Saturday Nightmares: The House on Sorority Row (1983)
If you’ve ever seen a slasher movie, you’ve seen The House on Sorority Row, a movie that stalks its way through the motions with such tenacity that you can gauge its success by keeping a cliché checklist at the ready. And while the slasher boom had arguably crescendoed before its release in early 1983, director Mark Rosman’s tale of seven sorority sisters stalked by a vengeful killer works through the elements with just the right amount of finesse to ensure this Sorority Row is a haunt work stalking.
We’re in familiar waters from the get go: things are set in motion thanks to a tragic prologue set twenty years prior to events in the film. Here, a mother suffers the throes of childbirth while her suspicious doctor looks on with worry. Years later, the woman, Mrs. Slater (Lois Kelso Hunt), is a house mother to a pack of sorority sisters and her strict ways just don’t jibe with the carefree attitudes of the girls. The tension culminates in a mean spirited prank that, of course, goes terribly wrong. Mrs. Slater winds up dead and it’s probably easy to guess who will become the targets of our local maniac.
The House on Sorority Row is fairly pedestrian in its premise, but given distinction through a better-than-average cast and some confident direction at the hands of Mark Rosman. Rosman worked as an assistant to Brian De Palma in his earliest career days and it shows he was paying attention to the tutelage as his debut film benefits from a strong visual palette. Colors are vibrant and contrasting (note the way in which different rooms throughout the house are lit) and he understands how to generate suspense and create ambiance in some of the stalking scenes. It all builds to the show-stopping final scene – one that must’ve truly brought the house down with screams during its theatrical run.
To accent the visuals, composer Richard Band outfits this slasher opus with a Pino Donaggio-esque score that boosts the creep factor significantly. Band is no stranger to paying lip service to some of the industry’s most prolific composters (recall his Re-Animator score, if you will), but his work here both enhances the somber undercurrent of the story while maintaining a steady feeling of dread throughout.
Another area in which this film excels is in depicting the victims as a fairly sympathetic bunch. While their initial reaction to the ill-fated prank is, admittedly, detestable, we see their remorse eating away at them throughout the duration. It’s not only a testament to the quality of the actors assembled, but also to Mark Rosman, who wisely avoids an excess of clichéd moments where characters express their guilt in a series of clipped and hushed dialogues. Instead, the culpability runs across their faces sporadically, giving the material an uncommonly subtle and interesting tone.
And the audience isn’t necessarily rooting for these girls to get theirs, either. Eileen Davidson (as a bitchiest house sister) may incur a little bit of that considering it’s her character whose the catalyst for the murders, but the film even grants her a modicum of sympathy. A common mistake with modern slasher films is that the filmmakers mistakenly believe that audiences want to root for the killer and, therefore, spend too much time making their characters into assorted dregs and degenerates. There’s no arguing that the creative death scenes are what draw audiences to films of this sort, but if you don’t have people to relate to in the most basic sense, then it’s difficult to fear the killer and impossible to feel any suspense.
As far as the deaths go, like any good early 80s slasher movie, it looks like they were severely edited at the order of our good friends from the MPAA. In some instances, we’re treated to brief glimpses of nastier bits (including a prongs of a hammer brutally raked across a girl’s neck), but the cuts seem far too jagged to be the work of the film’s editor. It doesn’t help that our local slasher isn’t the most creative madman on the loose, either. Most of the victims are poked or impaled on a sharpened cane, but the bit involving a butcher knife and a bathroom stall does rank pretty high in the subgenre’s ‘greatest murder set pieces’ hall of fame.
If it’s a college slasher you’re after, The House on Sorority Row fits the bill quite nicely. It doesn’t reinvent the wheel (nor should it) with its obvious scripting and adherence to formula, but the filmmakers involved were determined to make their film stand out amongst the seemingly endless wave of Halloween and Friday the 13th imitations flooding theaters at the time. Play it on a double bill with the remake for more dead college girls than you can shake a sharpened cane at.
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