disciples later on for television as a way to capitalize on the reputation of the more famous film.  Moreover, it was also released as The Toy Factory and The Witching (after being re-released in 1983 with new footage included).  The movie itself is a surreal Gothic witchcraft tale set in a strange town where the residents weave magic to bring their dead back to life.  When a young woman and her husband arrive, they become pawns in the cults next ritual.  This is a serviceable, if ultimately forgettable, oddity that’s too derivative and lacking in chills to be effective – but it still boasts enough style and strange qualities to warrant at least one viewing.

The 1972 shocker Asylum of Satan, directed by William Brent Girdler, is a cheap pastiche of much better films, including Shock Corridor (1963), and of course, Rosemary’s Baby (1968) though it is worth seeing for its ritual scene.  This scene was overseen by Anton LaVey and other members of The Church of Satan.   The plot revolves around a young woman undergoing treatment in a mental hospital, run by a sadistic doctor who sacrifices the patients to Satan.  By no means a good movie, it’s not bereft of entertainment value either, with plenty of cheap visceral thrills intended for the drive-in crowds.  It’s the type of film aficionados of trash cinema should find endearing.  He would go on to make a slew of action and horror films afterwards, most notably in the Blaxploitation genre, with the lost serial killer thriller The Zebra Killer (1974); the entertaining Exorcist clone Abby (1974); and 1975’s Sheba, Baby, starring genre icon Pam Grier.  He followed these with a few more genre films, including Jaws-copycat Grizzly (1976) and The Manitou (1978) – the latter being his last film before his sad, untimely death in a helicopter accident at the age of 30.

The services of Anton LaVey were once again sought for 1975’s The Devils Rain, in a bid to authenticate the Satanic elements.  Helmed by acclaimed British genre director Robert Fuest – the man responsible for The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971) and Wuthering Heights (1970), to name a couple – the story centres around a family who incur the wrath of a devilish warlock hell bent on exacting his revenge on their bloodline and obtaining an ancient book.  The film stars William Shatner, Academy Award-winner Ernest Borgnine, Tom Skerritt, and a young John Travolta in his first feature film role.  Aside from the mildly star-studded cast, the film boasts some charming special effects and makes great use of desolate, New Mexico scenery in the background – which the cast chew up tremendously with their performances.

race with the devilJack Starrett’s Race With The Devil in 1975 would see Satan’s cloaked servants on Earth vacate the shadows and hit the open road, as carsploitation and horror would experience a head-on collision of epic proportions.  The film follows two married couples – led by patriarchs Peter Fonda and Warren Oates – enjoying a relaxing road trip together.  That is until they witness a human sacrifice taking place during a Satanic ritual in the woods one unhallowed evening.  Now marked for death by the fanatics, a cat-and-mouse chase begins through Texas’ rural towns and gruelling highways.

Essentially adopting the blueprints of an action-orientated chase movie that was popular in American cinema at the time, Race With The Devil puts the pedal to the metal and supplies all the thrills and wreckage you’d expect from a film of this breed.  That being said, there is plenty of suspense and paranoia spliced in throughout, which makes for some moments of effectively chilling horror.  The ending is a cinematic gut-punch that will stick with you long after the end credits roll, serving as a downbeat reminder that you shouldn’t meddle in the affairs of pesky cultists.

As was commonplace in post-Watergate horror and thriller films of the ‘70’s, Race With The Devil’s central protagonists were caught up in the web of a conspiracy.  It would be easy to dismiss it as simple B movie mayhem. However, underneath the surface, it encourages viewers to be more distrusting of the powers that be:  The well-publicized illegal activities and subsequent cover-ups carried out by the government and law enforcement during the Watergate scandal was just as terrifying as the forces of darkness.  Permeating throughout the film is the feeling that every character outside of the main quartet is in on the conspiracy; this enforces the idea that there’s always unknown corruption going on around us at all times, outwith our parameters of control, put in place by those who are supposed to protect us and our human rights.

satans cheerleadersOf course, you cannot talk about the Satanic cults in American cinema during this decade without shining a spotlight on the absurdity that is 1977’s Satan’s Cheerleaders, directed by Greydon Clark.  By this point, the Devil’s fearsome credibility had been more than damaged in exploitation fare; but Satan’s Cheerleaders made even some of the tawdrier efforts seem like masterclasses in fuelling the fear epidemic of Beelzebub and his followers.  The story follows four cheerleaders who get abducted by a janitor while en route to a football game.  It turns out that the janitor is part of a cult looking for their next virgin sacrifice; little do they know that one of the cheerleader girls is actually a witch with Lucifer on her side.  As silly a film as it is, Satan’s Cheerleaders scores points for subverting expectations and having some fun with the tried-and-tested formula typical of deranged sect movies.  Though it’s hardly a beacon of originality – basically, it infuses the Satanic cult flick with the cheerleader comedies that were popular in drive-ins at the time – it’s more than good for a few laughs, even if it is too restrained.

In a decade where American society was rife with paranoia following political scandals along with growing superstitions about the existence of fanatical sects creeping up all over the country, genre low-budget genre films were doing their all to exploit this hysteria for the drive-in theatres.  The misunderstood nature of Satanism made it a terrifying concept to most, and religious groups were able to use it to weave their propaganda.  However, the turbulent ‘Satanic Panic’ outbreak the following decade would instill fear of cults and paranoia on a much larger scale than ever before.  Naturally, horror films would be there to ride that wave of momentum while it was at its peak.

 

About Kieran Fisher

Kieran is a big fan of action movies, schlock horror, giant monsters, and crime sagas. In addition to Diabolique, he also writes for Arrow Video and Film School Rejects.

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