Saturday, September 12, 2015

The House on Sorority Row (1983)

A mean-spirited prank a handful of senior sorority sisters play on their much hated (and rather mean-spirited bordering on crazy) house mother Mrs. Slater (Lois Kelso Hunt), ends up deadly for the poor woman. The girls, lead in this decision by queen bee Vicki (Eileen Davidson) decide the best thing to do in this sort of situation is to throw the body in the dirty, unused swimming pool of the house, go through with their goodbye party, and find a better place for the body afterwards. Only obvious final girl Katherine (Kate McNeil) thinks calling the police might be in order, but she’s outvoted and easily convinced to take part in this stupid plan to end all stupid plans.

Of course, things go very wrong, very soon. First, Mrs. Slater’s body pops in and out and really gets around for a dead body; then, one after the other, the girls disappear while they try to get rid of the body again without their party guests realizing something’s going on. The girls only understand that a murderer (apart from them) is going around much later.

The history of slasher movies is – even more so than my beloved horror genre as a whole - so rich in movies that just suck in all possible and thought impossible ways that coming upon a film like The House on Sorority Row is like finding a well in the desert, even though it shouldn’t actually be a movie that’ll make anyone jump for joy.

However, in the context of its genre, its time of increasingly desperate attempts to somehow catch that elusive Friday the 13th gold, The House really feels pretty golden. It does, after all, have a plot that makes – in the borders of giving its characters a reason to die – somewhat sense (we all have accidentally killed people and tried to get away with it, right?), features performances that are often pretty good and tend even in their more awkward moments to the charming instead of the dumb, a script that actually seems to know what it wants to do and where to go, and last but not least a goodly amount of that red stuff we all like so much as long as it is fake.

First time director and writer Mark Rosman (who would go on to longish and not particularly distinguished looking TV career after a few other films I’ve now become quite interested in) does a pretty fine job in many respects too. There’s little of the usual feet dragging that mars a lot of the lesser slashers, little odious comic relief, and generally no scene that isn’t either set up to create characters and motivation for them, or working at producing suspense. It’s the film’s emphasis on suspense that particularly won me over – sure, there’s blood and there are jump scares, but much of the film’s effect rests on techniques that have come down at least from Hitchcock (though in this case Carpenter seems the most obvious source). Rosman’s quite good at escalation too: the murders and the blood escalate, the characters’ hysteria escalates, and the surrounding madness escalates too, until you can’t even trust an authority figure anymore. Go figure.

Particularly in the film’s second half, Rosman also creates moments that reminded me more of the giallo than of the slasher, with some particularly fine moments of cheap yet effective strangeness via coloured lights and hallucinations once our heroine has been drugged up, and a simple yet cool finale that puts the extra effort in to draw various elements of what happened earlier in the film together.

It’s pretty great for just another slasher movie.

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