The House on Sorority Row [DVD]
Screenplay : Mark Rosman
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1983
Stars : Kate McNeil (Katherine), Eileen Davidson (Vicki), Lois Kelso Hunt (Mrs. Slater), Ellen Dorsher (Stevie), Jodi Draigie (Morgan), Harley Jane Kozak (Diane), Christopher Lawrence (Dr. Beck), Robin Meloy (Jeanie)
Mark Rosman's The House on Sorority Row is a mid-'80s slasher flick that has been largely forgotten, which is unfortunate because it's one of the better ones, an interesting and generally entertaining addition to a genre that is often characterized by a lack of creativity and mindless repetition. The House on Sorority Row actually has a story in addition to a lot of young people being killed with various instruments, and Rosman, who worked as an assistant to Brian De Palma during his creative peak in the 1970s (Sisters, Carrie, The Fury), gives the movie a few creative directorial flourishes and gets good performances from a cast of unknowns.
The story takes place on an unnamed college campus a few days after spring graduation. Led by the outgoing and prankish Vicki (Eileen Davidson), seven sisters of the Pi Theta sorority decide to stay behind at their sorority house and throw a graduation party, despite stern and angry protests by their much-despised housemother, Mrs. Slater (Lois Kelso Hunt). Vicki is especially hateful of Mrs. Slater, whose sharp discipline and general lack of good nature runs contrary to Vicki's party-all-the-time, consequences-be-damned spirit.
Things take a turn for the worst when, right before the party, Vicki engineers an elaborate prank on Mrs. Slater that backfires and results in what appears to be the housemother's death. The girls panic and, rather than call the police as suggested by Katherine (Kate McNeil), who acts as the group's conscience, they hide the body and try to go on with the party. But, surprise, surprise, the body soon disappears, and as the party gets going, the girls are killed one after the other by an unseen assailant who wields Mrs. Slater's sinister cane, which is capped with a brass bird. Was Mrs. Slater not actually dead as the girls thought? Did she rise from the dead? Or, do the murders have something to do with the hazy prologue set 20 years in the past in which Mrs. Slater apparently gave birth to a stillborn?
Rosman's script successfully keeps these questions up in the air for most of the movie, although the answer becomes more and more obvious near the end, especially when Dr. Beck (Christopher Lawrence), the doctor involved in Mrs. Slater's disastrous birthing episode, reenters the narrative. Still, Rosman gets a lot of mileage out of keeping the killer shrouded in mystery, but dropping clues as to who she or he might be. In this way, The House on Sorority Row is one of the few slasher films (along with the original Friday the 13th) that plays with the notion of the killer being a woman.
Katherine eventually emerges as the center of the story because she becomes the "lone female" left to do battle with the killer at the end of the movie. Kate McNeil is a good actress, and her performance allows Katherine to be morally strong without being a dullard. Katherine is also intelligent and resourceful, even though she makes the mistake of going into dark rooms alone a few too many times.
Rosman obviously took a few notes while working with De Palma, and he is adept at maintaining suspense even in the most cliché circumstances. He wasn't working with a large budget, but he crams as much style into the movie as he can, utilizing odd camera angles, interesting subjective shots (including one from a dead body falling out of an attic), and a good use of framing. Much like John Carpenter's Halloween (1978), Rosman is not so much interested in jump-out-of-the-dark scares as he is in allowing the audience to gradually realize that something in the background is moving when it shouldn't be. He also isn't obsessed with gore. Yes, The House on Sorority Row has its share of blood (including one girl's head that ends up floating in a toilet), but the shocks are quick and effective because the camera doesn't dwell on them.
Although largely forgotten, especially in the flood of cheap, interchangeable slasher movies that glutted the market during the 1980s, The House on Sorority Row is worth a look, especially for fans of the genre. It features a more interesting narrative than the run-of-the-mill mad killer movie (it is very similar to, and probably served as partial inspiration for, Kevin Williams' I Know What You Did Last Summer), which, along with decent acting and competent, if not creative, direction, marks it as being better than par for the course.
|The House on Sorority Row DVD|
|Supplements||Original theatrical trailer|
|Presented in anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1), the visual quality of the movie tends to vary slightly from scene to scene. For the most part, the image looks good, with a relative sharp picture and good color saturation. Flesh tones tend to veer a bit toward the reddish hues, especially in more dimly lit scenes. Some of the darker scenes are a bit murky, but this is likely a reflection of the low-budget quality of the original film, not the transfer. Black levels are solid in a few scenes, but in most sequences they are somewhat grainy and grayish near the edges. The print used to make the transfer was pretty clean, although there were some instances of dirt and a few scratches near the beginning.|
|The soundtrack, which is in 1.0 monaural, sounds very good. The soundtrack is clean and clear, and Richard H. Band's effective orchestral score sounds very strong even though it comes out of only one channel. Dialogue is always clear and understandable, and the soundtrack does a good job of reproducing the small sound effects that help create tension and suspense.|
|The only included supplement is a brief, extremely cheesy theatrical trailer presented in full-frame.|
©2000 James Kendrick