One good thing about being the youngest and having a sibling who loved movies was that my early TV viewing was more or less supervised by my older sister until she went to college. That fall, CBS had recently cancelled a number of their rural-themed shows while Norman Lear released more sit-coms. In a brief moment before theologians and censorship groups started shouting about “cleaning up television,” it was assumed that anything in the first hour of prime time was as wholesome as The Beverly Hillbillies and Green Acres.
Such leniency meant very little to me after discovering I was the only one in my third-grade class watching Maude and All In the Family. There was no one to discuss plots and punch-lines with. One kid said she wasn’t allowed to watch those shows, but I assumed the rest of the eight year-olds in my orbit found older actors with complicated problems too boring when we’d been previously entertained by watching Eva Gabor climb a telephone pole to speak with the neighbor’s pig.
During the summer before leaving for college, my sister and I stayed up late nights in the den watching a series of ABC TV movies. As long as I didn’t get scared and remembered that movies were all pretend, I could remain. For two nights, ABC aired The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, starring Jack Palance. It was a made-for-TV movie, but I thought it was great fun and a little scary. I liked the horror films the best, and occasionally we’d catch one in prime time.
One such film was The Devil’s Daughter starring Academy Award-winning actress Shelley Winters. Another made-for-TV movie, we must have watched it during winter break because it premiered in January. Again, I was eight and lacking in discernment, but I thought this movie was fantastic. While not an Oscar-worthy performance for Miss Winters whose previous film was The Poseidon Adventure, there were other faces I recognized such as Robert Foxworth and Jonathan Frid.
Shelley Winters portrayed Lilith who was hosting a young woman in her house after the girl’s mother had died. Robert Foxworth starts courting the girl who then gets a warning from someone to escape Miss Winters who becomes loud and angry over the abandonment. To satisfy the Prince of Darkness, Shelley is supposed to make sure that the girl sticks to the plan and marries the man predestined for her since she is the daughter of Satan who prefers a son-in-law with glowing eyes, which are eventually revealed in all their 1970s made-for-TV special effects glory.
Throughout the movie, there are dramatic camera angles, candles, black robes, freak accidents and rituals toned down from the theatrically released Rosemary’s Baby, which I had not yet seen. Eventually, it’s revealed that the boyfriend was old Glowing Eyes all along. Standing in her wedding dress just after saying “I do” to the man she doesn’t yet realize is Daddy’s Choice, the girl shrieks that she’s not the Devil’s Daughter while everyone around her is hailing the Princess of Darkness by name.
I was so taken by this film that when it was aired again during the summer of 1975, I just had to watch it even though I was at my grandmother’s for a few nights. My grandfather only watched sports, and they watched the news together, but neither was big on TV so you had your choice of two color sets as long as you didn’t turn it up too loud.
Granny was always reading the paper. If she ever sat down long enough, she picked up The Daily Oklahoman and seemingly read every word. I suspected that by 8:00 at night she must have read everything except the public notices in tiny font near the back. I’d tried reading the paper, but there simply wasn’t enough to captivate me for more than 30 minutes. Blondie, Marmaduke and The Family Circus could only hold my attention for so long.
For some reason, I decided to watch my Shelley Winters movie on the living room TV. It wasn’t until the final scenes when the young actress marches down the aisle of an almost empty chapel to marry Robert Foxworth that Granny started to take notice of my chosen program. Just as the vows are completed, the coven has filed into the room, and Shelley Winters starts chanting “Hail Diane, Princess of Darkness!” After hearing this about six times, Granny emerged from her reverie, brought down her newspaper, craned her head around and said, “I don’t think you should be watching that.”
Never at a loss for words, I quickly said, “It’s okay. Mother lets me watch it.” For some reason she didn’t insist that it wasn’t okay in her house. She glanced at the TV screen once more and mumbled something like, “Stuff like that’ll rot your mind.” And then she disappeared behind a shield of newsprint.
What she must’ve thought of her daughter allowing a young impressionable child to watch that smut when her daughter, in fact, had no idea that my sister and I had seen such a film behind her back. I certainly hadn’t announced after my first screening that we’d been watching movies about devil worshippers. I knew my sister would be in trouble and I’d never watch TV again.
As for the status of my mind, I don’t think it was rotted, but I’ll leave that for the courts.
© 2017 by Patrick Brown
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