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Case Number 23118

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Katarina's Nightmare Theater: The House on Sorority Row (Special Edition)

Scorpion Releasing // 1983 // 91 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Tom Becker // January 13th, 2012

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All Rise...

Appellate Judge Tom Becker used to meet girls at the little house on sorority prairie.

Editor's Note

Our reviews of The House On Sorority Row (published May 31st, 2002) and The House On Sorority Row: 25th Anniversary Edition (published December 6th, 2009) are also available.

The Charge

Nothing can prepare you for what happens when she fights back.

Opening Statement

Everything's coming up roses!

Facts of the Case

It's the end of college, and the girls of the Theta Pi sorority are planning a going-away soiree. I don't know if the Thetas had really high standards or just an off-putting hell night initiation, but there are only seven sisters sticking around and planning the bash.

The good times grind to a halt when curmudgeonly, cane-wielding house mother Mrs. Slater (Lois Kelso Hunt, Head of State) expresses indignation and outrage at their plans. Part of her problem is she always closes the house before June 19, and this party is going to interfere with that.

Already aggravated, Mrs. Slater finds herself barely tolerating the girls' chattery interplay—and noisy foreplay. She catches the alluring Vicki (Eileen Davidson, The Young and the Restless) in flagrante with a young man; a blow for abstinence (or at least quieter foreplay) is struck when Mrs. Slater slices up the girl's bed with her cane, and since it's a waterbed ('member those?), the whole affair becomes a soggy mess that has Vicki swearing vengeance.

And so, a prank is hatched to get back at the mean old lady, a particularly nasty prank involving a cane, a gun, and a swimming pool that looks like a breeding ground for conjunctivitis. But as is so often the case with elaborate pranks—and almost always the case in slasher films—something goes horribly wrong. The girls are faced with a terrible choice: call the police and report an inadvertent crime, or party like it's 1983.

Naturally, the girls choose party. But while the party features a variety of guys and dolls and a swingin' band (4 Out of 5 Doctors, if you're looking to book), there's also an uninvited guest, someone who is gravely disturbed at the treatment afforded Mrs. Slater…perhaps, Mrs. Slater herself.

The Evidence

Good grief, Katarina's Nightmare Theater: The House on Sorority Row (Special Edition) is the fourth release of relatively undistinguished programmer from the "golden age of slashers." Mull that over the next time your mooning about a favorite film that has not yet made it to DVD.

If it's any consolation, this is also far and away the best release of this film, offering good tech and great line-up of supplements.

The House on Sorority Row is certainly a fun relic, and one of the better-remembered early '80s slashers. It features an ever-so slightly more complex story than most, a pleasantly sinister atmosphere, a reasonable amount of suspense and jumps, decent-enough performances, and a smattering of 80s slasher staples—T&A and gore.

But for all this, The House on Sorority Row never really takes off into the slasher netherworld as one might expect it to. It's not a bad film by any means, just surprisingly tame, particularly given the set-up—a houseful of nubile victims-to-be throwing a going-away party with a bunch of drunken college kids.

Director Mark Rosman (A Cinderella Story) seems on the fence as to whether the film should be standard slasher/exploitation or more mystery/thriller; unfortunately, he gives us bits of both without enough of either.

For instance: Normally, abundant T&A is referred to as gratuitous; here, there's minimal T&A, and yet it feels even more gratuitous, as though it was just thrown in as an afterthought to get an R rating and satisfy the demands of the genre. Likewise, the kills: very few are actually all that gory. In a better film, a close-up of a screaming victim followed by a cut to another scene could be effective, but here it just seems like a cheat. We want the red stuff in our slashers, and those moments when we actually do witness a sharp object impaling flesh are—like the T&A—seemingly there so the film can be ranked as a slasher rather than a suspense-mystery.

If The House on Sorority Row worked better as a "mystery slasher"—as opposed to a "random maniac slasher" (like Friday the 13th)—these flaws might have been forgiven. But even there, the film pretty much drops the ball. The opening gives us an event that happened years earlier that we know is going to impact the (then) contemporary carnage. But this all turns out to be far more interesting as a conceit than as it eventually plays out, leaving us with a bunch of unanswered questions and a resolution that's murky and unsatisfying even by slasher standards.

Scorpion's Katarina's Nightmare Theater line has put out some surprisingly decent releases, but their work here is exceptional. The House on Sorority Row (Special Edition) is a two-disc set filled with neat supplements, porting over the extras included on the previous 25th Anniversary release from Liberation and adding a whole slew more.

There are two commentaries, one with Rosman and stars Kate McNeil and Eileen Davidson (which was on the earlier release), and a new commentary from Rosman moderated by Waters.

We get a whole bunch of interviews with the stars of the film, as well as with composer Richard Band and producer Igo Kantor. There's a fairly extensive piece featuring Harley Jane Kozak, who plays one of the girls and later went on to a long and successful career in film and television. Katarina also turns up to do some new interviews with Rosman, McNeil, and Davidson. These are all nicely done pieces, and along with the commentaries, give a pretty complete picture of the making of the film.

Ported from the previous release are an Alternate Ending, represented here by a still shot over which Rosman describes how the film might have ended; Storyboard Comparisons; a Stills Gallery; TV Spots, which I believe are new to this release; and the film's trailer, as well as trailers for other Katarina's Nightmare Theater films.

And of course, there's the option to watch the film with Katarina's intros and outros.

Tech-wise, this is probably as good as the film is going to look. The case I received—which is not the one they'll actually be selling—claims the 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen print was struck from a "brand new HD master." It does look very good, though not perfect, which is fine; the occasional blemish helps remind us that this is a 30-year-old low-budget film. The Dolby 2.0 mono audio track is clear.

The Rebuttal Witnesses

Even with all its drawbacks, The House on Sorority Row is a good time. Rosman does a better-than-competent job establishing atmosphere, and the film is suspenseful and twisty.

While the girls are never fleshed-out enough to become full-fledged characters, the acting is decent—really, very good for a film of this genre. You kind of feel bad for the girls, all dressed up like they're on their way to a Wham! concert and then meeting these grisly demises. Their party theme is "Everything's coming up roses," though Rosman doesn't really mine this for its comedic possibilities.

And although the kills aren't particularly gruesome, there are a couple of happily nasty shocks, including one that comes close to being a seminal slasher moment.

The biggest draw here is one that currently powers the majority of '80s slashers: nostalgia. Maybe it's because films shot on film just look better than films shot on video; maybe it's because even a tepid slasher like this seems somehow bolder than today's all-too-safe PG-13 crop or the too-gratuitous torturesploitation; maybe it's because of the little things, like when a girl is seen wearing a CBGBs T-shirt, the possibility exists that she not only knows what it means, but she might have actually gone there.

I can't say why with any certainty, only that there was something awfully comforting watching this silly, 30-year-old enterprise.

Closing Statement

With The House on Sorority Row (Special Edition), Katarina's Nightmare Theater finally comes of age and truly transcends its gimmicky trope of post-Millennium horror hostess.

The film might not be gold-standard slasher, but it's a lot of fun, and the presentation makes this disc a winner.

The Verdict

Not guilty.

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Scales of Justice

Video: 85
Audio: 85
Extras: 95
Acting: 85
Story: 80
Judgment: 88

Perp Profile

Studio: Scorpion Releasing
Video Formats:
• 1.78:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
Subtitles:
• None
Running Time: 91 Minutes
Release Year: 1983
MPAA Rating: Rated R
Genres:
• Cult
• Horror
• Mystery
• Thriller

Distinguishing Marks

• Commentaries
• Alternate Ending
• Interviews
• Storyboard Comparison
• Photo Gallery
• TV Spots
• Trailer

Accomplices

• IMDb








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