“The Devil Made Them Do It"
"The Three Movies that Defined the Satanic Scares of the ‘70s”
Beginning in the late 1950s, the relaxation of censorship laws governing motion pictures, as well as an increasing sophistication on the part of audiences, a number of newer topics and themes began to be explored in American cinema, especially in the Horror genre. One of the most popular and persistent involved Satanism, Witchcraft, and Demonology. There were a scattering of such films between 1958 and 1968, but after the end of the Production Code in 1967, the subgenre virtually exploded, and the 1970s became, in many ways, the decade of the Devil in film.
There were many such films produced after 1967. A few became classics—The Sentinel (1977), Inferno (1980), The Wicker Man (1973), or Suspira (1977). Some were okay—Race with the Devil (1975), El Diablo se Lleva los Muertos –aka— Lisa and the Devil (1974), or To the Devil a Daughter (1976). Most were just bad. Movies such as Ruby (1977), Abby (1974), or Simon, King of the Witches (1971), while undeniably inferior movies, still packed audiences into Drive-Ins and Grindhouses.
Three films, however, would stand out from the crowd, and be recognized as outstanding examples of filmmaking, and not just in the Horror genre. These would be Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby, released in 1968; William Friedkin’s The Exorcist, in 1973; and Richard Donner’s The Omen, from 1976. Together, they would come to symbolize the Satanic films of the ‘70s.
While Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby wasn’t the first Horror film with satanic themes (1913’s The Student of Prague, directed by Stellan Rye, probably holds that distinction), it was one of the first to take advantage of the newfound realism of the late ‘60s cinema. Prior to Polanski’s groundbreaking film, themes of Satanism, Devil Worship, Witchcraft, and Cults were approached with caution by Hollywood, if at all. The Production Code, put into place by the Hays Office in 1930 in an effort by the studios to avoid official censorship, was fully in control by 1934, severely restricting the content of motion pictures. Though depictions of Satanism or Devil-Worship weren’t specifically forbidden under the code, the major studios were generally unwilling to approach, much less push, the boundaries set by the Hays Office.
One of the last Satanically-themed films produced before the Production Code took full effect was Edgar Ulmer’s 1934 classic The Black Cat, by Universal. With overt themes of satanic worship and implied necrophilia and virgin sacrifice, it would have been impossible to release just a year later. As it was, studio executives ordered the film to be cut in order to lessen the violence and horror, while allowing Ulmer to slip some of the movie’s most decadent bits past them.
In 1943, working within the confines of the Code, RKO Pictures produced The Seventh Victim, directed by Mark Robson and produced by Val Lewton, RKO’s hired gun brought in to compete with Universal’s Horror franchise. The film concerned a young woman’s search for her missing sister, and her discovery that her sister was a member of a Satanic cult. Though in my opinion it’s the best of the Horror films Lewton created for RKO, a very ham-fisted job of editing meant that the theatrical release was a confusing mess, and it did poorly at the box office.
The Production Code was officially in place until 1967, though in reality numerous factors had been whittling away at it for many years prior to that date. First, the code only applied to films produced in the US. While other nations’ cinemas had their own censorship issues to deal with, those tended to be more politically, rather than morally, oriented.
The second circumstance that led to the downfall of the Production Code was that, with increasing rapidity, Courts were conferring greater and greater protection to motion pictures under the aegis of the First Amendment. The Supreme Court, in 1915, had ruled that motion pictures were a business, not art, and thus weren’t protected speech under the First Amendment. However, that view had been shifting since the early 1950s, coinciding with the end of the Studio System. As local censorship laws began to be struck down, there was increasing pressure on the Supreme Court to revisit their earlier decision, to bring order out of the patchwork quilt of censorship laws which covered the nation.
Third, and most importantly, the Code was entirely voluntary. The major studios were the only ones bothering to abide by the code, and were the least interested in fighting censorship. That fight was left to the independent Exploitation filmmakers, those who fought a constant battle with local censors for the right to exhibit their wares. It was they who dragged the majors, kicking and screaming, into the modern era, which rendered the Production Code an archaic afterthought.
As the code began to crack and come apart, Satanically-themed films began to appear sporadically at Drive-Ins and Conventional theatres. One of the best of this era was a British import, based on the M. R. James novel “Casting the Runes,” and directed by Jacques Tourneur. Night of the Demon, released in the US as Curse of the Demon, was heavily edited prior to its theatrical release (approximately twelve minutes were cut); in its original form, it was a well-written and –directed, if at times slow paced, Horror film. Literate, mature, and intelligent, it was the framework upon which the best of the Devil-Worship films were constructed.
Ten years after Night of the Demon hit theatres, low-budget Horror producer/director William Castle brought a project he was interested in developing to Robert Evans at Paramount. Castle had gotten the advance galley proofs of a new novel by Ira Levin entitled Rosemary’s Baby from the book’s publisher, Random House. Evans loved the story, and could see its potential as a feature film. His only stipulation involved William Castle. Well aware of the latter’s reputation for camp and gimmickry, Evans said that he could produce the film, but he wanted another director to helm the project. They gave the job to an up-and-coming Polish filmmaker who was developing a solid reputation in Europe.
Roman Polanski, then thirty-five, had just filmed a supposed Horror-Comedy, The Fearless Vampire Killers, released in the US by MGM (I say “supposed” because in my opinion it fails at both genres). Polanski, best known for his 1965 film Repulsion, which had drawn critical praise, seemed a good fit for Rosemary’s Baby, at its core a psychological horror similar in tone to Repulsion. And with the increased freedom following the demise of the Production Code, Polanski had the opportunity to make the first truly serious, mature Horror film.
Despite my personal animus towards Polanski as a person, which I have written of prior to this, I will give him his due as a talented director. And Rosemary’s Baby might be his best film; certainly his best early work. With a cast led by Mia Farrow and John Cassavetes, Polanski crafted a slow, suspenseful build-up to a shocking ending. Critics loved it. Moviegoers loved it. And Hollywood took notice, and began developing similar properties in order to cash in.
In the wake of the blockbuster success of Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby, every studio, from the Hollywood Majors to low-budget exploiteers, wanted their own Satanic, demonic, or cult-themed film. That’s the nature of the business; one innovates, everyone else imitates. Within a year or two, Horror films involving witches, covens, and Devil-Worshippers were a standard trope in low-budget Horror films. Matthew Hopkins, Witchfinder General, directed by Michael Reeves and starring Vincent Price, actually beat the Polanski film into theaters, at least in Great Britain. Though not strictly speaking a Horror film (though it was marketed as such, especially in the US where it was retitled The Conqueror Worm, after an Edgar Allan Poe poem), it nonetheless demonstrates that such topics were beginning to permeate the zeitgeist.
1971 saw an explosion of such movies, and titles such as The Brotherhood of Satan, The Mephisto Waltz, Tombs of the Blind Dead, and The Devil’s Nightmare were popular low-budget entries into the genre. Similar films would be released in 1972, including Daughters of Satan and Horror Rises from the Tomb. But it would be 1973 before the majors came back to the subject of demonic movies, and when they did, it would be with a vengeance.
In 1971, author William Peter Blatty, inspired by a 1949 case of reported demonic possession, published a novel telling the story of a young girl, tormented by such a occurrence, and two Catholic priests who fight to save her soul from a demon. The Exorcist was a runaway best-seller in print form, and it was only a matter of time before it was adapted for the screen. Warner Bros. purchased the film rights to the book, and chose William Friedkin, coming off directing The French Connection, winner of five Oscars including Best Picture and Best Director, to helm it.
With a script by Blatty, the author of the source novel; a cast comprised of veteran actors such as Max Von Sydow and Lee J. Cobb, lesser-known performers like Ellen Burstyn and Mercedes McCambridge, and a host of unknowns, such as Linda Blair and Jason Miller; and armed with a budget of $12 million, Friedkin crafted the definitive movie about demonic possession, one that would earn nearly $450 million at the Box Office, as well as ten Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay. It won two, including Best Adapted Screenplay for Blatty’s script. It is still regarded by many to be the most frightening Horror film ever. And every studio and independent producer wanted to duplicate it.
Seemingly overnight theaters and Drive-Ins were swamped with demons and devils, witches and warlocks. Time magazine might have declared God dead, but Satan was alive and well and living in Hollywood. As is often the case with efforts to capitalize on a newly burgeoning trend in Hollywood, most of these low-budget Exploitation film takes on the subject weren’t very good. However Italian and Spanish filmmakers, with deep roots in Catholic theological tradition, generally fared better with these themes, perhaps as an expression of rebellion against the cultural domination on the part of the Church in those countries. In particular, a Spanish director named Jesús Franco showed a marked antipathy towards the Church, so much so that the Vatican declared him, along with fellow Spaniard Luis Buñuel, the most dangerous filmmakers in the world.
Sometime in 1973, Bob Munger, a friend of producer Harvey Bernhard, suggested to the latter that a movie about the Antichrist, the son of Satan, would be good box office. Bernhard agreed, and immediately hired David Seltzer to turn the idea into a screenplay. Seltzer, who had gotten his start in the business with an uncredited rewrite of Roald Dahl’s script for Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, took a year to finish the assignment, but when it was completed, everyone connected with the project felt that The Omen would be a winner. Richard Donner, an experienced film and television director, was selected to helm the project for Warner Bros.
Starring Gregory Peck, Lee Remick, and David Warner, the story concerns an American diplomat and his wife, whose adopted son turns out to be the Antichrist foretold in the Book of Revelations. Just as Rosemary’s Baby dealt with Satan from what might be described as a secular viewpoint, and The Exorcist was a study in Catholic theological dogma, The Omen was grounded in the Protestant Fundamentalist views on Armageddon and the Apocalypse. This becomes more noticeable when one considers that most of the Catholic clergy are depicted as being in league with the Devil, certainly a Protestant prejudice. Though the film failed to garner the critical praise that had been heaped upon the previous two linchpins of the subgenre, it was a box office hit, earning $61 million on a budget of $2.8 million.
As the Slasher films began to dominate the Horror genre in the late 1970s, the Satanic films waned in popularity, though never completely disappearing. In the decades since, they have remained a staple of the Horror fan’s diet, holding their own against the vampires, ghosts, aliens, and zombies that populate modern Horror films. I don’t see that changing anytime soon—after all, the battle between Good and Evil is as old as Mankind itself.
Creature Feature © D. Dyszel 2021
Dick Dyszel - Voice Actor