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.

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