‘Satan’s Triangle’ (1975): A wild, disconcerting TV nightmare

You know what would be the perfect vacation for this particular Fourth of July, Independence Day? In today’s America, I mean? Cruise to the Devil’s Triangle. But you say you just can’t let Beelzebub see your bikini bod this year? Well…you could check out Satan’s Triangle, the 1975 made-for-TV occult classic starring Kim Novak and Doug McClure, that originally appeared on the beloved anthology series, ABC Tuesday Movie of the Week (there’s a nice print streaming on Prime right now).

Click to watch Satan’s Triangle on Amazon Prime:

By Paul Mavis

Somewhere in the Bermuda Triangle, an 85-foot motorsailer is in distress. The U.S. Coast Guard sends out two choppers, one manned by strict, disapproving “square,” Lieutenant Commander Pagnolini (Michael Conrad), and his partner, hotshot, amoral ladies’ man, Lieutenant J. Haig (Doug McClure).  Haig’s joking about the motorsailer being smack dab in the Devil’s Triangle, and his further blaspheming against God, the Devil, and the Easter Bunny, sets the reverent, un-fun Pagnolini right on his last nerve.

They’re pros, though, so when the other helo craps out, they continue on. When they come across the dead-in-the-water Requite, they spy dead priest Peter Martin (Alejandro Rey) hanging from the yardarm, and the ship’s captain (Ed Lauter), popped up out of the forward hatch.  Undeterred, they know they have a job to do: Haig will winch down to the boat to look for survivors, and Pagnolini will suddenly have, ahem, “engine trouble,” and chopper his own ass the hell out of there. So what else does Haig find? How about another dead man (Jim Davis), seemingly floating in midair, and gorgeous, high-class prostitute Eva (Kim Novak), looking all slinky and sexy and marvelously shaken up—the sole survivor.

Stuck there for the night (the Coast Guard couldn’t get a boat out to him till morning?), Haig does what any red-blooded American male would have done in 1974—he gets Eva likkered-up, in the hopes that her spilling on what exactly happened on board, will lead to some action amidships (or on the poop deck if he’s really lucky). In a breathy voice, Eva tells Haig that everything went wrong on their deep-sea fishing cruise when the captain picked up glassy-eyed plane wreck survivor Rey.

The second he boarded, the weather turned stormy; strange lightning was seen, most of the crew split, claiming a “big battle” was coming with the Devil, and everyone started dying, including the captain, the remaining crew, and her A-hole “john,” Davis, who wanted to leave Rey out-to-sea (his hooked marlin was more important than someone clinging to an airplane wing). Turns out he was right, after all.  Will atheist Haig figure out what’s going on in Satan’s Triangle (and yes, with Kim Novak in French-cut panties that does have a double meaning)?  

RELATED | More 1970s film reviews

Who’s getting tired of Gramps Mavis strolling down dusty TV memory lane? You are, you say?!  Hahahahah—who cares! So anyways, you spoiled-rotten millennials, there used to be a time, long, long ago, when a short movie, made specifically for television, was considered a big deal. Yes, that’s true, kids. I realize you morons have unlimited, instantaneous access to tens of thousands of titles now (including Satan’s Triangle), but back when America was patiently waiting for Jimmy Carter to screw sh*t up even more than it already was, there were only three major television networks, and what came on them was (mostly) all you got, at least in terms of premium entertainment. And when whatever was on, came on, you had better have been planted in front of that tube, because reruns were spotty at best (as well, the only working video recorder in the country was busy documenting Colonel Hogan’s after-school hobbies).

One of the biggest successes for the networks, in terms of content, was running Hollywood movies. It was a programming trick that began right at the start of television, but which gained huge audience numbers in the 1960s and early 70s when newer A-list movies were first seen in people’s homes. And boy did the networks pay through their collective nose for the privilege of showing titles like The Great Escape, The Sandpiper, and The Guns of Navarone.

Looking to cut back on these expensive broadcast-only payments, while also tailoring the movie-on-TV experience specifically for the small box (watching a cropped CinemaScope movie on TV was hilarious, and redubbed dialogue and cut scenes made for continuity problems), the networks started to realize they could make their own cheap movies and still get good audience numbers, all the while owning the product outright.

So when perpetually 3rd place loser ABC went for broke and took the already-invented “made-for-TV” movie anthology concept (NBC did it first in 1964 with their NBC World Premiere Movie), and spiced it up with horror, thriller, and supernatural content (along with plenty of washed-up has-been stars), they hit ratings paydirt. Premiering in 1969, and running eventually on three nights of the week (Tuesdays and Wednesdays, and also Saturdays for two seasons), the various anthology ABC Movie of the Week series were immediately popular, climbing into the Nielsen Top Ten in their second and third seasons. It’s no exaggeration to say that the ABC Movie of the Week, along with ABC’s Monday Night Football, finally made ABC a true equal of CBS and NBC.

Unfortunately, by the time Satan’s Triangle cruised onto the airwaves on Tuesday, January 14th, 1975, overall ratings were way down in the Nielsen 30s and 40s for the ABC series (although the Wednesday edition was actually up 10 places from the previous season). Some writers who don’t know their aft from a Devil’s Triangle in the ground, blame this on viewer fatigue with made-for-TV movies (yeah…that’s why they suddenly disappeared in 1975, never to be seen again, geniuses).

But more than likely, it was simply newer, more intriguing competition on the other networks that made for a “must viewing” switch away from the ABC Movie of the Week. On Tuesdays, nothing could beat CBS’s Good Times (7th), M*A*S*H (5th), and Hawaii Five-O (10th) combo in ’74-’75, while on Wednesdays, NBC bit into ABC Movie of the Week’s 8:30 start time with their smash hit, Little House on the Prairie (13th), while CBS cleaned up with Tony Orlando and Dawn (25th) and Cannon (20th) in the 8pm to 10pm slots.

Despite the claim from some historians and writers that quality was suffering this final season, furthering the ratings decline (where do these dolts come from?) the ABC Movie of the Week was putting out series-best efforts in this final season, including Savages, The Day the Earth Moved, The California Kid, The Stranger Within, Hit Lady, Bad Ronald, The Gun, The Hatfields and the McCoys, the Starsky & Hutch pilot, the masterpiece Trilogy of Terror, and Satan’s Triangle (any single one of which I’d pay good money to see in a theater, over the crap that litters the multiplexes today).       

As for Satan’s Triangle, I know I certainly never forgot watching it when it premiered. The ABC Movie of the Week was must-see TV in our house (unless it was a comedy, always the series’ weakest entries). The strongest memory I had of Satan’s Triangle was a particular close-up of Kim Novak’s eyes, one that gave me nightmares for weeks…while at the same time, seeing her half-nude (from the back), made me feel funny in my bathing suit area for even longer. I’ve written before about how it’s always a crap shoot to go back and see something that made such an impression on you when you were a kid, but happily, Satan’s Triangle proved to be even better than I remembered it.

But then again…I’ve been in the mood lately—summer always triggers it—for all those so-called “pseudoscience” delights from my childhood, like books and movies and TV shows about Bigfoot, UFOs, ancient astronauts, the Loch Ness Monster, and the so-called Bermuda Triangle.  The early-to-mid-70s was the heyday for the commercialization of these absolutely true, real phenomena, and I, like so many other kids my age, watched countless hours of TV and movie programming devoted to them, as well as buying books and games and toys that further enhanced our fascination with these true, factual, scientifically-provable subjects.

For example, I used to strap this rubber Bigfoot toy I had onto the back of my Evel Knievel, and have them both jump Evel’s Stunt Cycle over my G.I. Joe Secret of the Mummy’s Tomb playset and my own handcrafted pyramid, made out of a couple of Freakies cereal boxes…just like the Egyptian pyramids built by our ancient astronaut ancestors (if you’re snorting in derision, I would remind you that the so-called “leading experts” locked down this entire planet for two full years with nonsense like masks and “social distancing,” and all for the flu. The flu. Snort at that pseudoscience).

Extremely tight and lean at just 74 minutes, Satan’s Triangle starts off on just the right note, with an intro crawl read by a Sunn Classics Brad Crandall-wannabe, intoning, “Within the last 30 years, just off the East coast of the United States, more than a thousand men, women, and children have vanished from the face of the earth. No one knows how.  Or why. This is one explanation.” Perfection: you have the inflated, patently false “scare” fact that looks to be unassailable, spoken (seemingly) by the voice of God, along with the promise of an explanation, and all of it set to the creepy synth/guitar score from composer Johnny Pate. Who wouldn’t be immediately hooked?

Written by veteran TV scripter William Read Woodfield (of cult horror movie fame, The Hypnotic Eye), Satan’s Triangle doesn’t waste any time getting right to its story, with director Sutton Roley (one entertaining TV or feature film after another: Chosen Survivors, The Loners, Sweet, Sweet Rachel, Snatch, just to name a few) quickly cross-cutting between people dying on the Requite (I love that weird, off-putting shock cut of Davis getting thrown across the cabin in slo-motion), and McClure and Conrad making their way out for the rescue.

The chaotic, unexplained boat scenes set up our initial confusion and subsequent suspense concerning what, exactly, is happening out on the water, while the steady, clipped, reassuring chopper scenes introduce us to our two “heroes.” Both are professionals (the use of real Coast Guard equipment adds weight here), and between their two opposing world views—Conrad the strict, no-nonsense, by-the-book superior with a reverence for God and respect for the Devil, and McClure the loose, sarcastic, cynical, amoral hedonist whom, we will see, relies on action and reason—Roley has given us two men who should be able to handle whatever is out there in Satan’s Triangle, whether it be a spiritual, or strictly worldly, dilemma.

However, just as we the audience settles in, heartened that these two familiar dramatic TV types will solve whatever mystery is awaiting us on the Requite, Woodfield and Roley undercut that cliched reassurance: McClure sees something he can’t understand (Davis’ body floating in the air), before failing to get survivor Novak off the boat (the cable breaks as they’re winched up to the chopper), while Conrad’s usually-reliable helicopter develops unexplained mechanical problems, which forces him to do the worst thing a professional can do in this kind of situation—abandon his partner.

What follows in Satan’s Triangle then, is this strange, disconcerting little nightmare as first Novak recounts the seemingly inexplicable occurrences on the boat, before a reassuring McClure “explains” it all away from a rational, logical viewpoint. Roley’s visual design, aided by editors Bud Molin’s and Dennis Virkler’s metronome pacing, perfectly captures that eerie nightmare-state we all fear, where static shots of someone just staring off in the distance…or at us (Novak is often shot just silently watching the other actors), are followed by these distorted, grotesque fish-eye lens close-ups of the actors, shot upwards for even more contorted effect. With cinematographer Leonard J. South’s gauzy, fuzzy lensing alternating with darker chiaroscuro effects when Novak and McClure are below decks, Roley is able to create a rather dreamy, drowsily-threatening atmosphere that’s consistently dismaying, keeping us thoroughly off-kilter.

Roley backs up that visual design with his smart direction of the performances. Likeable, solid McClure is cast just right as the sardonic, smartass Haig, who can’t help but needle his “square” superior about religion and chasing women (I love the self-reflexive moment where McClure tempts Conrad with fame and fortune if they could only figure out the secrets of the Bermuda Triangle—an acknowledgment of the commercialization of these beliefs at the time, which of course Satan’s Triangle was doing, as well). Jim Davis, just a few years away from being immortalized as growling Jock Ewing on Dallas, does his usual gruff, insensitive bastard shtick—and quite well—before Roley gives him a screaming, terrified death (I won’t spoil it…but that “floating” thing is a great gag). Ed Lauter, my favorite 70s psycho, has little to do here (there’s only 75 minutes to dole out), but he does get the best death scene—a sick, funny cartoon death, popping up out of a closed hatch like a jack-in-the-box (only big, bluff Conrad seems miscast—he doesn’t come off as religious…just pissed-off).

Former big-screen star Kim Novak easily takes Satan’s Triangle’s acting honors, walking a fine line between being dreamily fatalistic and hard-core erotic at the same time (who wouldn’t gladly tempt fate to sleep with her, even when she delivers a line like, “We’re gonna die on this boat, you know…just like the others,” in that exquisitely breathy, low voice of hers). Roley clearly understands her still-potent sex appeal, and exploits it, but that’s precisely what the character calls for, and Novak pulls it off without effort (although…would it have killed anyone to get a bikini shot in there?).

SPOILERS ALERT What’s fascinating about Satan’s Triangle is this repeated gloss of 70s sexuality, in service of a story that utterly rejects it. In the opening sequence, McClure is shown as a typically randy, “up for it” American male who jokes about his conquests and who simply can not think about anything other than sex. He even has his unwitting partner take the helicopter down to check out a topless sunbather, when they’re supposed to be speeding to the Requite’s rescue.

And up to the movie’s final ten minutes, we’re shown that McClure’s sexual pursuit of Novak has succeeded—remarkably, even though he’s on duty, he nails her while waiting out the Coast Guard rescue boat. It’s only after Satan’s Triangle final shock twist that we realize the whole time, the movie’s message was clearly stated…and decidedly not on the side of McClure’s perfectly acceptable 1970s outlook.

SPOILERS ALERT McClure’s calm, rational, amoral sensualist attitude towards Novak’s mystery—“I’m going to explain everything that happened, step by step, none of which has anything to do with the Devil, and then you’ll want to sleep with me,”—is shown to be not only totally ineffectual (Columbo he ain’t), but the harbinger of his own doom. His very soul is taken because he failed the Devil’s test. He has no faith; only his urges, and his intellect. Earlier in the movie, Rey is very clear about what is happening out in el lugar el diablo. It’s an area where people are tested by the Devil. When Novak asks if the test involves living or dying, Rey flatly states: the test is about faith, not living or dying. In other words, if you’re getting this test…you’re already going to die (what a remarkably downbeat underlying theme that is for this little occult thriller).

As the still-unaware audience is watching the final few minutes of the movie, seeing McClure joshing with a smiling Novak in the rescue boat as they then board Conrad’s helicopter, a thousand other similar-ending plots condition the viewer to think, “all’s well that ends well,” before the inevitable kiss underneath the credit roll. However, Woodfield and Roley pull the rug out from under us (Roley has complete control as the pace tightens tighter and tighter, as McClure and Conrad start to panic, realizing what’s really going on).

SPOILERS ALERT Once they both discover that the Coast Guard has spotted Novak, not Rey, hanging from the boat’s yardarm, Roley gives us a frightening shot of evil-looking Novak staring into the camera, as she transforms back into Rey—the Devil himself.  And that’s when we see all of McClure’s jaunty immorality—and by extension, the 1970s’ “Me Generation” immorality—is exactly what gets him killed, as the Devil states McClure has failed his test, before he falls/is pushed to his screaming death. Not finished, Roley ratchets up the tension and scares when the Devil tries to take Conrad’s soul. He fails…but Conrad still winds up dead at the end (I’m not sure if it was intentional, or just a shortcoming on Conrad’s part…but we don’t really feel triumphant in Conrad’s faith be reasserted).

If the viewer hasn’t had enough by now, Roley and company get one last, unforgettable scene, where the Devil switches to McClure’s dead body and revives him, only to see the grotesquely grinning McClure wave to the rescuing Coast Guard ship (I don’t know if they deliberately “painted” his left eye in post to enlarge the pupil, or if it was just a “happy accident” of the cinematography, but McClure’s expression in this final shot is truly disturbing). How bracing is it to see a seemingly crappy little made-for-TV horror/occult job not only posit that the Bermuda Triangle disappearances aren’t alien-related, but Old Testament-based, but also one that attacks that which was increasingly untouchable as the 1970s played out: the morally equivalent, godless “Me Generation”’s notion that “if it feels good, do it,” that anything goes. With no consequences.

PAUL MAVIS IS AN INTERNATIONALLY PUBLISHED MOVIE AND TELEVISION HISTORIAN, A MEMBER OF THE ONLINE FILM CRITICS SOCIETY, AND THE AUTHOR OF THE ESPIONAGE FILMOGRAPHY. Click to order.

Read more of Paul’s film reviews here. Read Paul’s TV reviews at our sister website, Drunk TV.

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