Initiation of Sarah, The (TV)

The Initiation of Sarah reviewReviewed by The Foywonder

Starring Mika Boreem, Summer Glau, Joanna Garcia, Jennifer Tilly, Morgan Fairchild, Tessa Thompson, Amber Wallace

Directed Stuart Gillard

The 1970s was a golden age for televised horror. Perhaps it was because that decade is considered by many to have been the last great golden age for cinema and that quality bled over even into the made-for-TV movie biz, but there were quite a few supernatural-oriented TV movies produced that were shockingly good, and despite showing the sometimes campy earmarks of the era in which they were made, many still hold up quite well today. They just don’t make them like they used to. Just watch the Sci-Fi Channel any given Saturday night and you’ll know what I mean.

For even further proof one need look no further than the ABC Family Channel’s remake of the 1978 cult classic TV movie The Initiation of Sarah. I freely admit that it has been so long since I saw the original version (a film that like many of its era appeared in frequent rotation in syndication during much of the Eighties, where myself and most others saw them for the first time) that I don’t vividly remember all the details of the plot but I do vividly recall it leaving a good impression on me as a fairly effective supernatural chiller that relied more on mood and atmosphere than cheap shocks and special effects that drive much of what we see today. Far from perfect, most surely dated given the decade it was made, but a solid effort none the less.

This remake has clearly been dumbed down dramatically to appeal to tweener audiences, preferably the same teen girls that wear “Princess” T-shirts and can recite for you every cast member of a show like “Laguna Beach”. Gone is the ominous mood and atmosphere of dread in favor of some slick (and not-so-slick) special effects and a tone that’s too jokey and lightweight to elicit any real scares. I’m not even sure this movie even knows what being spooky is. Even R.L. Stine put more effort into giving the audience goosebumps than this.

Sarah Goodwin (Sleepover‘s Mika Boreem) and her fraternal twin sister Lindsey (Serenity‘s Summer Glau) are off to Temple Hill College and all but guaranteed acceptance into Alpha Gamma Nu, the most popular sorority on campus which their wealthy mother (Morgan Fairchild, who co-starred in the original version) was once a member. Terminally cheerful Lindsey is only unhappy when she worries that her supposedly troubled due to being psychic powered ala Carrie sister will spoil things for her as she has apparently done for much of their lives. While Lindsey goes full speed ahead into trying to get into the good graces of Alpha Gamma Nu, the sorority’s queen bee, the witchy in more ways than one Chorinne (Joanna Garcia, giving the best performance in the film), only seems to have eyes for Sarah. This is because Sarah is “The One” and the blood of “The One” must be drained and fed to the eternal flame. You see Alpha Gamma Nu is a demonic sorority with a sacrificial altar in their basement that’s surrounded by this ring of fire from which stems the Alpha Nu’s eternal youth and other assorted supernatural powers. The fire is beginning to fade and now they’re desperate to initiate Sarah ASAP for the ultimate sacrifice that they’ve been waiting 18 years for. Sarah cannot be sacrificed until she has willingly given herself over in the form of getting initiated into Alpha Nu.

Sarah is alerted to the danger awaiting her and her sister as well as the reality behind her powers by Dr. Hunter (Jennifer Tilly, channeling Morticia Addams by way of Betty Boop), the college’s European Mysticism instructor and head mistress of Pi Epsilon Delta, a sorority of good Magi that are the sworn enemies of evil Alpha Gamma Nu. Toss in a hunky guy named Finn for Sarah to fall for, a new Sara Rue look-a-like best friend who never really contributes much to the plot, Chorinne’s right-hand henchwoman, and a lot of manipulation, backstabbing, potions, spells, and chanting and you end up with a remake of The Initiation of Sarah that sacrifices damn near everything that made the original worthwhile in favor of a flimsy hybrid of Mean Girls and “Charmed”.

I can think of no better example of what’s wrong with this remake than when Sarah learns a shocking secret about her mother that should have completely shattered her world. I mean we’re talking about the sort of revelation that would make one question their entire life. Yet learning this barely registers anything more than some minor pouting on Sarah’s part and she’s back to making out with her boyfriend two scenes later. There isn’t even a scene where this bombshell gets dropped on Lindsey. This happens again with another big revelation dealing with the scars on Sarah’s wrists that she’s been covering up with some bracelets. It’s referenced that she’s attempted suicide several times before and may even be into cutting herself. The truth behind those cuts is revealed in a scene that doesn’t even involve Sarah and, best I could muster, she never even learns this truth herself nor is the subject ever brought up again.

It becomes aggravating how nothing ever sticks in this film and anything that might add some weight to the story gets brushed away like it was nothing. If you’re going to include stuff like this then you’d better damn well deal with it in at least a semi-believable manner. It’s as if it was initially written to be a darker, more serious film like the original but then the producers ordered a rewrite to make sure everything remained ultra light and breezy even though these heavier aspects of the screenplay were left in the final script.

The original movie portrayed Sarah Goodwin as an emotionally withdrawn and rather downbeat individual. Other than being occasionally surly and getting freaked out whenever she inadvertently causes something to shatter or go flying with her powers, this Sarah Goodwin is almost as cheerful as her ever giddy sister and really just your average girly grrl despite Lindsey constantly paying lip service to what an emotional trainwreck she supposedly is. Mika Boreem is a perfectly fine actress. Heck, everyone here does a good job acting-wise. But it doesn’t change the fact that the performance doesn’t fit the character and it’s again due to the film being too lightweight for the story it seems to want to tell.

I fully realize that this movie was produced by the ABC Family Channel, but still, if you’re going to make a movie that includes references to human sacrifice, blood drinking, suicide, occult rituals, etc. then it hardly seems too much to ask that the filmmakers try and make something at least up to the standards of a show like “Buffy, the Vampire Slayer” that dealt with the same sort of subject matter on a weekly basis with a vastly superior balance of intelligence, humor, maturity, and suspense. Besides, this is the same ABC Family Channel that regularly airs Cruel Intentions, a film with a plot that’s hardly family friendly regardless of what they cut out to make it acceptable for airing on broadcast television. ABC Family even included a “Viewer Discretion Advised” disclaimer for The Initiation of Sarah and I’ll be damned if I know why. Perhaps it has to do with the scene towards the end where Sarah drops by Finn’s dorm room for a quickie deflowering so that she won’t have that pesky virginity stifling her full power for the final showdown with the Alpha Nu’s.

That third act really is quite stupid. The idiocy begin with Sarah giving up her virginity to Finn during that impromptu booty call, then Pi Delta’s in black robes begin chanting a loud vortex of wind and magic around the Alpha Gamma Nu house that no one else in the neighborhood seems to notice, a big plot twist gets tossed in that really does feel like a twist that’s been thrown in just for the sake of there being a twist, and it all culminates in an overly long music video style montage of young women in black robes and stern looks on their faces marching forth to the tune of a song called “Children of the Revolution.” I have no clue what the heck was up with that last part there since these were the good witches and this montage actually did a better job making them seem like a menacing force than anything else in the movie ever did to make the Alpha Nu’s appear evil.

And a word of advice: Don’t tell the person trying unsuccessfully to stab you to death with the enchanted sacrificial knife that it can only harm you if it has some of their blood on it and then casually turn your back on them. You’re just asking for it.

Now in the film’s defense, it’s such fluff that it breezes by quickly and the actors are good enough to make this remake watchable even as it does a disservice to both the original and the audience. But no doubt I suspect 14-year old girls will lap this up and tell their best friends just how cool that movie on TV was the other night right after they finish gossiping about which actor in The Covenant they thought was the cutest. They’re clearly the target audience. Anyone else that watches will just get caught in the crossfire.

In an interesting move, ABC Family’s website is currently offering viewers the opportunity to watch both this remake and the original versions of The Initiation of Sarah online via broadband for free. I’d urge checking out the original myself. Heck, I may even revisit it myself.

2 out of 5

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