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.

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