Sister doin’ it for herself: A critical review of “Sorority Girl” (1957)

In the transitional cinema of the 1950s and 60s, nobody knew value like producer-director Roger Corman, whether that value was in a script, a concept or some stock footage of the same Gothic mansion burning down over and over again. So what did it mean when he wanted a re-write? It meant he’d just read the script for “Sorority Girl,” a ho-hum coed crime thriller. The most shocking thing about the final film is that it has some interesting features, largely courtesy of Corman himself, but even the pope of pop schlock could only do so much.

Well-heeled-but-unhappy Sabra Tanner (Susan Cabot, a frequent Corman collaborator) is one of a small group of sorority sisters living on the campus of a Southern California university, but she doesn’t fit in with her sisters. Maybe it’s because she’s secretly scheming against some of them. Maybe it’s because she’s not so secretly scheming against some of the others. Either way, Sabra’s psychological manipulation, threats of blackmail and sexual games threaten the loves and lives of her sorority sisters, at least for now.

It’s easy to get your hopes up for “Sorority Girl” because the title design–by Bill Martin, another Corman collaborator–is pretty good. It’s a series of charcoal sketches showing increasingly grotesque figures and nightmarish backgrounds, looking like something Rod Serling might point out in at the beginning of an episode of “Night Gallery.” It’s when the film actually starts that one realizes something is amiss.

The script for “Sorority Girl” is, in a general sort of way, terrible. Sabra’s main motivation for doing things is that she’s evil. She’s not getting any money out of her machinations. She’s not getting a better grade. She does make a pass at another student’s boyfriend, but she’s not even interested in him. Her only sources of pleasure seem to be insulting her mother and beating pledges with a sorority paddle.

With that kind of setup, you’d think there would be at least a halfhearted attempt at psychodramatic development, but the movie is only about an hour long. That makes it simple to watch, but not easy. It would be easier if there was a character you really cared about on screen, but no. Sabra’s enemies are less developed than she is. Her sisters can be summed up as the political one, the pregnant one and the human doormat. There is an effort to give them life outside of Sabra, but it’s too late little too late, and all of her interactions with them feel according contrived.

Her mother, played by Fay Baker, is a little more interesting. The film appears to show her in a bad light, since we witness Sabra call her out for being cold and tell her all she wants is love. And Mrs. Tanner is awfully cool toward her daughter, but can you blame her? Sabra is clearly an awful human, and any right thinking human being would be cool toward her. This muddying of some “sins of the mother” excuse is about as complicated as the film gets, and even that is over in a flash.

Everything is tied together by some occasional narration from Sabra, which doesn’t make much sense. It would would suggest the film is told from Sabra’s point of view, but it leaves her POV from time to time to check on other characters. There’s also no consistency to when the narration happens, which leaves it feeling pretty arbitrary (narration in films is sometimes indicative of last second meddling, so maybe Corman got some of his re-writes?).

Other than the inorganic script and bland characters, the film offers a forgettable soundtrack, choppy editing and a blatantly low budget. The big school weekend out is shot on the same tiny patch of beach Corman used for every film he shot, and the restaurant where Sabra meets her mother looks suspiciously like someone’s house. I guess most of the budget was sunk into the new Thunderbird she drives.

So why would anyone want to watch this? For one, Cabot plays her character well, much better than this film deserves. Whenever there is a genuinely crisp bit of dialogue–typically in one of Sabra’s barbed conversations with her mother–it’s almost always coming out of her mouth.

Also, there’s Corman. If there is enough merit for the movie to squeak by for genre fans, it’s thanks to him. There are a couple of notably well blocked shots during Sabra’s fights and paddlings. In particular, the finale at the beach is staged like a real thriller. Even if the cast is dressed in overstuffed bathing suits, their mass movements and eerily locked step feels more like an alien invasion than a weekend out. When Sabra pleads her case before them, you almost feel that she is the lesser evil. Almost.

Wikipedia calls this film a noir, which I guess is because it bears a passing resemblance to the “rich are different from you and me” noir of the dense Hollywood murder drama “Sunset Boulevard.” It’s got the LA poolside setting, the pulp narration and the hints of violence. But other than that, it has more in common with quick exploitation pictures, largely courtesy of a sorority paddle.

A pair of puzzles for puzzlers: Critical reviews of “ID: INVADED” and “In/Spectre”

Somehow, despite my busy social schedule, I have been able to successfully watch more anime. Fancy that. Even better news for this blog, there’s been a healthy amount of “weird detective” shows lately. Two of them, “ID: INVADED” and “In/Spectre,” wrapped recently, the former mixing mystery with sci fi and the latter mystery with fantasy.

Intriguingly, both shows appear to ask questions about why we solve mysteries anyway. Every good whodunit is a whydunit as well, with some insight into human nature. “ID: INVADED” is the more straightforward show, and it attempts to have tidier answers. On the other hand, “In/Spectre” takes a more impressionistic approach, and it makes an interesting case for why metaphysical philosophers might not make the most satisfying detectives.

In the not too distant future of “ID: INVADED,” an elite team of detectives dive into the reconstructed minds of active serial killers to search for clues to the murders’ identities and locations. However, one of the prerequisites for diving into a killer’s psyche is that the divers be killers themselves, leading to some strange bedfellows. Combined with the mysterious background of the diving machine itself, and it becomes clear that there is more going on than catching a killer a week.

Where “INVADED” really shines is its set pieces. The reconstructed minds of the killers are diverse, often more interesting than the killers themselves, and they each follow a logic unique to themselves. They range from dissected rooms and houses that float in a void, to a white picket fenced property where gravity is reversed as it falls through space, to a train that appears to loop on an eternal track.

The mysteries themselves are at their best when they tie into the logic of their related world. The mechanics of the diving machine are kind of interesting. The detectives who dive into the worlds lose all memories of their lives outside, but they take on the identity of a “brilliant detective” tasked with solving the death of a young woman named Kaeru, who is less a character and more a catalyst to spark the investigation.

Sometimes the mysteries require leaps of logic that seem a little like cheating to this audience member, but, I dunno. I’m not the brilliant detective. I do recognize that the show is not very interested in its own science, and there’s a lot of hand waving going on. In truth, “INVADED” is really nothing you haven’t seen before, assuming you’ve seen brain layer busting thrillers like “Inception” and “The Cell.” If you want to stick to something more anime, then imagine something shooting for a “Ghost in the Shell” vibe, only with less style and control. Or maybe too much control.

“INVADED” is predictable, sometimes painfully. There is a character who eventually double-crosses everyone else, but it seems like most people in the audience figured that out in the first episode just because that was the character most likely to betray everyone. All the brilliant detectives are going to fit your stereotypes of anime heroes: a guy with weird hair who has a tragic backstory; another guy with weirder hair who used to be a villain; a young woman looks like a 12-year-old boy.

In fact, the characters in general don’t act like people. They act like players in a production, everyone reading familiar lines clearly defining the roles of detective and killer. If there’s some suggestion that there’s not much difference between the two, that’s just because they’re both barreling toward the same goal.

Coupled with Kaeru-as-catalyst, there is a sense of determinism hovering around the show. If “ID: INVADED” wonders why we solve mysteries, it seems to decide it’s because we have to. We can call it justice or destiny or the fate of a “brilliant detective,” but in the end, we seek solutions because it is the natural, even correct, thing to do.

That might leave the show feeling a little stiff, you can always console yourself with its solid production values. It’s well paced, the animation is well done, the J-rock score is appropriate, even if it’s all a little expected. Oddly enough, there is a more flexible emotional center of the series, although you don’t realize until the end that it’s…but that would be telling. The show with more heart is “In/Spectre,” although that heart comes with some quirks.

As a girl, Kotoko Iwanaga was kidnapped by supernatural creatures and held captive for days before being released, minus an eye and a leg. Now a young woman, she acts as their goddess of wisdom, presiding over what passes for legal disputes in the realm of aging snake gods, fire elementals and souls, modern and ancient, who haven’t moved on. Eventually she crosses paths with Kuro Sakuragawa, a young man who seems a little too unfazed by her supernatural companions. As the two of them grow begrudgingly intertwined, his connection to the mystic will be revealed.

“In/Spectre” is offbeat, and not just because its heroine is a girl with a glass eye and a wooden leg. It’s offbeat in its mashup of mystery, fantasy and slice-of-life. It mostly pays off because the central characters feel well-rounded and right. They don’t act like people–again, they’re pretty anime, with Kuro acting standoffish and Kotoko self-conscious about her petite frame–but they act like how people want to act, saying all the cute and clever things lovers imagine themselves to say on their best days.

In a way, its mashup of folklore and psychoanalysis recalls the underrated anime “Mononoke,” only less psychologically unsettling and far less stylish (that’s an essay for another day). Which is not to say the show is totally straight. While “In/Spectre” plays it pretty safe with its animation, there is just a hint of style, almost enough to get it started on looks alone. It also isn’t afraid to sport some pleasantly eccentric flourishes in its soundtrack, with a dorky metal intro and swinging closing theme.

But the real treat of “In/Spectre” comes from the way its heroine solves mysteries. Rather than locked room murders, Kotoko treats them like ciphers or puzzles. She resolves them by talking them out, using logic to arrive at a solution that is psychologically satisfying.

As a result, the biggest issue with “In/Spectre” is that its pacing is all over the place. It starts quickly, acting like it’s going to be a monster-of-the-week show, but the series suddenly grows dense and dialogue heavy. Rather than being quietly built up over the course of the series, the narrative of the big bad spans 10 episodes, and Kotoko uses about three of them to resolve its mystery.

For less patient viewers–or anyone who really just wants a genuine horror anime–this probably won’t be rewarding. However, if you’re into that kind of thing, it can be a lot of fun to watch. I guess I am into it, because I found myself have fun tracing her logic, and I even surprised myself by how well I kept up as I played along at home.

Given Kotoko’s thought process, the question of why we solve mysteries is presented like a problem, one that is resolved with: because it’s fun. Finding a solution to a puzzle is fun, more fun than the solution itself, and the best solution is not necessarily the correct one but the one with the most engaging and elegant chain of logic. That might not be an answer that would please a detective, but for a philosopher, it rings true.

Never miss a good chance to shut up: A critical review of “The Council” (2018)

Anyone who knows this blog probably won’t be surprised to learn I bought “The Council” because it was on sale and about 30 seconds of research spat the name “Al Azif” at me. I certainly didn’t buy it for the name, which is about as creative and descriptive as a discarded pizza box. The back cover promised “a new era in adventure games.” I don’t know about all that, but I do know, for the price I paid, I got a bargain on a classical education.

“The Council” doles out the story of Louis de Richet, a young Frenchman invited to the island of mysterious kingmaker Lord Mortimer at the close of the 18th century. Louis is looking for his missing mother, the head of an international secret society. To find her, he’ll have to unravel the island’s occult history while crossing paths with the other guests, including aging U. S. President George Washington, rising French military man Napoleon Bonaparte and Emily Hillsborrow, an English duchess with a hidden past and a corset that just won’t quit.

The gameplay of “The Council” is fairly familiar. You guide Louis around the island and stuff everything you find into your bloated pockets, gaining experience and building up various skills like psychology, occultism and etiquette in an RPG-kinda fashion. You’ll use those skills to interview other characters, picking dialogue options to get them to trust you or reveal information. Doing so successfully allows you to advance the plot. Failing to do so lets you crash and burn like that one clueless drunk guy at a party attempting to make conversation.

Those interviews are surprisingly flexible and effective. Dialogue trees in RPG-kinda games often feel like an excuse to pump out exposition or a way to force the plot into a particular direction. In “The Council,” the dialogue genuinely feels like combat. The most thrilling parts of the game occur in the middle of conversational confrontations, when you are given the opportunity to out-think your rhetorical opponent. You’ll feel your mistakes throughout the conversation, as well as further into the game, and consequently you’ll savor every victory.

The puzzles are a different story. Most of them are straightforward in an adventure game way, which means they range from “I guess that makes sense” to “wait, what?” I am willing to take some of the blame though. Puzzles I figured out in the abstract I still sometimes got wrong in the execution because I mixed up my phases of the moon or forgot which year of the Third Crusade we were talking about. On the other hand, I felt pretty clever when I remembered that lime juice acts like an acid without relying on the game’s hint system.

Yeah, I wasn’t kidding about that classical education. Louis is up to date on everything an educated Frenchman should know in 1793, which includes art history, esoteric religion, chemistry, European literature, logic and argumentation, and all of it comes into play during exploration, conversation and puzzle solving. In fact, this is an appropriate game to discuss on Easter as it dips into the legends and relics surrounding the crucifixion of Jesus (I knew my knowledge of Roman-era Christianity would come in handy, although I didn’t expect it to come in handy quite this way).

Despite his education, Louis can be pretty dense. I remember yelling at Louis that he should just find a rope or a belt and not stick his hand in there, or that he could use any light source to decode a secret message, not just a particular one that met his fancy. But Louis wouldn’t listen, first because he’s a prima donna, and second because he’s a character in an adventure game, not a man of flesh and blood, and my yells have no impact on him.

In fact, let’s talk about the characters for a moment. They’re weird, and not necessarily in a good way. Many of them sound less like 18th century intellectuals and more like contemporary voice actors. Their dialogue, which is occasionally anachronistic, doesn’t help. The character design is also off. I’ve seen it described as both highly detailed and cartoonishly exaggerated at the same time. Add that to the game’s tendency stop animating mouth or body movements mid-sentence, and you definitely feel the lack of polish, particularly as the game wears on.

There are lapses in the plot as well, perhaps because of the myriad dialogue outcomes. Once I located a particular artifact, and then Louis thought he was hearing about it for the first time when another character brought it up. Another time I missed an opportunity to learn about a specific relationship, but the characters all acted as if I knew all about it, and it was only through later dialogue that I figured it out retroactively. And don’t get me started on the time everyone blew off an entire murder. It didn’t impact character consistency too much, although Washington once changed rather dramatically from a prudent statesman to a Nigel Bruce-esque Dr. Watson type, searchin’ for clues.

Despite all that, my biggest complaint is the atmosphere. There isn’t really one. The music is appropriate, but it’s not exceptional. The background design is solid, but it lacks depth. The mansion is baroque, but it never feels big. It’s all kind of meh when it could have been something interesting or edgy. We’re talking about history-spanning conspiracies with hints of demonology. I’m not saying it had to be oppressively scary. It could have been Gothic, brooding, darkly comic or just Halloween spooky. It does get slightly surreal at the end, but it’s too little too late. Oh well.

The game is five “episodes” long, and although there are different pathways, if you stick to one it should only take you a few hours to finish. The good stuff–the intriguing plot, the novel setting, the combative dialogue–is mostly in the macro. The bad stuff–the inconsistency and weird character designs–is mostly in the micro. No doubt you’ve made your decision on whether or not you want to play it. If a test of a game’s quality is would one play again, then I’d give “The Council” a resounding: “Yeah. Probably.”

The past, the future and Stuart Gordon: News April 2020

Believe it or not, Tonstant Weader, this blog finished another analytic crawl through another esoteric horror series. Like before, we were a little late here and there, but I leave with a renewed appreciation for “Boogiepop Phantom.” I always end up seeing a more of the series by the time we’re done, and whether you were looking at it for the first time or the 17th time, I hope you saw something as well.

We also got three “best of 2019” lists done, and we didn’t even put everything down. How could we have forgotten trippy not-actually-a-thriller “Call For Dreams” (what it lacks in narrative cohesion it makes up for in style and visual intrigue) and sci fi actioneer “Doom: Annihilation” (surprisingly serviceable but altogether too safe)? Well, apparently we could, and so we did, until just now at least.

As for what’s next, that’s looking a little…well, “grim” is probably too grave a word for us here, but things are definitely not the same. Perhaps “unusual” is the right word. The supply train of content to review and critique is obviously not what it was a month or three ago, but I am still sitting on this pile of library books that no one expects back for a while. I’m sure I can think of something to say, and I want to thank you all for continuing to listen.

Finally, I’d like to talk about the director Stuart Gordon, who passed away late last month. I imagine that every Cthulhu mythos fan has a list in her or his head of the best half dozen or so cosmic horror films. The list might change some over time, or it might have a couple that remain constant, but the odds are that it will have at least one film that was directed by Gordon.

Gordon was easily the greatest cinematic popularizer of H. P. Lovecraft, and I’m sure many people were introduced to the author through one of Gordon’s films. The first and most infamous was the cult classic “Re-Animator,” which was gory, funny, gross and Gothic, and featured a perfect performance from Jeffrey Combs in the title role. Gordon and Combs re-turned to Lovecraft with “From Beyond” and “Castle Freak,” although Gordon directed films adapted from the works of Edgar Allan Poe and Ray Bradbury as well. He was also comfortable in sister genres like sci fi and pulp thriller, and he was never afraid give his films a darkly comic edge.

For the record, the Gordon film that’s on my shortlist of best cosmic horror is “Dagon.” He shall be missed.