Judge Gordon Sullivan finds big hair really, really scary.
Our reviews of The House On Sorority Row (published May 31st, 2002) and Katarina's Nightmare Theater: The House on Sorority Row (Special Edition) (published January 13th, 2012) are also available.
Sisters in life. Sister in death.
Returning to Eighties slashers almost thirty years later is a tough task. Some still hold their value as nostalgic artifacts (Friday the 13th), some are still pretty shocking and/or weird enough to be interesting (Hell High), and still others are just so bad they're fun to watch now (Slumber Party Massacre 2). It's now the twenty-fifth anniversary of that venerable Eighties flick House on Sorority Row, and watching it now in the twenty-first century with a remake lurking in the near future, it's an odd mixture of all three categories.
In House on Sorority Row, a group of sorority sisters decide to play a prank on their overbearing house mother. Although they should know better than to play with guns, they threaten her, and she's accidently shot and killed (or so they think). When the body disappears from the pool and some of the sisters start to go missing, the house mother's past indiscretions come to light.
The House on Sorority Row certainly has nostalgia going for it. That odd, painterly cover that seems to promise supernatural chills and thrills has been looking down at me from video shelves most of my life, and the contents of the box are oddly comforting. There's very little new or surprising in Sorority Row, and the standard genre trappings feel like a warm blanket on a chilly night. We've got the sadistic mother figure, seven slasher-stereotype victims, a handful of interesting kills, and a dark past for a seemingly straight-laced character.
There's also a few elements that help House on Sorority Row stand out. The prank itself is remarkably effective, and the scene is played very realistically. This gives the shooting more impact than many contemporary films would. Then there's the fact that there's a dirty swimming pool into which the body gets dumped is a nice homage of sorts to Diabolique that's just subtle enough to be interesting.
The film also has its share of cringe-worthy moments. Primarily that's down to hair and clothing styles. We're talking big hair and even bigger clothing. Since the film's plot encompasses a massive dance/party we get to see the height of young people's fashion for the day, and wow is it an eye-opening (and eye-watering) experience. There's also a band that performs at the dance, and their up-tempo pop tunes just scream Eighties. The film also has a few laughable moments during some of the kills shots were cut out to avoid showing gore (either to avoid a higher rating or to save the budget for hairspray, I'm not sure which).
With that said, House on Sorority Row isn't that great a viewing experience. It's probably about 15 minutes too long, its kills aren't interesting enough for gorehounds, the nudity isn't plentiful enough for a sorority movie, and the whole "dark past" angle isn't well integrated into the final film. From the extras I get the sense that director Mark Rosman was willing to buck the typical slasher trends a little more but was stopped by his distributors. This makes Sorority Row a bit of an oddity because there are hints, like the Diabolique homage, that this could have been a very atypical little slasher gem, but instead we get by-the-numbers, no frills kill/party/kill scenario.
House on Sorority Row was given a barebones release back in 2000 and again in 2003. For the twenty-fifth anniversary, we actually get a pretty decent little special edition of the film. I'm a little skeptical that the transfer is from a "recently discovered pristine 35mm print" as the back of the box states. I'm skeptical partially because it seems a little convenient that they dug it up just in time for the anniversary and the release of the film's remake. I'm also skeptical because I don't know that I'd call this print pristine. Unless, that is, the first 20 minutes of the film were shot through a couple of lace curtains. While watching I remarked that the film looked soft at the beginning and my viewing companion replied "pillowly." The film isn't unwatchable, and it gets better as it goes along, but this is far from a reference quality print. The surround mix is a bit of a waste since there isn't much in the way of atmospherics, but the dialogue is clear and easy to hear.
Extras are sure to interest old-school slasher fans. First up is a commentary by the director and two of the stars (Eileen Davidson and Kathryn McNeil). It's a pretty informal track, with lots of asides along with the usual production info and a few gaps here and there. There are also some storyboard comparisons, a photo gallery, and the film's "original ending." Although we don't get to see it, Rosman narrates what happened in his original ending over a production still from that day's shooting (because apparently the footage didn't survive). The final extra is the film's original trailer.
For the commentary and new transfer, this 25th Anniversary Edition of House on Sorority Row is probably worth an upgrade for fans. Those new to slasher flicks should probably start somewhere else, like Black Christmas. Those looking for a goofy example of Eighties nostalgia, big hair and all, could certainly do worse.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Liberation Entertainment
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