Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Retro TV: A Roy Thinnes Double Feature

The 1970s were the golden age of the TV movie, with all three networks producing original films for television on a regular basis. Many of these made for TV productions fell squarely into the sweet spot for genre fans, including classics such as Trilogy of Terror, Gargoyles and Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark. One actor who appeared in several of these fright flicks was Roy Thinnes. The Chicago born actor is probably best known to genre fans for his work on The Invaders. Thinnes portrayed David Vincent on that late 1960s TV series, which was produced by Quinn Martin. After witnessing the landing of a flying saucer, architect Vincent discovered there were aliens among us…and they weren’t friendly.  For two seasons, he tried to convince the world that “the truth was out there,” long before Agents Mulder and Scully. But that wasn't the end of his genre adventures on our TV screens.

After The Invaders, Thinnes starred in Journey to the Far Side of the Sun, a 1969 big screen sci-fi movie produced by Gerry and Sylvia Anderson, of Thunderbirds, UFO and Space: 1999 fame. He then appeared in several genre films for the small screen during the 1970s, including the creepy The Horror at 37,000 Feet (which co-starred William Shatner and Buddy Ebsen) and The Norliss Tapes, a Dan (Dark Shadows) Curtis production with some marked similarities to Curtis’ earlier project The Night Stalker. Thinnes also managed to play roles on both sides of the battle between good and evil in a pair of telefilm tales of terror: the offbeat western Black Noon, and the memorable chiller Satan’s School for Girls. Let’s take a look at this diabolical double feature:

Roy Thinnes & Yvette Mimieux in Black Noon
Black Noon was first telecast on CBS in 1971. Thinnes stars as Reverend John Keyes, who’s on the way to his new parish, along with his wife Lorna. They have trouble with their wagon, and get stranded in the desert. The pair are rescued and given refuge in the town of San Melas. While Lorna’s recovering from her injuries, Caleb (Ray Milland) the town elder, asks John to give a sermon to their congregation.  The preacher’s words seem to have a powerful effect on people, even enabling a lame boy to walk again! John also learns the town is being terrorized by a black clad bandit named Noon, who lusts after Caleb’s daughter, Deliverance. John stands up to the villain and drives him away. A grateful Caleb asks John to stay on permanently as their pastor, and help them build a new church. But our hero is plagued by mysterious nightmares, and Lorna’s condition never seems to improve. Deliverance, who’s been mute for years due to a childhood trauma (or has she?) takes a shine to John, and tempts him to stay. But why is everyone pushing John to remain? And what is Deliverance up to in that little shack of hers? Certainly not just making candles, as she so innocently claims.

The Old West setting is fairly unique, and the movie has some eerie sequences, courtesy of director Bernard Kowalski. Of course, we know something’s wrong long before John does, and things move along to a deadly conclusion. John finally learns the truth about San Melas (spell it backwards!) but not until it’s much too late. The movie ends with one of those scenes fairly common to 1970s horror tales, indicating that evil just might have won out after all. The cast is quite good; Thinnes is solid as the stalwart John, and Lynn Loring (Thinnes’ real-life wife at the time) is appropriately terrified as Lorna; she knows something’s wrong, but can’t convince her husband of the danger. Ray Milland hits all the right notes as the seemingly kind Caleb, and Yvette Mimieux is effective as the lovely, sensual but very dangerous Deliverance. Old pros Hank Worden, who should be familiar to Western fans from movies like The Searchers, and film noir bad girl Gloria Grahame appear in supporting roles. Veteran bad guy Henry Silva chews the scenery as the evil the outlaw Noon. The film was written and produced by Andrew J. Fenady. Black Noon isn’t screened as much these days as some of the more well remembered TV films of the era, but it's worth a look for genre fans.

Thinnes may have been on the side of the angels in Black Noon, but he’s firmly entrenched in the dark corners of the room in Satan’s School For Girls, first shown on ABC in 1973. After her sister Martha’s mysterious death is ruled a suicide, Elizabeth Sayers (horror film veteran Pamela Franklin) enrolls in the exclusive Salem Academy For Women, where Martha was a student. Elizabeth wants to find out if there’s more to the story of her sister’s odd demise. She’s befriended by several of the students, but even as she settles in, it becomes apparent that there are a lot of weird things going on at this particular school. Strange events and further deaths occur; is the person responsible Mrs. Williams, the ineffectual (and very quirky) headmistress? Or perhaps it’s the acerbic Professor Delacroix, who torments the students in his classes? Maybe it’s the handsome Dr. Joseph Campbell, the well-liked teacher who seems to hold all the students in his class spellbound?

Pamela Franklin & Kate Jackson in Satan's School for Girls
Remember, this is the Salem Academy For Women, and it’s just possible that some of the students know more than they’re telling. As Elizabeth’s investigation uncovers the terrifying truth, it all leads to a fiery finale. Can anyone escape the evil that lies beneath the surface at Satan’s School For Girls? You’ll just have to watch this enjoyable, atmospheric chiller to find out. Thinnes is excellent as Dr. Campbell, who’s popular with his students, and seems to have all the answers about the dark history of the school. His hellish exit at the climax of the film leaves no doubt about his character’s devilish origins. Lloyd Bochner (often cast as a villain on 70s TV series) is delightfully over the top as the ill-fated Delacroix. The cast also includes Kate Jackson and Cheryl Stopplemoor (aka Cheryl Ladd) who would team up once again for producer Aaron Spelling’s later hit, Charlie’s Angels. Directed by David Lowell Rich and written by Arthur Ross, Satan’s School For Girls is a prime example of 1970s movie of the week fare. It's fondly remembered by many of us who saw it on its first run, or subsequent rebroadcasts on the afternoon and late movie showcases later in the decade.

So that’s the end of our Roy Thinnes twin bill. The likable and talented actor continued to appear in genre projects on television throughout the 1970s, 80s and 90s, including Battlestar Galactica, War of the Worlds, the 1991 revival of Dark Shadows, Poltergeist: The Legacy, and The X-Files. As for the movies covered in this post: Black Noon hasn't officially been released on DVD, but you can find it on YouTube. Satan’s School for Girls has been released on DVD and you can also view the film on YouTube. By the way, Satan’s School For Girls was remade (also as a TV movie) in 2000. The remake starred Shannon Doherty and featured Kate Jackson taking over the role of the headmistress, played by Jo Van Fleet in the 1970s version. The remake lacks the charm and old school fun of the original. If you’re feeling nostalgic and looking for some retro-style scares, you could do far worse than Black Noon or Satan’s School for Girls.

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  1. Great post on Roy Thinnes! I have a special fondness for 1970s TV horror, and you inspired me to check out Satan's School for Girls. Thinnes is so good when he's bad! Black Noon sounds like it has a great cast, so I'll have to watch that one next.

    1. Thanks, Christine! I also love the scary side of 1970s TV, and Roy Thinnes managed to make his mark in several fright films on the small screen during the decade. If you haven't seen The Horror at 37,000 Feet, that's another one to check out; besides Thinnes, the cast includes William Shatner, Chuck Connors, Tammy Grimes, Russell Johnson, Buddy Ebsen, France Nuyen and Paul Winfield!