Written by: Don Ingalls, Carol Saraceno, & Kenette Gfeller (teleplay), Tom Holland (story)
Directed by: Robert Day
Starring: Kay Lenz, Morgan Fairchild, and Shelley Winters
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
“The women of Pie Epsilon Delta will rise up!"
When it comes to The Initiation of Sarah, you’ve gotta address the elephant in the room, the one that’s sitting in the corner, spattered in pig’s blood and trying to glare you to death: this made-for-TV effort owes more than a little bit of its existence to Carrie, which proved to be a breakthrough hit for both Stephen King and Brian De Palma. Neither of those guys were around for the obligatory copycat, so it’s a pale imitation indeed. But still, how rad must it have been to live through an era where weird, low-rent rip-offs flooded the small-screen? It had to be preferable to our current state of affairs, which often just finds Hollywood regurgitating stuff before giving it a spit-shine. I mean, when given the choice between Chloe Moretz wearing some hand-me-downs or Shelley Winters leading a coven of sorority girls, I’ll take the latter, just as any reasonable person of refined taste would.
Because echoing Carrie is not enough, The Initiation of Sarah recalls another 70s movie that did for ocean what Carrie did for locker room showers (the moral: don’t bleed in either one) in Jaws, only, instead of a man-eating shark, Sarah Goodwin (Kay Lenz) and her foster sister Patty (Morgan Brittany) encounter a would-be date rapist out on the shore. The prologue provides the first hint that wallflower Sarah isn’t quite right, as she fends off the creep with some psychic powers (read: she stares intently into the camera and the guy takes a bad spill into the ocean). From there, it’s off to college for the Goodwin sisters, who pledge to stick together during sorority rush season. Unfortunately, premiere sorority Alpha Sigma Nu only wants the more popular (and “prettier”) patty, leaving frumpy Sarah to shack up with rival Pie Epsilon Delta, the rival, ragtag band of girls living with an enigmatic house mother (Winters).
Perhaps inspired by pitch that pondered what might have happened if Carrie White went to college, The Initiation of Sarah loads up on the bitchy, catty antics that made King’s mean girls so deplorable. Sarah endures a stock set of martyr’s trials at the hands of alpha female Jennifer Lawrence (Morgan Fairchild, practically auditioning for her 80s career) and her pack of attack dogs: insults, fiendish plots, and even a recreation of Carrie’s infamous prom humiliation that subs in mud and eggs for blood. This is about the most interesting thing that happens for much of the runtime; then again, it’s about the only thing that happens, as the film downplays the spookiness throughout, with the closest horrific call involving a near-accident with a falling piano. Otherwise, the more fiendish, mysterious plot surrounding Sarah’s telekinetic powers is hinted out during cryptic conversations between the girl and her new den mother, who seemingly holds the key to unlocking so many secrets.
Those secrets are wilder than just about anything Carrie has to offer, quite frankly. Whereas De Palma’s film featured your run-of-the-mill religious fanaticism, The Initiation of Sarah goes nuts with its insinuations that its title character was conceived to be a pawn for a revenge scheme eighteen years in the making. There’s Satanism, ritual sacrifice, and dueling sororities; let’s just say that the girls of ASN are engaging in a different sort of initiation than their snobby counterparts. It might take a while for the movie to start edging its way off the rails, but, when it does, it’s sort of glorious, if not a bit restrained due to its format—Sarah can’t exactly go on a bloody rampage like her telekinetic predecessor, but she can scald her rivals with their shower water and start a pretty mean fire. Most of these tepid pyrotechnics are reserved for the campy climax, where the film finally lets loose and has a little bit of kooky fun. Winters especially is a hoot as the former big-girl-on-campus who’s spent the past two decades toiling in resentment and apparently taking up the dark arts so she can take down those bitches over at ASN—or their daughters, at least. That's commitment, which is a quality I look for when judging house mothers.
In a way, this makes Sarah even more pitiful than Carrie, and Lenz certainly brings a different flavor than Spacek did. The latter was overtly weird, an awkward, gangly collection of insecurities, while Lenz is a bit more natural and more like the girl-next-door, as cliché and obvious as that sounds. Certain touches pile on the empathy: when their mother ships the sisters off to college, Sarah seems like an afterthought, and, eventually, even Patty ditches her during a public pledge that forbids her from hanging out with the girls of PED (insultingly rechristened as “Pigs, “Elephants,” and “Dogs”). One of her only companions is a fellow PED sister (Tisa Farrow) who’s nearly as awkward and whose behavior would lend the film a bit of a closeted lesbian subtext if the script actually had an interest in doing such a thing.
However, it’s mostly content to join the pack of other Carrie riffs from the era, though it admittedly separates itself once Shelley Winters counters bitchcraft with witchcraft. Despite a decent pedigree that boasts Tom Holland on story duties and Robert Day behind the camera, it’s remained as obscure as its contemporaries. Maybe that’ll change a bit now that Scream Factory has plucked it from the ranks of 70s airwave horror and brought it to DVD as part of its TV Terrors collection alongside Are You in the House Alone?. While the disc boasts no extras, the presentation is quite nice, and, given the advancement in television quality over the years, I’m quite sure this film has never looked or sounded better. Hopefully, this will be the first of many TV Terrors sets because the 70s alone features a deep roster—hell, there’s even a Spielberg effort floating out there called Something Evil that’s begging to be dusted off. The Initiation of Sarah is a decent starting point for such a line if that’s indeed in the cards—it might be a little dusty and dry even by the era’s standards, but it still has more of a pulse than the most recent Carrie retread (which is to say it actually has one). Rent it!
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