Welcome to 4:3 & Forgotten — a weekly column in which Rob Hunter and I get to look back at TV terrors that scared adults (and the kids they let watch) across the limited airwaves of the ’70s. This week’s movie is 1970’s Ritual of Evil.
The 1970s produced a slew of TV terror movies that were originally conceived as pilots. Fear of Evil, released in 1969, was envisioned as a show called Bedeviled. The series would have involved a psychiatrist investigating supernatural mysteries. Most probably of the Satanic variety. The show never came to fruition. However, NBC dusted off another script for the proposed series a few months later and turned it into Ritual of Evil.
When: February 23, 1970
Directed by Robert Day from a script by Robert Presnell, Jr., the story follows Dr. David Sorrell (Louis Jourdan). After coming into contact with a drunken old woman (Anne Baxter) who mentions Walpurgis Night, things start to get eerie for her family. The woman’s niece shows up dead shortly after, and it’s suspected that witchcraft might be involved. With this being a 70s TV horror movie, you know there is witchcraft involved.
Sorrell’s investigation ultimately brings him into contact with Leila Barton (Diana Hyland). She’s a witch who has been doing well for herself. Leila is also part of a cult of devil-worshipers in California that’s made up of beautiful, wealthy people. Things get even more complicated for the doctor when he falls for Leila. According to her, they’re old souls meeting for the second time.
Ritual of Evil contains most of the hallmarks of 70s cultist movies. The Luciferians wear black robes and sacrifice human beings to their master. These elements are always part of the charm of this subgenre. They might be campy by today’s standards, but it’s worth bearing in mind that America was genuinely concerned about hooded Satanic cults back then. Ritual of Evil plays into the societal fears of its era, but it also seems to understand what Satanists were really about.
The Church of Satan is quite misunderstood, and that was especially true from the 1960s through the following decade. They don’t offer blood sacrifices to demons. It’s a belief system that promotes self-interest and not infringing on the rights of others. Libertarianism for goths, if you will. The villains in this movie embody those traits. The decision to make them rich socialites is also a nice touch considering that Satanism attracted plenty of rich people and celebrities during its golden age.
While the title suggests otherwise, the movie also doesn’t argue that Satanists are pure evil. The film’s antagonist has more depth than your average movie devil-worshiper. She’s genuinely capable of love, as evidenced by her relationship with the doctor. This leads to some interesting philosophical debates about good and evil between the unlikely lovers. Sorrell is a good egg, but he isn’t perfect by any means. The film argues that we’re all creatures of desire, and Sorrell is no different.
Jourdan makes the character very likable too, even though this investigator is quite boring compared to other supernatural sleuths who’ve graced television throughout the years. The actor boasts a wholesome quality even during the scenes in which he’s getting jiggy with a wrong ‘un. I personally like my detectives to have a renegade edge to them. But Ritual of Evil takes a more grounded approach to these types of characters, and Jourdan’s sensibilities are well-suited to Sorrell.
Ritual of Evil plays out like a soap opera for the most part, but some of the horror elements are interesting. The dream sequences are psychedelic and trippy, much like the drug-fueled counterculture of the time period. The aesthetic is very ‘60s kitsch, so it’s quite visually pleasing. The horror isn’t menacing or threatening by any means, but it scores points for being strange and dreamlike. At least they weren’t out to make another Satanism movie that felt like Rosemary’s Baby.
The most impressive aspect of Ritual of Evil, however, is William Goldenberg‘s score. The opening credits theme is powerful and might lead people to believe that they’re in for something truly terrifying. It’s bombastic, eerie, and wouldn’t sound out of place in a Dario Argento film. There’s a strong argument to be made that the score deserves to be in a scarier movie, but there’s no denying that it elevates the mood of Ritual of Evil.
This could have spawned an entertaining series about a do-gooder Lothario investigating devilish mysteries. There are enough interesting ideas on display here to warrant the gamble, especially in regard to the fun commentary on the time period. In the end, Sorrell became a footnote who was eventually eclipsed by Kolchak and other popular investigators. But he paved the way for those heroes to come along and entertain viewers, and that’s something.