Thursday, April 2, 2009

Sorority House Massacre (1986): or, Nagel, Nightmares, and a Near-Miss

I don't have a hard count on this, but I'd be willing to bet that nobody has his name attached to more flicks of the "Could have been great BUT..." variety than producer/director/B-Movie legend Roger Corman. I know, it's a statement that only makes sense--when you've got your fingers in as many low-budget horror and action flicks as Corman, if even a small percentage falls into that just-made-up category, you're going to be king of the hill. But Corman has a well-documented genius for finding proprerties with amazing potential, even if they falter in execution. For every certified masterpiece like House of Usher or Peter Bogdonavich's Targets, for every grade-z bomb like Vampirella or Attack of the Giant Leeches, he's got at least one or two on his resume that aren't really bad, but could have been so much more.

Today I'm ready to add Carol Frank's 1986 psi-spiced slasher Sorority House Massacre to that latter category. Like many Corman-touched efforts, in between all the bad acting and sometimes laughably cheesy filmmaking flourishes, this movie has enough interesting plot developments and occasionally successful creepy scenes to make you wonder just how good it could have been with just a little tweak here and there. It's not a bad way to spend a near hour-and-a-half, by any stretch, but it's easy to see how it might have bumbled over the line into B-movie greatness, if only...

The flick opens like such a blatant Halloween rip-off--from the imposing front-view of the titular sorority house walkway to the just-this-side of copyright infringement music-box theme--I was wondering if Frank was ironically referencing the earlier film, setting up for a wink-wink nudge-nudge self-aware horror comedy long before Craven Scream-ed it into the dirt. The rather amazing animated blood-splatter opening title seems to bolster this notion. However, for the rest of the runtime the movie plays pretty much straight with its premise.

That's the stuff

It takes either balls of brass or a brain of butter to open a flick with not one but TWO back-to-back dream sequences, but that's just what Frank does here. After a hospital bed framing story in which our heroine Beth (Angela O'Neill, sporting an impeccably 80s Alex P. Keaton hairstyle) whispers portentiously, "It must have all started the moment I entered the house...", we get a nice point-of-view tour of the empty sorority house, sunlight flooding the rooms in a dreamlike haze, the camera swooping in and out of eerily abandoned rooms before coming out onto an upper landing to peer down at a little girl standing in the front foyer--actually a rather nicely done sequence, which palliates the nothing's-really-happening opening somewhat. We then see that the dreamer is not Beth, but Bobby (John C. Russell), a guest of the aptly named Peligro Valley State Mental Hospital. After he's tied down by a couple of creepy looking orderlies, it's time to check in on Beth again.

Beth has come to stay with her friends at the local college after the sudden death of her aunt, who raised her from the time she was 5 years old. As soon as she moves into a temporarily empty room (decorated to the rafters with sexy Police-era Sting posters) she takes a nap and starts the second dream sequence, which is actually even better than the first. A creepy trio of little girls sit outside a familiar-yet-unfamiliar house, one of them playing with a dollhouse that looks EXACTLY like our sorority! In keeping with their kinda cool "Greek Fates" set-up, the girls warn Beth not to go into the house, which of course she does anyway. Inside, she finds the table set for dinner, with four EXTREMELY CREEPY LITTLE GIRL MANNEQUINS sitting around it in old-fashioned clothes. At one place-setting, a huge Bowie knife. Suddenly, blood drips from the ceiling, splashing in the water glasses and dripping down the candles. It's actually pretty unsettling, and again offsets the "when's the *real* movie gonna start" jitters. The capper where she hears a child crying upstairs and goes up to investigate elevates it almost to successful surrealist mind-fuckery.

All Dolled Up for Dinner

So Beth is staying with her sorority-sister girlfriends, who all seem to be studying psychology at the local college. After yet ANOTHER creepy surreal nightmare--this one while she's wide awake, involving a rather awesome low-tech mirror effect--Beth tells her sisters all about it. We're then treated to quite an array of pseudo-psych babblings from all involved, and there's a lot of talk about how some researchers suggest that brain waves can be transmitted over distance like radio, particularly between members of the same family. As it turns out, Psycho Bobby was locked up for trying to murder his whole family, and succeeding except for one little five-year-old girl. And before you can say "Michael Meyers wants his backstory back," Bobby has escaped and is being drawn across country as if by some radio tracking device...

So this is par for the course--Corman-associated productions have NEVER placed a big premium on originality, and for what it's worth, Frank (directing from her [?] own script) does give us those nice dream sequences and some welcome dumb humor to sweeten the taste of the Ripoff Souffle. For instance, when smart and serious sister Linda (Wendy Martel) gets to class and learns they'r having a short test on Deja Vu, she rolls her eyes and quips, "Great--a Pop Psychology Quiz!" Also, immediately post-Beth's third nightmare, flighty airhead Sara (Pamela Ross) sits through a literature class in which the teacher drones, "This author uses foreshadowing and repetition to move the plot forward..." That's meta, bitches!

But for a B-movie pleasure-seeker like me, the real fun lies in the awesomely, gleefully dated 80s fashions and decor that permeate the film. From fashion-plate Cindy's primary-color jumpsuit/dresses (the envy of *all* the girls) to Sara's Carmen Miranda-meets-Cyndi Lauper style of dress to the Patrick Nagel prints and posters of Twisted Sister on the same wall in the same bedroom, I just couldn't wipe the nostalgic grin off my face. Bonus points for not one, not three, but TWO getting-dressed montages, the greatest of which occurs once Beth and her friends are left alone in the house for a long weekend (dun-dun DUN!) and decide to try on all of Cindy's expensive clothes. You want 80s synth-rock with shots of neon-clothing flung gleefully through the air, all while providing the gratuitous nudity you crave? You got it, buddy!

"Seriously girls, how AWESOME do we look?"

As often happens in cases like this, the girls invite a quartet of boys over for the weekend, ostensibly to help them set up some decorations in the yard for an upcoming "pow-wow," but really just to bolster the body count. Frank miscalculates perhaps by trying to play the revelation that Beth is Bobby's sister and he's coming to finish the job for as much suspense as possible--you'd have figured this out long since even if you *hadn't* seen Halloween and its sequels (and let's face it, if you're watching Sorority House Massacre, YOU HAVE). The kills are nothing to write home about, though I admit that when resident Blair-in-Facts of Life bitchy sis Tracy (Nicole Rio) caught Bobby's butcher knife right between her bodacious, recently bared bosoms for a long, strangely bloodless shot, my interest was piqued, IYKWIM. People get killed, Beth brings up more repressed memories and survives thanks to her strange psychic radio connection with Bobby, and it all ends up about how you'd expect.

So we have a few good things here, but the movie really falters when it comes to the big climactic battle with the killer, which keeps it from being an overall success. The nonsensical teleportation ability of the killer might be let slide (he climbs up a fire ladder which the girls then drop off the building, and once he's recovered from the fall, appears at the 2nd story window again, with no explanation of how he got back up there), but what really sinks it is the non-acting of the threatened college students here. I mean, I don't ask a lot from my knife-fodder in an 80s slasher, but I would like them to at least *pretend* they might be in danger, and might be more than a little concerned about this fact. Here, everyone deadpans their way through every close friend's death, a life-long buddy's bloody demise apparently no more affecting than learning they're no longer offering the McRiblets at your local eatery.

"It's almost as if the killer and I have some kind of Family Ties..."

For instance, when Tracy gets her unrequested sternum piercing, she happened to have been in flagrante delicto with her boyfriend in their teepee. The boyfriend runs back to the house (naked--we get some nice streaking butt shots for the ladies), and emotionlessly informs the others inside, "Tracy's dead." Not shock-emotionless either, just matter of fact, "This is my line and I'm gonna say it now" delivery. Same goes for Beth when one after another of her friends get reaction, no emotion, no tears...not even a SCREAM in some cases for Christ's sake. It's like everyone was either stoned or performing under hypnosis, or else just so bored and sick of the whole movie-making enterprise they just stopped trying. And *that* attitude is sadly infectious.

I don't want to rag on this too much--I did get some joy out of Sorority House Massacre, and wouldn't tell anyone not to watch it. The fashions and dress-up scenes alone are worth seeing, and the dream sequences do display a bit of creepy style. 1.75 thumbs, 2 if you're a child of the 80s. It was almost, *almost* good. As it is, it's just okay--but sometimes okay is good enough.

"Act scared? What is this 'scared' you want us to act?"


Tenebrous Kate said...

Sounds like a frustrating near-hit for the slasher crowd, Vicar. Sorry to hear about the frog-kissing--hopefully the next one will turn out to be a princess (or at least a naughty nun).

Interesting tidbit of the moment--Carol Frank is, in fact, a woman, and was chosen for the project after the also-Corman-backed, also woman-directed, feminist-ish "Slumber Party Massacre" was a moderate hit.

>>everyone deadpans their way through every close friend's death, a life-long buddy's bloody demise apparently no more affecting than learning they're no longer offering the McRiblets at your local eatery

Hey now! Just because it doesn't upset you doesn't mean that the absence of the McRib sammich hasn't profoundly affected the lives of others! Witness The McRib Locator. Also, mention that most covetable of fast-food menu items to Baron XIII sometime and you'll get treated to an "I remember the day when JFK got shot"-scale monologue ;)

dragonmanes said...

I couldnt be bothered with this cheap cashin on the Slumber Party series. It liberally borrows from all of the successful (and even unsuccessful) slashers that came before it, the acting is dreadful, and apparently all of the characters are mentally challenged since the college girls are all easily in their mid-thirties. I applaud Cormon for striking when the iron was hot, but I dont think I could ever watch this flick again.

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