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.

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