Everyone’s invited: A critical review of “Sorority Party Massacre” (2012)

Let me say at the start, I don’t consider myself a feminist, largely because that word has become semantically loaded over time. However, even I have to wonder why “Sorority Party Massacre,” a film that is apparently about a sorority–a college club for women mind you–has two male names atop its cast list. Not even the sorority thriller from the 1950s did that.

This is a sign. Whether its a sign of social injustice or unfair media representation this blog will leave for someone else. For us, it is a sign that this is a movie that doesn’t quite know what to do with its subject matter. On its surface it appears to hit all the stops. There is a sorority, and there is a massacre. There’s not exactly a party, but the other two nouns are arguably more important for this type of movie. What’s harder to argue is how everything holds together.

The facts we can agree on are this: Detective William Watts (Thomas Downey, also an executive producer), an LADP cop with anger management issues, has been sent by his captain to see why his daughter, a UCLA student, has stopped answering his incessant phone calls. She was at a sorority function at Grizzly Cove, a lakeside community where everyone speaks with a Southern accent despite it being hours from Los Angeles. We also know she was murdered in the first scene, but the cops don’t know that. Yet.

Watts discovers the sorority is selecting is selecting a grant winner from among its membership, and the missing student was one of their number. As more sisters go missing or turn up dead, and Watts finds the local police force woefully ineffective, he takes matters into his own hands to crack the case.

“Sorority Party Massacre”–no relation to that other sorority massacre–is an unfortunately average movie. It bills itself as a horror-comedy, but it never seems to find its balance. Its first scene, a stranded college student being executed by a masked baddie, plays like a self-aware horror movie. However, the film quickly shifts to broad laughs and lots of skin, resembling a raunchy college comedy.

As a horror film, “Party” never does better than just OK. The murder makeup is good, and there is a kind of mystery at the film’s core. There’s also an ongoing theme of the sisters being dispatched in ways that reflect their worst fears, which feels disconnected. Killing people by their greatest fear is never rationalized by the film. It just happens to be convenient.

Unless the whole movie is about the dangers of fear, whether it’s the fear of loud outsiders entering a quiet community or a simple fear of deadly bees. Of course, one character says that fear of failure is abstract, then offers fear of dying alone as a more concrete fear. I’d say they’re both abstract. Maybe the movie’s metaphysics shouldn’t be examined too closely.

“Party” is probably more successful as a comedy. There are laughs, and while the movie tends to stick on certain jokes too long, you’ll see those jokes presented earnestly by a lot of familiar faces. There’s Kevin Sorbo! And Richard Moll! And Ron Jeremy? Yes, Ron Jeremy. And Leslie Easterbrook and Ed O’Ross. No reviewer seems to have had any complaints about the cast. Not only does the movie have a lot of cool character actors and cameos, everyone looks like they’re having fun, and that translates to the audience.

The photography is crisp, and a couple of shots are well executed, included an image of the sisters framed by windows seen from below by Detective Watts. However, the editing can be distractingly stylish, with jump zooms and Tarantino-esque visual effects.

The final product is about 10 minutes too long, and the ending is kind of a non-ending, although there is a suggestion for a sequel. That hasn’t materialized yet, and you’d have to experience “Sorority Party Massacre” for yourself to decide how necessary it would be. That wouldn’t be the worst experience, if you’re in the right mood for a raunchy comedy with low budget slasher aspirations.

Flunking hell week: A critical review of “The Haunting of Sorority Row” (2010)

This is the first supernatural horror film this blog has reviewed during sorority thriller month, so it’s fair to keep some stuff in mind, specifically about what it means to be rational. Something that is rational is something that fits within the culturally defined concept of what is reasonable or comprehensible. Something rational isn’t necessarily correct. It’s just logical and structured and all that stuff.

A good ghost story does not have to be rational by the rules of the waking world. In fact, that might be detrimental. However, a good ghost story could be arational, that is, existing outside of the regular rules of our rationality. It’s not that it lacks logic. It’s just that its logic is different from ours.

Unfortunately, “The Haunting of Sorority Row” (no relation to that “Sorority Row” or that one) is not a rational or arational film. If I had to pin it down, I’d say it was irrational, starting with its release date. I’m putting 2010, because that’s how Tubi lists the movie (by the way, I’m still waiting for my check guys. Either pay me off or I’ll keep reviewing your movies!). However, Wikipedia and the Internet Movie Database give it at least 2007. They don’t agree on everything, and their content is user generated, but they concur on most of the fine points here.

The point is, “Haunting” operates on its own logic, except when it doesn’t, and it’s up to us as audience members to put things together.

Samantha (Leighton Meester) has always wanted to join a sorority, for some reason, and she’s doing quite well through hell week: cleaning the stately halls of the house, silently serving the other sisters at a cocktail party, dumping her large-headed boyfriend. But the longer she stays in the house, the more weird and mysterious things happen. Maybe there’s more to the student who went missing last year, and maybe there are more than rushes inhabiting the house.

Despite throwing ghosts into the mix, “Haunting” is surprisingly tame. The murders are pretty mild and the homoerotic subtext is practically absent (to be fair, it is a TV movie–a TV movie from Canada no less). The sisters themselves are all pretty decent people. They’re mostly doe-eyed and happy to help. At their worst, they’re just kind of jerks.

Part of the problem is the sisters are all performed in about the same way. Everyone has the same lip glossed half smile. There’s a lot of shrugging too. I don’t know who to blame. The actresses are all young, but most of them have some thriller experience, mostly television. The director was the late Bert Kish, who had a couple of mysteries under his belt when he came to this project, but maybe it was him. I wonder, if only because he quit the horror genre and went for lighter stuff later.

See, the genre is pretty screwy too. It’s all over the place. The movie opens with a woman getting murdered in her car, then it cuts to the sorority house where we can hear a bunch of weepy confessions and jangly pop music. Or we can go from Samantha spying on her senior sisters in a surprisingly atmospheric moment to her breaking up with her woefully awkward boyfriend.

I’m not saying the film has to be all thrills all the time. A good thriller knows when to ease off the gas. I’m just saying it could be smoother. One of the girls gets ghosted while taking a shower. It’s filmed like a cheap version of “Psycho,” which is fine, although death by lukewarm water doesn’t make a lot of sense. Maybe that’s why everyone’s reaction to it is more disappointment than terror. They’re just as confused as we are.

The worst part is there’s some potential here. Not in the story or characters necessarily, but in the atmosphere. The set is great. The sorority house looks like an abandoned Tudor mansion (the film was shot at the University of British Colombia in Vancouver). It’s got dog-headed gargoyles, dirty windows and busted doors, something looks kind of like an old wine cellar. When it’s carefully shot from moody angles or in unsettling lighting, the house becomes the best character. It’s just not utilized as much as it could be.

The references to the supernatural that are supposed to build tension are treated as throwaway elements. There’s a twist that starts out kind of cute but ends up making no particular sense. There are so many missed opportunities for jump scares, and I don’t even like jump scares.

The point is “The Haunting of Sorority Row” will probably disappoint viewers who have an appreciation, or a high tolerance, for budget horror films. And viewers who don’t have those preferences probably won’t be watching a movie called “The Haunting of Sorority Row,” so why do they matter?

Declaring a major in slasher: A critical review of “Sorority Row” (2009)

Where do the people who write sorority murder flicks go to college? It looks way more fun than where I went. I didn’t go to big parties, get to drink and break things with impunity, and engage in awkward-free sex. I did spend a lot of time passed out in the library, skipped my graduation ceremony and drained my bank account. Oh well. I guess my trade off is I wasn’t stalked by a costumed loony with a fondness for sharp objects.

Still, if I had to join any of the Greek societies in a thriller so far, this blog would pick the one in “Sorority Row.” It’s not because death by tire iron is my preferred way to go. I think I’d enjoy the company, the cheap thrills and the clever comebacks.

When a sorority prank goes wrong, the sisters of Theta Pi end up accidentally murdering one of their own with a tire iron. They dump her body in a convenient location (it’s a mine shaft this time) and try to get on with their lives. But a few months later, the sisters find themselves being stalked by an unknown person with intimate knowledge of the murder. When the bodies start piling up, the they must quit squabbling and start surviving if they want to live past graduation.

The opening shot of “Sorority Row” appears to be one long take, showcasing the layout of the house and the major characters while appropriately obnoxious music plays. It is impressive, as deft as it is disorienting, and probably the smartest photography in the film. It’s also one of several clever callbacks to this film’s inspiration, “The House on Sorority Row.” Other nods include a scene of the sister drinking together, a shower scene, a basement scene and a certain bird-headed cane.

Actually, if I had to describe “Sorority Row” in one word, it probably would be “clever.” It’s very much in the “Scream” and “Urban Legend” vibe of slashers–self-aware, but not so self-aware that they sacrifice shocks or dissolve utterly into camp.

“Sorority Row” cleverly cribs from its predecessor, taking the general concept of sorority sisters being murdered after a prank gone wrong without feeling like it has to ape the original film’s tone or progression. The script (by sorta writing team Josh Stolberg and Pete Goldfinger) is clever too, provided you don’t mind it traveling at 90 miles an hour while firing out acidic quips. I’m perfectly satisfied. Alpha bitch Jessica has all the best dialogue, and actress Leah Pipes delivers it perfectly.

In truth, all the sisters are well portrayed, even if they aren’t all great characters. Bookworm Ellie doesn’t do much more than stammer and second guess herself, but Rumer Willis is fine in the role. Margo Harshman likewise can’t do much with one-note party gal Chugs, but her portrayal is so easy-going that she quickly becomes downright endearing.

Good girl Cassidy (Briana Evigan) has a little more depth courtesy of some brooding, but it’s really Jessica and Claire who come across as the most complex. Jessica has a satisfactorily developed side story to go with Piper’s fantastic delivery, and Jamie Chung plays Claire as someone grappling with her past while seeking room to grow (although she can’t fix a hot tub to save her life).

There’s also Carrie Fisher as a house mother with a shotgun, but I don’t have to tell you that’s an awesome combo. You should be able to guess.

Hey, I just realized, most of those actresses are from California. Fisher is from Burbank. Nice.

While “Sorority Row” inherits “House on’s” fun thriller concept and its depiction of a tight, believable sisterhood, it drops some unnecessary baggage, including the first film’s inconsistency. “Sorority Row” doesn’t wonder whether it’s an atmospheric mystery story or a psychological horror flick. It’s a slasher, no question. Every now and again the script tries to make some clumsy point about regret, responsibility or sisterhood, but it usually sticks to black comedy and mayhem, stabbings, blood, explosions and more stabbings.

The film gets to the deadly prank much faster. Swapping the site of the first murder from a swimming pool to a mine shaft is less iconic perhaps, but it makes more narrative sense. So does adding a quick title card to announce that eight months have passed between the prank and the rest of the murders.

The film is never interested in creating much of atmosphere, let alone one that’s psychologically unsettling. Sure, everything is kinda grayish-brown and grainy, but that’s not atmosphere. That’s a limited color palatte.

There’s a moment in the third act when the sisters return to the house to find the party they started has ended. The camera movements are leisurely and the sets are mostly empty, and there’s a real sense of desolation and detachment. That and the opening are the only sequences worth watching for visuals alone, but we aren’t really watching this for its intelligent images or layered atmosphere, are we?

“Sorority Row” opens with young women in loungewear and heels, and one psychologically disturbed young man, dumping a body down an abandoned mine shaft. This is an exploit. Its shocks come from tight pacing and jump scares, and once they start, they almost never let up. The climax lasts a little longer than it needs to, and the revealed killer doesn’t even try to make sense, but by the time you’ve gotten there, you’ve been through about 90 minutes of smooth genre sailing. That’s a lot less of an investment than a four-year education.

Familiar campus grounds: A critical review of “Sorority House Massacre” (1986)

A word of warning. If you plan to watch “Sorority House Massacre,” don’t start by researching it on Wikipedia. Some genius there decided to put the twist ending in the first paragraph of the plot description. I mean, it happens before the events of the film, so it makes chronological sense to write it that way, but it kind of kills the narrative. Not that genre fans won’t see what’s coming.

Beth (Angela O’Neill, trying to look haunted while wandering around in a denim jacket) is having a rough week. The aunt that raised her like a daughter just died, and her dark mood is making it hard to fit in at her new sorority. She also keeps having bad dreams and disturbing visions of dolls and knives. At the same time, a troubled young man threatens to break out of a nearby mental institution. Their connection will be revealed at an impromptu party thrown by her sorority sisters–which isn’t good news for anyone attending.

I’m not sure why I’m OK with “Massacre.” It might be because it’s very representative of the era. This blog tends to be forgiving of things that dive headfirst into their own time and genre: the 1930s old dark house picture, the 50s sci fi flick, and here, the 80s slasher.

Viewers can expect “Massacre” to be pulpy 80s horror from the minute it starts, with its drippy titles and synthesizer theme. There’s airheaded gals and guys with varying degrees of big hair being lined up for murder. There’s a picture of Sting on a wall.

Perhaps the most charmingly outrageous example is a scene when the sorority sisters start playing dress up with an absent member’s wardrobe. Shot like a low budget music video (director of photography Marc Reshovsky has extensive music video credits), it’s an excuse to show off some skin and contemporary fashions, mostly neon-colored jumpsuits. It also wouldn’t be played straight in a movie shot in any other decade.

On the other hand, maybe I’m OK with the film because it makes an honest effort. The photography and editing is very much in the pulp vibe, driving the whole thing forward at a great pace. The atmosphere is occasionally dream-like and surprisingly detailed if you take the time to look, producing some of the most unsettling moments of the film. In fact, the script–while relying on a lot of conveniences to get by–isn’t afraid to tackle intriguing psychological topics like dreams, deja vu and coincidence.

Which is not to say the whole thing slides by like a greased monkey. Effort will only carry you so far. All that psychological intrigue? It’s presented, but it’s not explored in any meaningful way. Rather than celebrating the weird, the film kind of takes it for granted like an “intro to psychology” course, which is just as reductionist as explaining everything away.

Another thing that’s missing is a whacky killer, which is a must for any 80s slasher film. There’s a killer, and he’s crazy, but he’s got no threatening mask or hideous scars, and he offers up no goofy one-liners. He’s just a dude in a turtleneck, a scowl and a sensible shirt. He also uses a hunting knife, which isn’t very interesting. And the murders themselves are pretty straightforward too, just stab-stab-stab with no sense of style. They are, at least, gleefully violent. You can’t fault the film for failing to be visceral.

In many ways the movie is frighteningly unoriginal. It was written by director Carol Frank, who had worked previously on “Slumber Party Massacre.” People who’ve watched both that “Massacre” and this “Massacre” say they’re pretty similar. I haven’t had the pleasure, but I do agree with those who say the film is reminiscent of other period slashers. The structure is very much like John Carpenter’s “Halloween,” right down to the killer POV shots. The sense of dream-like logic might also remind viewers of the Nightmare on Elm Street Franchise.

Looking back on “Massacre,” the “Sorority House” one, it’s actually kind of a bad movie. The dialogue is bad. The acting is bad. And if you don’t like synthesizers, I have some bad news about the soundtrack too. The film teeters on the edge of boring a couple of times, occasionally feeling like a better lit version of one of those “teens wander around a haunted house for 90 minutes” movies. The saving grace might be that it isn’t 90 minutes long. It isn’t even 80 minutes. For better or worse, everything is wrapped up before you know it.

In fact, maybe that’s why I’m OK with it. It’s a bunch of 80s style and some violent knife-ups shoved into a little more than a hour of celluloid. It’s over-the-top, on time, under budget (the film counts Roger Corman as a producer) and probably un-PC. If you want to see someone get knifed through a fake tepee in a hurry, then this is your movie.

There’s also that dream-like atmosphere, which has its own rewards. Linda, the house’s resident psych major, informs her sorority sisters that they can’t properly analyze Beth’s nightmares using a pop psychology dream dictionary; real dream interpretation and analysis is highly individualized to the dreamer, and it can’t be readily found in a book written for a universal audience. The scariest part of “Sorority House Massacre” might be that it has its Freudian philosophy right when so many other films get it wrong.

Wasted years: A critical review of “The House on Sorority Row” (1982)

Between the rising costs of higher education, college scandals and now the coronavirus shutting down expensive campuses, a lot of the trappings of the university experience are starting to lose their luster. Perhaps this could be solved by something internal, like a reevaluation of university purpose, or something external, like potential students migrating to community college, trade school, travel or other forms of post-high school experience (at least until those become just as expensive and scandal ridden).

Either way, wouldn’t it have been easier just to have everyone who wanted to join a Greek society watch “The House on Sorority Row”? It could serve as a primer on what could go wrong, although I’m not sure who’d learn more: prospective members of sororities or film students.

Seven sorority sisters preparing for their last big bash of the year are stopped by their house mother, Mrs. Slater. The group hatches a plan to prank her and get her out of the way for the night. But the prank turns deadly, and the sisters have to switch from party planning to covering up a murder. Then, when some of them start turning up dead, they realize that Mrs. Slater might might have survived and be out for revenge.

The real trip about “The House on Sorority Row” is that it’s not that bad (stunning review on my part; I bet that quote would look attractive on an advertisement). There are a number of admirable qualities about the film for thriller fans.

The concept is cool, and I don’t just mean the cover-up. Writer-director Mark Rosman has said he wanted to do something female-centric, and he pulled it off. Everyone important–the good good guy, the bad good guy, the prime suspect–is female, and the final girl only resolves the mystery by casting off her masculine assistance. At the same time, the film doesn’t dwell on it. It just plays out that way, leaving it organic.

Also, the cast is completely appropriate. Well, maybe not the frat guys at the party, who look like they’ve been in college for more than four years, but the sisters are great. They’re cute and you get to see some of them unclothed, but that’s not what I mean. They feel real. They look like real young women on the cusp of adulthood, not like actors or models. They behave real too. It’s easy to accept the ignorance of frightened young people–which is no doubt why they’re often the targets of colorful serial killers–and these women feel like frightened young people.

Most important, they feel like a unit. That’s thanks to some good editing and blocking, and a lot of solid performances. Standouts rightly include the two leads, Kathryn McNeil as the do-gooder amateur sleuth Katherine and especially Eileen Davidson as the magnetically mean alpha gal Vicki.

The pacing is good. The movie unfolds carefully, but never so carefully that it gets in the way of the tension. One thing that even detractors of the film have noted is that it places a premium on suspense over gore. The shocks might not make you squirm, but they still pop.

There are a lot of nice touches scattered around as well. The camerawork is not flashy, but it’s smart. Attention is paid to the framing of mirrors, hallways and doors, which gives the visuals a homey look that fits the setting perfectly. The music (by horror/sci fi composer vet Richard Band) is pleasant, sort of impressionistic, and it knows when to settle down let the murders happen. Finally, I like the cane. Every killer needs a gimmick, and the cane is not bad.

So “House” has a good concept, a good cast, good pacing, smart photography and soundtrack. Nice cane. The parts are all good. What’s not to like? The whole. Somehow, the whole of “House” is less than the sum of its parts. I’m going to blame the third act, which is where things fall apart.

All the best pacing is in the set up of the film, where all the relationships, motivations and alibis are seemingly on display, leaving it feeling like a classic mystery. It’s telling that the first few murders are relatively sedate. Don’t get me wrong. They’re cool to watch. The most tense scene takes place in a bathroom, but its depiction of the actual murder is pretty mild compared to its build up. But these aren’t straight slasher murders, which would put an emphasis on increasingly creative killings. They’re mystery murders, which put an emphasis on tension.

Nevertheless, the film forgets all its whodunit trappings in the final act and decides it actually wants to be a choppy slasher flick. Not only does this kind of ignore the tension, it leaves a lot of the red herrings scattered around in the first two acts still scattered around.

The film tries to tie things up with a twist, but it’s sort of a non-twist, one that relies on the goofier imagery from earlier in the film–the x-rays, the toys, the clowns–and a “because we said so” attitude. Everything works because the movie just says it does, not because it’s following its own internal logic, which leaves me feeling confused. Even a lurch into trippiness at the climax can’t save the film. Instead, it feels like another tacked on element: unnecessary at best, unwelcome at worst.

Of course, my opinion doesn’t matter. The culture has already decided for us. “House” is a cult classic slasher, one with unquestionable reach. It spawned a remake, is referred to in the Scream franchise and seemingly influenced the first season of “Scream Queens.” If that wasn’t enough for you, take another listen to the generic new wave band playing the party. One song features the lyrics: “You think I’m jealous? / Of course I’m jealous. / I’m 50 shades of green.”

That’s right. “Fifty Shades of Grey” is just another “House on Sorority Row” knockoff.

Hold my beer: News May 2020

You’re probably wondering why we reviewed that movie, all out of the blue, last week. Well this blog figured that, since we were forced to miss spring break this year, it would be nice to bring some of that spring break spirit to our review-scape. And what’s more spring break in spirit than the sorority? By which, of course, I mean the sorority thriller?

All through May, this blog will be reviewing only films that have “sorority” in their title. In addition to “sorority” neatly capturing the campus feel, there weren’t nearly as many movies with the word “fraternity” in their title. Maybe that’s sexist, but it’s the world we live in. That means we’ll be reviewing both “Sorority Row” and “The House on Sorority Row,” but we’ll miss out on such classics as “Hell Night,” “The Initiation,” “Delta Delta Die” and “The Coed and the Zombie Stoner.” Regardless, I suspect that both this blog and its readership will survive.

By a strange coincidence, all the films we’re reviewing are also available to stream for free on Tubi, which isn’t compensating me in the slightest. In fact, given this blog’s reputation, they should probably be paying me to not review their films. Now there’s a monetization idea…

What’s that you say, tonstant weader? Spring break happened months ago, and it’s way too late to be doing something like this now? Look, Roger Corman’s birthday was at the beginning of last month, and we didn’t remember to review one of his films until the end of April, so what’s your point?

Besides, time is a construct, one that is largely socially perceived. That should be obvious by now, given how much time we’ve spent indoors and how the days have blurred together. If nothing else, that should be your one metaphysical takeaway this year. Class dismissed.