The early ’80s slasher movie was a hard thing to master. John Carpenter gave us the very best example of a slasher ever in Halloween at the end of the ’70s and nothing in the following decade came close to the horror masterpiece that was the end product. But they sure tried hard, piling on back stories and third act twists galore, as if somehow it would improve on what Carpenter had done. Sadly, none did.
In 1983, The House on Sorority Row threw its hat into the ring, setting this new massacre in a house of party-hungry, booze-swilling sorority sisters. And you can practically hear the movie choking on everything it has to set up – after a brief flashback of a c-section gone awry, we jump into present day where we meet Kathrine (Kathryn McNeil), a girl so plain and low-key, she’s an obvious choice for our final girl. She’s ready to leave school, having just graduated, but one of her sorority sisters talks her into staying for a big going away party. Cut to Dr. Beck (the c-section doctor) demanding that Mrs. Slater (the grown-old mom from the flashback) remain in the hospital – for some vague reason. But no, she wants to stay in her own house, the sorority house, for the summer, like she always does, which is why the house always closes on June 19th, which is why she tells all the girls to leave that night. Cut to: sorority sister Vicki (Eileen Davidson) being taught to shoot a gun by her boyfriend, then having sex with said boyfriend, then being interrupted having said sex by Mrs. Slater.
All of that gets us to the big turning point in the movie, when Vicki enlists the other girls in playing a prank on Mrs. Slater for interrupting her sex-having activities. This prank involves the boyfriend’s gun and, as one might imagine, Mrs. Slater seems to get the raw end of that deal – or did she? Most of these moments, not unlike the c-section flashback that opens the movie, give little closure. There will a few minutes of action and screaming, then not so much info on what the final outcome is. The movie is almost entirely commitment phobic, keeping as many of its options open as possible.
Soon after whatever happens to Mrs. Slater happens, the killing begins.
What’s good about all of this falderal is that it distracts from the so-so acting and jerky pacing. At least there’s a lot going on, even if it all doesn’t go down smooth. The big going away party also helps, which starts almost immediately after the prank goes wrong. Even if you don’t buy that a group of girls would decide to cover up a murder and then put on happy faces for a party right after, it’s a situation that carries a good bit of tension. And really, it’s classic slasher territory. If you can’t stand highly implausible situations, you probably aren’t going to be sitting down to watch this one, anyway.
What works best in the film is the ’80s atmosphere. The gauzy, grainy film stock and low-budget feel can’t be duplicated. Casual references to cocaine and a seriously nerdy pop band playing the party – a band that gets an impressive amount of screen time for not having anything else to do with the plot – give the movie a particularly ’80s feel. There’s also something about watching a slasher movie with an unfamiliar story and no real stars (though Harley Kozak and Eileen Davidson give you plenty of ‘Where do I know them from?’ moments). There’s no gloss. And there’s no reason to keep anyone in particular alive. Even Katherine. It’s hard to find that kind of danger in slasher movies today.
Even so, Sorority Row isn’t the strongest film in the slasher canon. Though writer/director Mark Rosman was striving to flip some cliches of the genre and succeeds in doing so here and there, it’s not enough to make up for the complicated set up and the vague ending. This one may be for ’80s slasher completists only.
The film is presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. Though the box boasts a “pristine 35mm print”, the visuals here are grainy with plenty of scratches and blemishes. Still, this quality adds a touch of grit to atmosphere. The audio is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 English and Dolby Digital 2.0 English and French 2.0. It is also somewhat thin and murky, though not distractingly so.
Photo Gallery – Photos from the production. (1:49)
Production Commentary – Commentary from writer/director Mark Rosman, and stars Eileen Davidson and Kathryn McNeil. A few revelations – like the fact that the house mother’s voice was dubbed by another deeper voiced actress – but nothing too mind bending.
Storyboard Comparisons – One of the better storyboard comparisons you’ll find on DVD – the screen is divided up to show everything at once. If this is your favorite kind of extra, you’ll dig it. (4:38)
Alternate Ending – Instead of the actual filmed ending, here we get slow pans across a production still from the alternate ending that was shot as Rosman explains what it was they shot and why it was changed. (0:39)
Trailer – A trailer so long and poorly paced that when the intermittent voice over comes in, you forget where it left off. (2:57)
The House on Sorority Row is an uneven ’80s slasher with a few inspired moments, though anyone who finds the genre tiresome should stay away.
Liberation Entertainment presents The House on Sorority Row. Directed by: Mark Rosman. Starring: Kathryn McNeil, Eileen Davidson, Harley Jane Kozak. Written by: Mark Rosman. Running time: 92min. Rating: R. Released on DVD: January 10, 2010. Available at Amazon.com
Tags: horror, slasher