Be young. Stay young. Die young.
The fact that the star and the screenwriter both toiled for several years on Aaron Spelling's prime-time sudsfest Melrose Place tells you almost everything you need to know about The Initiation.
Facts of the Case
Kelly Fairchild (Daphne Zuniga, a charming actress whose agent doubtless told her this role was The Sure Thing) is the freshest face in this year's pledge class at the Stabba Chicka Dei—sorry, Delta Rho Chi—sorority, where one of the house rules appears to be that everyone sleeps in castoffs from Frederick's of Hollywood. (Whatever happened to flannel jammies?) Thanks to pledgemistress and dominatrix-in-training Megan (Frances Peterson, The Trip to Bountiful), the plebes have been whittled down to Kelly and her requisite trio of motley compatriots: Marcia the virgin (Marilyn Kagan, who played a strikingly similar part opposite Jodie Foster in Foxes), Beth the sensible one (Paula Knowles, who seems to have vanished from filmdom after this debut effort, likely from overwhelming embarrassment), and Alison the tramp (future star of runway, screen, and civil litigation Hunter Tylo, credited here as "Deborah Morehart," which might be her real name).
Kelly's having a rough time settling into Greek life, though, thanks to her recurring nightmare. She envisions herself as an eight-year-old girl, walking in on her parents in flagrante delicto. For whatever reason, young Kelly slashes at her impassioned father with a knife. As if this weren't weird enough, an unknown man in a suit enters the bedroom and engages Papa Fairchild in a wrestling match. The stranger's clothes, having been doused with alcohol, are ignited by flames from the fireplace. He blazes to a crispy char like a campfire marshmallow. At which point Kelly suddenly awakens. (Can you say "repressed memory," boys and girls? Sure. I knew you could.)
Fortunately for Kelly, friendly graduate assistant Peter Adams (James Read, Legally Blonde) just happens to be researching his doctoral thesis on the subject of dreams. (Although if he insists on fabricating neologisms like "fictitionalize," Peter may never get past grad school.) Peter wants to hook the sleeping Kelly up to his battery of test equipment (mined from the "Manager's Special" table at the local Radio Shack) to see what's going on in her pretty little head. (That's not the only "hooking up" Peter has in mind with Kelly, but at least this part is in the interests of science.) Kelly's mother (Vera Miles, who saw this mad-killer stuff done more professionally in Psycho and even Psycho II) isn't convinced turning her daughter into a potential Nobel Prize-winning experiment is a good idea. Kelly's dad (Clu Gulager, Tapeheads)…well…let's just say he and his ascot make an early exit from the proceedings. ("Sometimes I think that man would forget his head if it wasn't attached," says Mrs. Fairchild, not knowing that by this point, it isn't.)
Things take a veer for the worse when Megan assigns Kelly and company their initiation prank. The neophyte sorority sisters must sneak into a retail complex (is it a mall? a department store? an office building? it has characteristics of all three) owned by Kelly's father late one Saturday night and steal the security guard's uniform. (Oh, those crazy coeds!) Megan and a few of the local frat boys also hide out in the Fairchild building, planning to frighten the pants off the freshmen. Problem is, the kids get locked in with—you guessed it—a homicidal lunatic, who may or may not be the burn-scarred landscaper from nearby Fireside Sanitarium (Robert Dowdell, from the old Irwin Allen TV series Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea), who may or may not have recently thrust his gardening fork through the heart of the asylum's head R.N. (Patti Heider), who may or may not have matriculated at the Mildred Ratched Nursing Academy.
Gratuitous skin, gratuitous corn syrup tinted with Red Dye #5, and a gratuitous "surprise" ending ensue.
Hollywood loves nothing better than imitating itself. In 1983, a low-budget horror flick entitled The House On Sorority Row became a minor cult hit, launching a spate of "sorority slasher" pictures in which nubile, scantily-attired collegians are systematically butchered by an evil psychopath. (Sorority House Massacre, Nightmare Sisters, Sorority Girls and the Creature From Hell, and the never-to-be-forgotten Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-O-Rama are other examples of the genre, if this sort of thing rings your chimes.) One of the earliest films to contribute to this sordid cinematic skein, The Initiation is—to condemn it with faint praise—not quite as awful as some of its sister acts. Make no mistake: it is awful. But it's better than any of the other House on Sorority Row wannabes mentioned above.
The main drawback to The Initiation is that it takes forever to get going, after the bizarre dream sequence that opens the film. Most of the action takes place in the last third of the movie, so the viewer has plowed through plenty of popcorn and soda, made several side trips to the latrine, and completed the TV Guide crossword puzzle by the time the coed body count starts rising. That last reel, though, is sufficiently entertaining that the viewer who enjoys a good slasher film (if such there be) will be rewarded for his or her perseverance. But getting there is, as they say, half the battle.
Director Larry Stewart, a veteran of abysmal TV (The Bionic Woman, Fantasy Island, and the miserable televersion of The Amazing Spider-Man among his dubious credits), wastes his lone feature filmmaking opportunity by employing every technique listed in the How to Make a Feature Film Look Like a Cheesy TV Movie-of-the-Week Handbook. To cite merely one example, many key shots are framed so awkwardly one might suppose the director had never actually used a camera before. Most of the murders are shot in such extreme close-up that, were it not for the sudden appearance of blood, it would be impossible to tell what's going on.
And clichéd? Oh, my. How many bloody hands clutching and spasming in the throes of death do you want to see in one film?
Not that Stewart had great raw ingredients to work with. Screenwriter Charles Pratt, Jr. made his bones scripting soap operas, and The Initiation resembles nothing so much as a soap opera with murders and nudity tossed haphazardly in. The dialogue is so inept it's a wonder the cast can keep straight faces while spitting it out. (Of course, the fact that almost no one in that cast can act helps.) To Pratt's credit, he does make a decent—if unsuccessful—attempt to elevate his story above the usual pedestrian fare by introducing the psychological element, and his twist conclusion—which seems at first to fly in from left field—is actually set up in more or less subtle ways throughout the movie.
Daphne Zuniga lends much appreciated vitality to the proceedings with her portrayal of the tormented Kelly, but most everyone else in the cast is either slumming for a paycheck (Vera Miles: from Hitchcock to hackwork in a single career), or one step away from a lifetime of asking, "You want fries with that?" Deborah Morehart/Hunter Tylo—cleverly elevated to second billing on Anchor Bay's keep case artwork—is present only to contribute periodic displays of her birthday suit. Fans of '80s camp will not be disappointed by the abundance of polyester and permanent waves featured here.
With their customary aplomb, Anchor Bay presents a technically sound DVD rendering of The Initiation. The print is reasonably clean for a low-budget film of this antiquity, with only minor specks and spots along the way. The anamorphic transfer is as sharp as the original will permit (this is a very dark film with a gauzy, muddy look). Some odd color inaccuracies, particularly in flesh tones, crop up throughout, but I suspect these can be attributed to the source material and not to the digital reproduction.
The mono audio track sounds like what it is. It offers passable clarity and dynamics (including a surprisingly full bottom end) with no jarring problems. The dialogue has a tendency to get buried somewhat in the mix, but this would be detrimental only if any of the characters had anything important or interesting to say. Which they haven't.
Only the theatrical trailer—which, though it's cobbled together entirely from scenes from the movie, seems to present a wildly different film, thematically speaking, from the one seen here—is included as a bonus for the viewer's hard-earned dollar.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Does every sorority slasher flick have to assault our ears with the negligible talents of a really lousy frathouse party band? Most do. This one does.
And does every sorority slasher flick have to assault our sensibilities with a frat boy dressed as gigantic male genitalia? Perhaps not every one. But this one does.
An appealing Daphne Zuniga and an okay final act make The Initiation worthy of a rental for fans of the genre who are willing to endure a tedious lead-in. As Abraham Lincoln—known to enjoy a popular entertainment in his day—once said, "People who like this sort of thing will find this the sort of thing they like." As sorority slasher flicks go, you could do worse. Too bad the director and writer couldn't do better.
The Initiation is sentenced to be forever relegated to footnote status on Daphne Zuniga's résumé. (The Court recommends that she dump the Melrose Place references altogether.) We're adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
• Theatrical Trailer
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