Our reviews of The House On Sorority Row: 25th Anniversary Edition (published December 6th, 2009) and Katarina's Nightmare Theater: The House on Sorority Row (Special Edition) (published January 13th, 2012) are also available.
Welcome home to the sorority of your nightmares.
Girls will be girls. Or killers. Or something. Seven sorority sisters get boomeranged by a prank that results in the accidental death—they think—of their crotchety old housemother. You can guess where things go from there in this early '80s addition to the "sorority slasher" subgenre.
Facts of the Case
As the curtain opens, it's June 19, 1961, six months to the day before this Judge entered the world. (That latter fact has nothing to do with the movie. I just thought you'd like to know.) A woman in difficult labor undergoes an emergency Caesarean that, tragically, fails to save the life of her baby. (That fact, if fact it is, does have something to do with the movie. I just can't tell you exactly what without blowing the denouement.)
Flash forward 22 years, to a never-to-be-forgotten era of blow-dried hairstyles and guffaw-eliciting fashions. The tragic would-be mother from the summer of '61 is now Mrs. Dorothy Slater (Lois Kelso Hunt, for some reason dubbed like the lead in a Godzilla movie), resident governess for the Theta Pi sorority at some nameless institution of higher learning. Never quite the same after her childbirth trauma, Mrs. Slater rules the nubile chicks in her roost with an iron fist. Seven of the sisterhood's newly minted diplomates are planning a post-graduation "dance" (better understood by Greeks everywhere as a "drunken orgy") at the house, much to Mrs. Slater's chagrin, she not being what you'd call a party animal. Despite the housemother's objections, plans for the revels continue.
When one of the girls, Vicki (Eileen Davidson), brings her boyfriend home to test-drive her brand new waterbed, Mrs. Slater douses their ardor by slashing the mattress with her hawk-headed cane. (See ? I told you this was a slasher picture.) Vicki vows revenge, and engages her sisters in a scheme to chase Mrs. Slater into the Theta house's algae-encrusted swimming pool with a few blank rounds fired from her paramour's pistol. Of course, this twisted practical joke is destined to go inevitably, dreadfully wrong. The next thing they know, the seven coeds have added reckless endangerment, negligent homicide, and conspiracy to their résumés. Bright, level-headed Katie (Kathryn McNeil, whom I believe may have been separated at birth from near-identical twin brother Kevin Bacon) wants to call in the gendarmes, but she's outvoted six to one—after all, they've got a party to get ready for, and nothing ruins a good party like the impending threat of 20 years to life in prison. So Mrs. Slater's carcass gets dumped like nuclear waste into the primordial pool, just in time for the guests to arrive.
Because this is, after all, a slasher film, it's not long before the sorority sisters begin vanishing in various gruesome ways. And, oh yes, Mrs. Slater's body isn't in the pool anymore. Coincidence? I think not.
Think of it as I Know What You Did By the Cement Pond.
As sorority slasher flicks go, this is another one, and more palatable than most. The House on Sorority Row has a few solid points in its favor: there's a reasonable attempt at an interesting plot, derivative though it is; the production values are decent considering what the budget must have been; the script shows a little imagination (though that drug-induced hallucination sequence late in the picture struck me as a trifle pretentious, and the ending? Puh-leeze…); and the filmmakers rely more on characters and suspense than gratuitous gore or skin (there's a soupçon of each, more of the former than the latter, but far less than you'd expect of either) to propel the tale. Writer/director Mark Rosman, a Brian DePalma protégé now plying his trade helming kiddie-cable flicks (including Tyra Banks's Life-Size) for the Disney Channel, displays a creditable degree of storytelling talent.
A couple of the girls can actually thesp a little. The underused Harley Jane Kozak, an actress I always appreciate seeing, plays one of the victims…er…coeds. Kathryn McNeil (billed as "Kate" as her career snowballed) went on to fame and…well…probably just fame as John-Boy Walton's wife in a series of Waltons reunion TV movies. (Although I'm thinking that if you're a rabid enough Waltons fan to have endured—or even enjoyed—those yawners, you're probably not the slasher flick type.) Eileen Davidson parlayed her role as ringleader and instigator Vicki into a springboard to a prosperous career in daytime drama. The other young stars, judging by their paucity of further credits, apparently used the film as a springboard to careers in such varied fields as stenography, dental hygiene, and automotive repair. And it's a pleasant surprise to see all of the major roles populated with natural-looking young women (read: unaugmented by the plastic surgeon's scalpel) who seem more like people you actually might have gone to college with than like professional Jell-O wrestlers and centerfold models. When's the last time you saw a cast like that in one of these movies? 1983, no doubt.
On the other hand, this isn't Gosford Park, or even Murder on the Orient Express. The female roles are the usual one-phrase stereotypes: the good girl, the tramp, the chain-smoking moll, the smart-aleck, the ditzy blonde, the bumpkin, and the first one who's gonna get knocked off (generally the one who doesn't fit one of the established categories). If you don't know who'll live and who'll die as soon as the girls' introductory scene is over, then the names John Carpenter and Wes Craven mean nothing to you, and you're probably only renting this disc because (a) there's a babe in lingerie on the cover or (b) John-Boy's wife is in it.
For a 20-year-old Midnight Movie horror romp, this anamorphic transfer is as adequate a DVD presentation as you could hope to find. There are minor flaws and debris evident throughout the print, but to Elite's credit, someone clearly spent an afternoon or two cleaning up as much of the damage as possible. Colors are sharp and realistic up and down the spectrum, though blacks get murky in spots. I didn't observe much, if any, edge enhancement. The audio, sadly, is the original mono soundtrack: flat and uninvolving, but at least both the music and the dialogue are distinct in the center speaker.
Speaking of music, it's remarkably atmospheric and stylish for such a low-rent thriller. Credit Richard Band, better known for his scores for Stuart Gordon's H.P. Lovecraft pictures (including Re-Animator, its sequel Bride Of Re-Animator, and From Beyond), which were produced by Band's brother Charles. Unlike far too many other films in this genre, Band's score sounds nothing like a fingernails-on-blackboard ripoff of the theme from Halloween. It's performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, if you can believe that—halfway between Lawrence Of Arabia and The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, the LPO whipped off a few sessions for The House on Sorority Row. Must have been a slow season. (I'll presume Richard Band had nothing to do with the sappy power-pop group that's onstage during the party sequences. Why didn't any of them get garroted?)
The only extra content is the film's original trailer, in full-frame and with less TLC applied than the feature itself. More cheese than a Nacho BellGrande, but without the embarrassing aftereffects. In short, it's a hoot. Too bad Elite didn't toss director Rosman or a few of the featured actresses a Benjamin to record a commentary track for the film itself—it might have been fun.
Note: The House on Sorority Row has also been released under the titles House of Evil and Seven Sisters. If you saw it on TV under one of those titles and end up buying this DVD by accident thinking it's a different movie, don't blame me.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Was there a legitimate reason we had to be subjected to the scene where the fat kid goes for a dip wearing only his tidy whities? As a chunk o' love myself, I know whereof I speak when I say that was the most terrifying moment in the picture. Call this my BVD Verdict.
One of the better-crafted examples of a played-out genre. It's nowhere near as dreadful as it might have been in other hands, and without question there's a modicum of talent invested in it. If you crave cheap thrills, you might give The House on Sorority Row a rental some weekend when your local video outlet's running a two-for-one special. (Warning to hormonal frat boys: it's not as gross as you hope it will be, or as titillating as the cover art seems to promise.) Worth a look.
The Judge hasn't the heart to convict these sorority sisters for a game effort. Case dismissed.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Elite Entertainment
• Theatrical Trailer
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