The House on Sorority Row (1982)
Slasher movies, like Rodney Dangerfield, don’t get no respect. There are certain hierarchies of slasher movies, not just in terms of artistry or ambition, but in the trash factor as well. The 1980’s were the golden age of slasher films and the barrage of quickly and cheaply made horror movies make it difficult to distinguish one from another. I would plop The House On Sorority Row (1982 or 1983, depending where you look) into the category of “classy” slasher film. There’s a little blood, a little nudity, disposable teens, a killer bent on revenge, and a relatively isolated location. There are much more outrageous slasher films out there and House certainly doesn’t stray too far from the formula. What sets it apart are a handful of performances, above-average photography, and some flashes of invention. Although I hold the horror genre, particularly slasher films, near and dear to my heart, it gets a little tough to distinguish a distinctive directorial style in the lesser-known entries, but writer-producer-director Mark Rosman brings as much personality as possible to the standard story of a prank gone wrong.
Is this the slasher movie Brian DePalma never made? No, and he'd already made a fine, "classy" slasher with Dressed to Kill (1980), but his influence is very apparent. Rosman worked on DePalma’s student-assisted oddity Home Movies (1979) and clearly learned a thing or two about a thing or two. Other great talents came out of that shoot, but if I had to pick anyone from that cast/crew who would go on to great things, I’d say Keith Gordon’s work as a writer/director is the number one success story, even if his films may not have been seen by everyone.
The film opens like a Hammer film, with monochrome photography and a dark and stormy night. A woman is having a difficult pregnancy and the doctor decides to operate. All of this occurs on June 19, 1961.
We flash forward to a sparkling college campus. Thanks to Richard Band’s ravishing score, there’s a dreamlike quality to the opening credits. I was reminded again of DePalma and his collaborations with Pino Donaggio. We’re introduced to the ladies of the sorority, some of whom will be distinctive and memorable, others not so much. Eileen Davidson, a long running fixture on daytime soap operas, plays Vicki, the toughest member of the group and the one most responsible for all of the deaths that will follow. As the camera dollies across the women, Vicki enters the frame and it’s a wonder of purely visual acting. She is the alpha, no doubt about it.
Our heroine, good girl Katherine, or “Katie (Kathryn McNeil, that’s convenient),” yearns for her independence while Vicki is off with her boyfriend, discovering she’s preternaturally gifted at target practice. Meanwhile, house mother Mrs. Slater (Lois Kelso Hunt, whose voice is dubbed surprisingly well) visits the doctor (Christopher Lawrence) we met in the first scene. She’s refusing to stay in a facility over the summer and he seems to sense some impending danger. She shuffles off, barely using her cane, which will figure prominently in the plot.
Mrs. Slater expects the girls to be gone before June 19, but plans have changed and now they’re planning a big party. Slater is having none of it but she’s unable to do anything other than indignant huffing and puffing since the bylaws are on the girls’ side. We’re introduced to the rest of the ladies, who are mostly fine but forgettable. The only standout is Morgan (Jodi Draigie) as the resident ditz, whose every line reading is quite funny. Her intonations as a dumb valley girl are spot-on, and Emma Watson’s attempt in The Bling Ring (2013) pales in comparison.
Vicki returns and invites her boyfriend for a bit of post-gun-fun. “Daddy” got her a waterbed, apparently, and they’re gonna take it for a test drive. These walls are thin, however and Mrs. Slater hears the commotion. Using her sharp-ended cane, she slashes right through the water bed, which is probably for the best. Sex on a waterbed sounds extremely tricky.
Vicki is determined to get back at Mrs. Slater. Although I get it, her reaction to the waterbed mishap is a tad extreme. She’s like Nancy Allen in Carrie (1976), super pissed off about being slightly inconvenienced. Like The Burning (1981) before it, a prank is executed and goes horribly awry. It goes like this: Vicki steals Mrs. Slater’s cane and puts it in the disgusting pool. She then takes out the gun to force her into it. There’s a struggle with a fellow sorority sister, a phony gunshot wound, then the shit gets real. Mrs. Slater is pissed and lashes out, only for Vicki to turn the gun on Mrs. Slater for real.
I have some qualms with this scene. It appears that she has real bullets in the gun because she demonstrates by shooting a light out. The accidental shooting of her friend’s ankle turns out to be a fake, so you assume that maybe they’re blanks, but that doesn’t seem remotely safe to hope that you miss your friend’s leg. She turns the gun on Mrs. Slater and shoots her, but nothing happens. So there are blanks in the gun, except for that one time with the bulb? Then she seems shocked when Mrs. Slater is shot. That aside, the scene plays out very well, with great acting and a well-executed body dump in the pool. It’s decided they’ll get rid of the body later, with Katie being the most vocal opponent to this plan. They assume no college student will be idiotic enough to jump in a dirty pool. They would be wrong.
To jump ahead a bit, a killer ends up on the loose. Now, it could be Mrs. Slater. It could be someone related to Mrs. Slater. It could be some random crazy. I have a bit of an issue with the editing here. Much later, it’s presumed that the killer saw Mrs. Slater die and get dumped in the pool, so he decides to exact revenge on the ladies. Only problem is, we see an ominous scene of smashing frames and the burning of sorority house photos before any of this takes place. This feels like it should happen right after Slater’s death and it’s placement feels wrong.
The party gets into full swing, with a power pop band and plenty of goofy college kids talking about things that are absolutely meaningless. A cutaway to that “cute guy” is an amazing sight gag. Outside, we get our first kill. A cane through the throat. Not bad, but the dummy is a bit rubbery and the actor overplays the initial reaction, his eyes darting back and forth, his head swiveling.
Katie’s blind date Peter (Michael Kuhn) shows up. Oh, did I mention she has a blind date? Well, no matter since his character is pretty much useless in the film. He doesn’t even have the common courtesy to be a red herring for the killer’s identity. Katie is understandably upset about that whole murder thing from earlier. Peter is sweet and offers to leave, to which she should reply, “thank you” and “sorry,” but no. She decides to go to the party with him. After they arrive, we’re treated to the best shot in the movie: a stunning and complex pan from one woman to another, each silently communicating with the other. Although the way to achieve this kind of shot is straight-forward, it’s still impressive nonetheless. This was the early work of DP Tim Suhrstedt, whose fabulously eclectic body of work includes Teen Wolf, Critters, Mannequin, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, Noises Off…, Little Miss Sunshine, as well as being Mike Judge’s cinematographer of choice, working on Office Space, Idiocracy, Extract, and Silicon Valley.
They realize the pool lights need to be turned off via the basement or else the body may be discovered. Instead of all or at least a couple of them going, one goes, of course, and is soon dispatched via cane in a budget-friendly shadow kill. By the way, those older model breakers freak me out. I can’t imagine using anything but simple switches.
We hear a comment about the pool being “really gross” then we’re treated to three really gross dudes in their underwear. It’s random but at least the fat one is self-aware. He jumps in and proclaims himself a “sea pig.” The pool lights are turned on and Mrs. Slater’s body has disappeared. Katie insists on calling the police but is once again denied. Morgan retires to her room only to have the attic door burst open and we get a false scare. Turns out it’s Mrs. Slater’s body and not the killer attacking. This is probably the film’s biggest gaffe. How in the world do these idiots not question this? Oh, don’t get me wrong. They do. They ask that very question, but it’s shrugged off instead of focused on. No, really. To quote Rick and Morty: “How did she get there?” She’s still tied up, so by their logic she somehow got out of the pool and blindly stumbled into the house and made her way to the attic. Ludicrous. They console Morgan and Katie gives Vicki a righteous and well-earned slap. Morgan is later stuck through the chest with the cane, sadly putting an end to her bubbleheaded presence. Katie won’t give her blind date the shove-off. She’s way too nice. It comes off as increasingly unbelievable that she wouldn’t get this guy out of there.
Another disposable, i.e. girl, is chased by the killer into the communal bathroom. It’s an average scene, but I feel a missed opportunity. Just to ratchet things up, I think when the killer is checking the stalls, she should’ve accidentally killed one of her other sorority sisters who would be looking for her. It would’ve made for an even messier situation. I’m also of-the-mind that Katie could’ve been killed earlier just to rock your expectations of her being the final girl. If Rosman was a student of DePalma, then he certainly was a student of Hitchcock, so he’d know that would be an unexpected move. Fortunately for the plot, which still doesn’t quite make sense yet, a life-alert style medallion is dropped and Katie calls the number on it. The doctor re-enters the film to deliver some exposition about an experimental treatment to get women pregnant going wrong. The baby survived and his name is Eric.
The remaining gals get Slater’s body to the cemetery, highly unrealistic, and then they’re picked off. Vicki’s death is the bloodiest, which also makes it the most satisfying. I don’t think this theory holds water, but since the previous kills were mostly bloodless, it feels as if this is the reason Vicki’s death is much more graphic. Or it’s just the film upping the ante for the last half hour. The doctor calls the police. Very convincingly, I might add, and then double-crosses Katie to use her as bait for Eric. I say convincingly because it’s not entirely clear why he double-crosses her and the timeline makes little sense. He calls the cops before they go to the cemetery, so he doesn’t know they’re not going to capture Eric there and cell phones don’t exist. How could he call them off after they leave the cemetery?
In Katie’s drug-induced haze, she has visions of her dead sorority sisters and Mrs. Slater with her now-sentient cane. It’s an odd but bold choice. The movie actually tries to get into Katie’s mind, but this being a fairly ensemble piece, it comes out of nowhere. Showing mental anguish is one thing, but it comes off as stylish filler. Peter, who can’t take a hint, gets a tranquilizer dart for his trouble, dumbass. This allows Katie to escape with the doctor hot on her heels. This was surprisingly well-done since the killer is briefly forgotten, only to pop up in a room during the doctor’s search. Prior to this, we’re treated to a great cut of Jeannie, one of the disposables, whose head is in a toilet. The doctor is dispensed with fairly graphically, fulfilling the promise of some nice blood n’ guts. Katie has retrieved the gun and ends up back in the attic, where she encounters Eric, now dressed in a clown costume resembling a jack-in-the-box Mrs. Slater got him. The killer clown has been done to death, but this look is actually not bad. Has a John Wayne Gacy vibe that’s acceptable. Katie tries to shoot him, but apparently the gun has nothing but blanks, so again, are the blanks mixed in with the bullets? What is going on? She throws the gun at him, which I appreciated since it makes logical sense to do, then she removes the head from a doll and stabs him. He falls through the attic door, presumably to his death. But, nope! His eyes pop open and…credits. That’s right. The movie ends.
I saw Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011) in a theatre and besides being shocked that an Olsen could act, I was both frustrated and happy as a clam by the ambiguous ending. I have no problem with an ending that doesn’t tie everything up neatly. The problem with House is that it’s a staple of horror movies for one final scare before the credits, but in this case, I don’t think it’s particularly earned. There is an additional deleted scene where Katie is found dead in the pool, which would work and bring a better sense of closure to the film. Sure, it’s a downer, but at least it’s an ending. Since this is discarded, the film simply cuts off instead of ending on a note of terror that works.
It’s been reported that House’s budget skyrocketed and money had to be hastily raised to finish the film. Riding the lucrative slasher wave, The House on Sorority Row made some money and Rosman moved on to Mutant (1984). He was replaced early on by John Cardos. His inability to keep a budget down may have been a contributing factor to his removal, but I’d be more inclined to blame the producer, noted scumbag Edward L. Montoro. Montoro was a garbage person who often hoarded the profits, if any, from his films. For all of his faults, he at least had a hand in bringing us such fine entertainment as Juan Piquer Simon’s Pieces and Extra Terrestrial Visitor, the “what the fuck is this” movie The Visitor, and even a few good ones like William Lustig’s Vigilante and William Girdler’s Grizzly.
The House on Sorority Row didn’t hold up as well on my second viewing. I caught it at a revival screening and maybe that experience of seeing it in a dark theatre surrounded by darkness blinded me to the logic leaps and plot holes. Hence the power of the movie theatre. It’s still a classy slasher flick and better than some of its brethren. It doesn’t stand apart, but it should be afforded respect for rising above the extremely similar competition of its time.