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My Year of Scary Movies (Part 6): Satan In the 70s

My Year Of Scary Movies
by Daniel Hutchens
Part 6: SATAN IN THE 70s

Thrills and chills have always been popular entertainment, and of course this series of essays about scary movies I’m writing skips back and forth across several decades––in fact by the time I’m done I’ll have viewed movies spanning nearly a century––but there was just something about the 1970s. Of course that’s when I was a kid, just the right age to really start digging horror films, so some of my personal nostalgia has to come into play. But in retrospect the 70s really was the decade of the Devil. Beelzebub was Big Business. Satan became hot product in movies, books, TV, comics...everywhere. I guess the cheesiest line I can come up with to begin this essay is: “What the hell was going on in the 70s?”

I remember loving a Marvel Comics character called “The Son Of Satan”...turns out his Daddy was the Devil, and when the son figured out his lineage, he vowed to use his own Hell-spawned powers to fight back against his Father! For a ten year old boy, this shit was just right on the fuckin’ money! I can’t imagine such a comic book being produced today...might be considered politically incorrect or some such boring nonsense, or offend certain religious viewpoints...but back then, as far as I was concerned, The Son Of Satan was just good clean wholesome All-American fun! Marvel also produced a comic character called “Ghost Rider”, who had some kind of hellish origins too, and that character has been made into a feature film starring Nicholas Cage in recent years...

But the undisputed king of the 70s Devil boom, the movie by which all other Satanic-themed projects would ever after come to be measured, was of course The Exorcist.

The Exorcist(1973) Directed by William Friedken
Screenplay by William Peter Blatty, adapted from his own novelStarring Ellen Burstyn, Max von Sydow, Linda Blair

This movie exploded onto the public consciousness in 1973. There were huge lines at every screening, and hysterical reactions in the audience, ranging from fainting, to running from the theatre in terror, to attacking the screen in an attempt to kill the demon. There were protests and demonstrations, religious groups of every stripe denouncing the film, while of course the crowds just kept rolling in to see the movie, all over the world. The film received ten Oscar nominations, and won two...it became one of the highest grossing films of all time, and has been included in the National Film Registry at the Library of Congress. 

And it remains a rock-solid piece of work; it stands the test of time and repeated viewings. It’s engrossing from start to finish. The actors are all outstanding––Ellen Burstyn, in particular, turns in a powerfully believable performance as a horrified, desperate mother––and of course Linda Blair as the little possessed girl is unforgettable, and has become a landmark character in the history of cinema. The special effects have become legend also: the little girl’s head spinning all the way around, the projectile vomiting, the levitations off the bed...and the sound of the film, the demonic growling beneath the little girl’s voice as she speaks, the animal groans and tortured moans just loud enough to be heard but soft enough to make the listener unsure what’s really happening...

And of course one of the scariest aspects of the film is the fact that it’s supposedly based on a true story, a documented case of exorcism that occurred in the late 40s––the real victim was a little boy, not a girl, and the specifics of the case of course have been altered and manipulated en route to the silver screen––and of course there are disputes about the validity of the original real case––but the point is, some people believed the story was real, and maybe more to the point, the Catholic Church itself believed the story enough to actually approve the exorcism––and the fact that the Catholic Church believes in/practices exorcisms at all, no matter how rarely, is enough to make you think. It’s a wild concept, giving an explicit personality and character and will to the notion of Evil––it’s unsettling, to say the least, and this movie taps into all that uneasiness, and focuses it into a sharp, smart story.

The other box office champion of 70s Satanism was The Omen...this one is a weird case for me. It’s never been one of my favorites. It stars one of my all time favorite actors, Gregory Peck, and the subject matter of course is along the lines of my usual interests...but somehow this movie just never really grabbed hold of me. I think it’s a little too slickly Hollywood, a little too contrived...and when the mysteries of evil and Satan start getting framed into plotlines involving politics and international diplomacy, somehow all the goosebumps just fade away for me...I guess I like my horror more personal, more private, locked up in some musty old English castle on a rainy midnight...and The Omen seems to divide lots of viewers. It received all manner of critical praise, but has also been included in some “Worst Of” movie lists...it was a massively successful film, spawning sequels and an eventual remake, but for me it just never delivered the scares, or the moods, I like in my horror films. But it’s certainly a great example of Satan In The 70s.

Another 70s Devil movie that didn’t scare me was The Amityville Horror. This movie was based on a big smash hit best selling novel, which was supposedly describing true events, regarding a house possessed by demonic forces, and a family who unwittingly moves into the place...I read the book in ’77, when I was thirteen, and the damn thing scared me shitless. I mean, I slept with the lights on for a month. I had dreams about demonic possession, being in spooky houses and hearing ghostly voices tell me to 'Get Out', and me reciting the Lord’s Prayer in an effort to defend myself...a lot of nightmares based on that book. It really rattled me, and a few of my friends too. So it was with great trepidation that I went to see the movie adaptation in 1979, accompanied by my friend Eric Carter. And long story short, we wound up getting kicked out of the theater for laughing out loud so much, and generally making fun of the movie. Maybe it just couldn’t live up to the power of our imaginations, the fears we had created in our own minds after reading the book...but for whatever reason, the movie just struck us as silly, and somehow shattered the whole spell the book had cast. I never had another of those nightmares after seeing the movie.

I guess there must have been dozens of other Devil-themed movies released in the 70s, most of them low budget and largely unnoticed upon release. Most of them were weak attempts to cash in on a current fad...but there were a few that I really loved, though I’ll admit they weren’t exactly classic cinema...but they were good thrills for a young lad, and I still enjoy seeing them these days, partly out of nostalgia, partly because they’re just right up my alley of good “bad” movies, scary and funny and atmospheric all at the same time. They were both released in 1975:

The Devil’s Rain(1975) Directed by Robert FuestStarring Ernest Borgnine, Eddie Albert, William Shatner, with an appearance by Anton LaVey.

Now, this is just straight 70s cheese, loaded with TV actors and others who I guess may have been hard up for work...Shatner and Borgnine! Eddie Albert and Tom Skerritt! The high priest of “Black Arts” profiteering, Anton LaVey! John Travolta’s first brief appearance in a movie! It’s all just silly and weird and, to my way of thinking, a lot of fun. The opening credits are run over Hieronymus Bosch images...there’s an abundance of overacting supplied by Shatner, Borgnine, et al, and some gooshy melting-in-the-rain special effects...and it’s all OK by me. There’s a mood created, kind of a lonesome old West kind of feel, mixed with notes of horror and mystery...this is the kind of movie I used to love finding on some latenight TV channel, a great way to wind down and nod off to sleep, and maybe wander into some picturesque horror movie type dreams.
Race With The Devil(1975) Directed by Jack Starrett
Starring Peter Fonda and Warren Oates

More of the same as the above film, but mixed with a little car chase/action & adventure mojo for good measure...man, I adored this film when I was a kid. Wanted to be Peter Fonda. Cool Guy with cool sunglasses, meandering around the countryside in a big RV with dirt bikes strapped on, so Cool Guy and buddy can park RV and go dirt bikin’ while happenin’ chicks wait for ‘em back in the big rig...but, whoops! The Cool Guy and buddy witness a human sacrifice during a latenight Satanic ritual! Damn! And the Satanists spot the Cool Guy and the RV, and now the chase is on!...(that’s pretty much the whole plot of the movie, and for whatever reason it just electrified my eleven-year-old sensibilities...I wanted to grow up and ride motorcycles and fight Satanists.)So...yeah. The 70s were a high water mark for Satan in the movies, and a high time for me, a young man just beginning to get his rocks off to scary movies, rock n roll, offbeat literature, cute girls, etc. ...hell yeah. This was where my party really started, and these movies were a big part of the rush I was just beginning to feel.

My Year of Scary Movies by Daniel Hutchens


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