Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Hubrisween 2017 :: S is for Satan's Triangle (1975)

The poop has already hit the propeller as our latest feature opens with a ship at stormy sea obviously under duress, punctuated by the emergency beacon that has just been activated. Cut to the shore somewhere along the coast of Florida, where the local Coast Guard unit is scrambling to respond to the very same distress signal -- well, some more scrambling than others as one helicopter remains on the ground, much to the consternation of the pilot, Lt. Commander Pagnolini (Conrad), and those in the control tower, wondering why they haven’t lifted off yet. Turns out the reason for this delay is Pagnolini’s co-pilot, Lt. Haig (McClure), who is running a little slow, nursing another in a long line of hangovers in his eternal chase of the skirt.

Once he’s finally aboard, the chopper takes off and they receive coordinates to where they’re headed, which Haig notes is smack dab in the middle of the Devil’s Triangle, where a lot of strange things happen, including several unexplained disappearances of both boats and planes that are never seen again. And while en route, we learn Pagnolini is a religious man who frowns on his friend’s lustful behavior. Thus, a firm believer in God and the Devil, Pagnolini thinks there might just be something supernatural going on inside the Triangle, while Haig is slightly more pessimistic on such things and scoffs, feeling there is a rational explanation for just about anything, including the icing-up and engine malfunction of the accompanying helicopter despite the otherwise balmy tropical conditions, which is forced to turn back, leaving them to run the rescue mission solo.

They soon spot a flare, and then the ship emitting the distress beacon. It’s still afloat but the large yacht has been beaten up pretty badly by the rough seas -- the sails are shredded and the booms are not secured. Worse yet, closer inspection shows a body hanging upside down from the main mast, and another body is spotted stuck in a shattered hatch as if propelled through it from below. 

Then, Haig swears he saw something moving inside the cabin -- and since someone had to have shot the flare off, Pagnolini lowers him to the deck with the chopper’s winch to look for survivors. Maintaining radio contact with the chopper, Haig checks on the two bodies first, confirming they are both dead and notes the one hanging from the mast appears to be a priest. He then heads below deck and makes the strangest discovery yet: another body, only this one appears to be suspended in midair. (And I cannot stress enough how eerie this discovery is.)

Sufficiently creeped out, Haig is about to bail and leave it to the Coast Guard cutter due to arrive in about 8 hours to mop things up, when he hears someone moaning and discovers a woman buried under several boxes of supplies. Her name is Eva (Novak), and she claims to be the only survivor on the vessel -- a vessel she claims is cursed. Reporting all this to Pagnolini, who is barely keeping the helicopter under control in the harsh crosswinds, he lowers the rescue basket to the deck, Haig and Eva strap in, and starts to reel them up. Unfortunately, the cable snaps, sending both into the ocean, but they manage to swim to the boat and get back on board. His fuel expended, Pagnolini radios he must return to the base and finally peels away when assured Haig and the woman will be fine until the cutter arrives the following morning.

Strangely enough, when the chopper leaves, the choppy weather calms down considerably. And after finding some dry clothes, and salvaging what they can from the wet bar, with nothing but time on their hands, Haig tries to coax Eva into explaining what happened to the others. Again, she thinks the boat is cursed by the Devil’s Triangle itself and this was the root cause of all the death and destruction around them. And so, when she call’s it the Devil’s Triangle, she means that quite literally...

As a child of the 1970s, I still bare a plethora of psychological scars from many a Made for TV Movie encounter. And one of the biggest emotional traumas came courtesy of Sutton Roley’s Satan’s Triangle (1975), which I saw when I was five or six. And as I’ve gotten older, and six or seven things seem to be wiped from my memory to make room for one single addition, there are still several images and scenarios from this thing still permanently etched in my brain -- most notably that inexplicably floating body, and then the completely bonkers ending that gave me a bad case of the night-drizzles for at least a week. Don’t worry, we’ll be getting to all that in a sec.

Now, the Made for TV Movie really found its legs when Barry Diller set up a specific time-slot for them in 1969 on ABC as The Movie of the Week. And since the network was getting absolutely pasted in the ratings by their competitors, with nothing to lose, Diller let his producers run wild with less traditional fair, resulting in tales of horror, science fiction and suspense, concerning sentient homicidal earth-moving equipment, ancient spirits of evil hijacking airplanes, were-spiders, alien invaders, vampires in Vegas, and psychic race car driving occult detectives, finding their way into living rooms across the country. And I remember many a night, gathering in the living room with the rest of my family unit, nestling into the shag carpet in that cocoon of wood-paneling and Naugahyde, and tuning in the old Zenith to watch and boggle at these things -- once the set warmed up, ‘natch.

And one thing you could always count on in a major Made for TV Movie event was for them to cash in on a current fad. And in 1975, there was no fad more current than the mysteries of The Bermuda Triangle. I know I was a paranormal freak back then, be it Bigfoot, UFOs, or the Loch Ness Monster -- and I wasn’t alone. The first allegations that something screwy was going on in the waters southeast of Florida first saw print in 1950, when an article by reporter Edward Jones was picked up by the AP, which tied together several maritime disasters to the area. In 1952, Fate Magazine published an article by George Sand, which was the first to note the (now standard) triangular shape of the troubled area, which stretched from the southern tip of Florida, to Puerto Rico, to Bermuda, then back to Florida, and the first to suggest a supernatural element was involved in all these strange disappearances. A decade later, Vincent Gaddis' "The Deadly Bermuda Triangle" saw print in the February, 1964, edition of Argosy, which further expanded on the pattern and causes of these disappearances. And though Gaddis would later publish his theories in a book, Invisible Horizons (1969), The Bermuda Triangle didn't really strike a chord with the masses until Charles Berlitz came along.

As the legend goes, gonzo author Charles Berlitz first became interested in the Triangle phenomenon at a travel agency in the late 1960s, when he became intrigued by several customers who adamantly refused any mode of travel through the dreaded area. Berlitz was already pretty gung-ho on extraterrestrial influences on ancient civilizations, underwater archeology, and the paranormal; more specifically, locating and proving the existence of the lost continent of Atlantis; and now, getting to the bottom of the deadly occurrences inside The Bermuda Triangle. And after compiling all of his research, Berlitz believed "the people and planes and ships that have reportedly disappeared in the Bermuda Triangle have been victims of some sort of electromagnetic disturbances that cause them to disintegrate and fall into the sea." And his speculative exposé on this theory, The Bermuda Triangle (1974), sold more than 14 million copies worldwide, feeding the voracious appetite of the cryptomania-addled public of the 1970s, who had gone completely bonkers over UFOs, Bigfoot, ghosts, and psychic whammies, just like me, and almost single-handedly made the notorious area of water a household name and caused a massive dip in Bermuda's tourist trade.

And so, producers Paul Junger Witt and Tony Thomas, no strangers to telefilms, having already produced MFTV classics like Brian’s Song (1971), A Cold Night’s Death (1973), and Home for the Holidays (1972), decided to use The Bermuda Triangle -- a/k/a The Devil’s Triangle, as a backdrop for their next feature. To direct, they hired Sutton Roley, a prolific director on the small screen, with series credits on Combat!, Mission Impossible, and Mannix, and a spiffy telefilm on the occult, Sweet, Sweet Rachel (1971) and the post-nuke, rats trapped in a maze, think-piece, Chosen Survivors (1974). (I highly recommend both.) The script fell to William Read Woodfield, who apparently worked with Roley before on a couple of those TV series. And together, with cinematographer, Leonard South, coupled with an eerie score by Johnny Pate, they delivered a haunting film with some surprising punch and a lot of teeth that sinks into you and won’t let go -- because just when you think you’ve got this plot locked down, trust me, you do not.

I will assume the title of Satan’s Triangle was chosen to avoid any legal hassles with the recently released documentary on the same subject matter, The Devil’s Triangle (1974). Again, Satan or the Devil, either way, the makers of this film decided to interpret that literally, mixing in another popular trend at the time: demon possession, thanks to The Exorcist (1973). That’s right. According to this movie, the reason all of those people and ships have disappeared was due to Satan himself out to consume unsuspecting souls. Think, “The Devil Went Down to Bermuda”. No. I am not making that up.

See, as the night wears on and Eva, convinced they’re both gonna die on the boat, just like the others, finally opens up about what happened, we discover she’s a high-end escort hired to accompany Hal Bancroft (Davis) on a boat trip this rich businessman had chartered with a guy named Strickland (Lauter). And the reason for this expedition was so Bancroft could land a bigger striped marlin than his brother-in-law, with whom he is apparently having a huge pissing contest with. And apparently, this brother-in-law is supposed to be a bigger asshole than Bancroft, though from what we’ve seen I have trouble buying this. 

Anyhoo, Bancroft is about to land his prized fish when one of Strickland’s crew spies a man afloat on some wreckage. And over the fisherman's protest, his line is cut so they can execute a rescue. The man they pull from the water is a priest, Father Peter Martin (Rey), who claims to be the sole survivor of a plane crash that was transporting one of his parishioners to Miami for emergency surgery -- a crash he blames on the Devil. Then things start to get a little weird when the majority of Strickland’s crew gets freaked-out by the priest’s arrival and abandon ship, running off with the lifeboat. 

And even though there is a massive storm brewing, Bancroft still has a fish to catch. And seeing his fat bonus going up in smoke unless they land one, Strickland and his last remaining crew-member, Salao (Vandis), try to get the boat started to pursue a spotted marlin. And when it refuses to start, they raise the sail. Then, the storm officially breaks wide open, tossing the ship around like a toy. Still, Bancroft manages to catch the marlin, which is then hauled below deck into a special refrigerated compartment. All the while, Eva has become quite infatuated with Father Martin as she listens raptly to his rapturous tales of the evil -- with a capital E, they’re currently surrounded by. And as the weather continues to worsen, Strickland tells Martin to take the wheel, while he and Salao go on deck to get the sails down before the boat capsizes and drowns them all -- but it’s already too late.

In short order, as the boat is rocked violently by the waves, Strickland is shot out of the front hold like a cannonball through the closed hatch, killing him instantly. And then, in a flash of lightning, Salao disappears off the deck. From below, Bancroft, who had been admiring his catch, starts screaming. And by the time Martin gets the door knocked down, he and Eva find Bancroft dead, his face contorted in pain, free-floating in the air. This is all too much for Eva, who swoons. Never fear, though, for Martin managed to turn on the distress signal. (Wait? How did he know where that was? And how it worked?) Hearing the approaching rescue helicopter, he grabs a flare gun and bolts for the deck, climbs the mast as high as he can, and fires the flare. Alas, the recoil causes him to lose his balance, and as he falls, his feet get tangled up in the ropes, bringing his free-fall to a quick, neck-snapping end, leaving him to swing in the breeze.

Thus and so, that is how Eva wound up being the last survivor of this doomed fishing expedition. And at some point during the night, she and Haig connected -- in a *ahem* ‘biblical sense’, which is why they wind up sleeping together after Haig takes her by the hand and proves what happened to all her shipmates was not due to the malignant supernatural forces of the Triangle, saying Strickland was jettisoned through the hatch due to the crashing waves; and Salao was most probably knocked off the deck by the unsecured boom, which she couldn’t see due to the lightning flash; and poor Father Martin just lost his balance; as for Bancroft’s seemingly preternatural fate, there’s a rational explanation for that, too; seems he got himself harpooned on the beak of the swordfish he caught, which was hung from the ceiling and was blocked from view by the body, and so, it just appeared the body was floating in mid-air.

And once the deed is done and the couple get dressed, Eva suddenly grows very curious about Pagnolini, when Haig mentions a hope he made it back OK. Told he is a righteous and pious man, and the complete polar opposite of Haig, Eva hopes to meet Pagnolini someday. Turns out she’ll get her wish as the Coast Guard has now returned in force, including Pagnolini in the circling chopper. And as an investigative team boards and starts working the scene, Haig and Eva are once again hauled into the waiting helicopter, where Eva suddenly becomes very belligerent, adamantly refusing to don the proper safety equipment. And here, Boils and Ghouls, is where Satan’s Triangle goes completely bonkers in the best way possible. So for those not wanting it spoiled, and want to experience the bonkers for themselves, skip the next couple paragraphs.

OK, then, here we go as the helicopter flies back to the coast, they receive a call from the commanding officer back on the boat. Seems he wants confirmation the body hanging from the mast was a priest. And when Haig confirms this, he’s told that’s not what they found. Cut to the boat as we see them lowering the body, obscured by the tattered sail, until it reveals this was Eva, dead, hanging there all along. 

Told they found a woman hanging from the mast, both pilot and co-pilot look back in the hold to see Eva gone, replaced by Father Martin, who, turns out, is the freakin’ Devil! And while Haig tries to compute what he just slept with, the Devil claims he already has Haig’s soul and casts him out of the vehicle, from which he plummets to his death.

The Devil then turns his attention to the more devote Pagnolini, thinking he will make a much more impressive notch on his belt than the horny Haig. The demon then futches with the helicopter, killing the engines, sending it rocketing toward the sea. And all Pagnolini must do to save himself is renounce God and pledge allegiance to the Devil. He refuses, even though the Devil claims after he’s dead he will dopplegang him and take his wife and children. (There’s even an implication that he will rape them all.) He still refuses, saying they will see through his deceptions. 

And with that, the Devil proclaims, “Then go to your God, Pagnolini,” and jumps out of the helicopter moments before it crashes. Bobbing to the surface, the Devil spots Haig’s body floating nearby. He also spots a nearby vessel heading toward them, having seen the crash. He then jumps bodies, taking over and reanimating Haig, who gives a smile and a friendly wave to the folks on the approaching ship, who have no idea what’s about to hit them.

Hole. Lee. Shit. And Cheese and Rice. Wow. This is what I’m talking about when I say these old Made for TV Movies tended to screw with your head. I just love how this is all set-up that something supernatural is going on only to have Haig ease Eva and the audience into a sense of relieved comfort. I mean, I know I was expecting some paranormal explanation, be it UFOs, ancient Atlantean Death-Rays, sea-monsters, or some kind of time-vortex, but nope. Rational explanations all around. Yup. At that point, we are fools for buying into this, lulled into what would be a brief and false sense of security only to get walloped over the head with that ending and true explanation! This. This is why I love these telefilms so much. That took some courage and some balls to pull that off. And they pulled it off quite brilliantly, as that climax is genuinely kinda frightening and still packs quite the punch -- especially if you don’t know it’s coming. Don’t look at me! I warned ya!

Helping make all of this work is an outstanding cast. Kim Novak tops the list, here. You know all along there’s something not quite right about her character, seemingly caught in a perpetual trance-like state. And yet, there is something truly evil in those eyes. Doug McClure is pretty solid as the nominal hero, who is played rather badly, always thinking with that bulge in his pants instead of his head. You also buy his fear during the big reveal, and that final shot of him smiling and waving will send shivers down your spine. Jim Davis and Ed Lauter a rock-solid character actors, who do nothing to tarnish that reputation here. And while Alejandro Rey appears to be overdoing things a bit, turns out he was just getting warmed up for the final confrontation, and his tete-a-tete with Michael Conrad, as they both take it to eleven, is just incredible.

What’s always been amazing to me about these old telefilms from the 1970s is how well they age -- even better than most of their same vintage cinematic counterparts I’d argue. With nothing to lose, they went for broke and always struck a raw nerve -- and somehow skirted around the censors. I’ve seen things they could never, ever, get away with today. I know some folks get hung up on the fashions and decor of the time and can’t get past it. That, is too bad. You’re missing some pretty great stuff. And what I know for sure, is it’s over forty years later and we’re still talking about them. And I still wish that someone, anyone, would usher these old telefilms into the digital age instead of having to rely on old and worn out VHS-rips on YouTube.

To be fair, Satan’s Triangle is probably an apex example of the genre I’m talking about. And it’s probably a toss up between this and A Cold Night’s Death as to which one freaked me out the most as a kid when the film premiered as one of those ABC Movies of the Week on January 14, 1975. It’s unique. It’s different. And it’s all kinds of creepy. I know it scared the piss out of me way back when, and honestly, it still kinda freaks me out a bit today.

What is Hubrisween? This is Hubrisween. And now, Boils and Ghouls, be sure to follow this linkage to keep track of the whole conglomeration of reviews for Hubrisween right here. Or you can always follow we collective head of knuckle on Letterboxd. That's 19 down with 7 to go! Only one week left. I totally got this. Up next: Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to Pinky Violence.

Satan's Triangle (1975) Danny Thomas Productions :: American Broadcasting Company (ABC) / EP: Paul Junger Witt, Tony Thomas / P: James R. Rokos / AP: Judith Craig Marlin, David M. Shapiro / D: Sutton Roley / W: William Read Woodfield / C: Leonard J. South / E: Bud Molin, Dennis Virkler / M: Johnny Pate / S: Kim Novak, Doug McClure, Alejandro Rey, Michael Conrad, Ed Lauter, Jim Davis, Titos Vandis


BillyWitchDoctor said...

If you can play PAL/Region-2 DVDs, it's currently available on French disc (with the original English audio available):


(Also available: James Earl Jones' The UFO Incident from 1975.)

W.B. Kelso said...

Thanks, but, alas, I lack the equipment. But I do have a decent rip of The UFO Incident. However, I have about half-dozen copies of Satan's Triangle and all of them are garbage. I have a dream that some streaming platform will one day surface that is completely dedicated to showing old MFTV movies. Until then, keep scouring YouTube.

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