Thursday, April 19, 2018

Sorority House Massacre (1986)

College student Beth (Angela O’Neill) is spending a weekend at the house of a friendly sorority to distance herself from the horrible time (I read one early scene as a hint she might even have attempted suicide, but I might be wrong) she’s been having after the death of the aunt who raised her. In theory, friendly faces and a little party should help her cheer up some. In practice, she is now plagued by nightmares of a knife-wielding killer murdering his family right in the sorority house. As it happens, the very same killer is also dreaming of Beth in the mental ward where he has been locked up. It’s as if they share a telepathic connection.

And wouldn’t you know it? The dreams spurn the killer on to circumvent the ridiculously ineffective security measures of the ward, murder his way to a knife, and start in on the titular massacre.

Carol Frank’s Sorority House Massacre is that curious example of a mid-80s slasher that’s best described with the word “likeable”. That’s not an adjective I’d use for many slashers (not even an all-time favourite masterpiece like Halloween), but most of the small twists Frank gives to parts of the slasher formula here are the sort of changes asking for exactly this word.

The most obvious example is her treatment of her characters. Unlike most of her male colleagues, Frank doesn’t sort the sorority members into your usual walking talking tropes like The Geek, The Slut, and so on, treating them instead as somewhat believable young women of their ages who are sometimes bitchy, sometimes nice, sometimes silly, sometimes have sex. Even the guys joining them later on are a little more human than the beer guzzling jocks we’re used to from the genre, despite one of them being that most horrible of things, a practical joker (though not The Practical Joker). These still aren’t terribly deep characters – only sort of Final Girl Beth is more fleshed out - but they are also not ones you want to see killed off as fast as possible. Characters you don’t hate, what a novel idea!

This sets the tone for most of the scenes not concerning Beth’s nightmares or the killer as unusually friendly, suggesting a group of kids you might actually have known in real life. Even the couple of moments of mandatory nudity don’t feel sleazy but rather natural and certainly lack the leer films can develop when they accidentally try to explain the idea of the male gaze.

The horror scenes aren’t bad, either. Especially Beth’s nightmares are realized in the slight surreality of actual dreams, with little non-sequiturs and unreal flashes that make them closer to real dreams and to me suggest that most unusual thing in a slasher: a director with thoughts. The stalk and slash sequences are on the effective side too, generally well thought-through and presented with a degree of style that leaves them always interesting to look at, though they’ll probably be not quite gory enough for the more gore-fixated viewer. I don’t think this absence is a terrible flaw in this particular movie (unless a viewer takes the title a bit too seriously), for the rest of the film is clearly more in the spirit (even though certainly not on the level) of someone like early Carpenter than the Friday the 13th films.

There’s little to say against Sorority House Massacre at all. Pacing and editing are much better than in many low budget slashers, the acting is always at least decent (O’Neill being a clear stand-out). It is a genuine small gem of a slasher.

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