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.

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

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