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?

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