Written by: Charles Pratt Jr.
Directed by: Larry Stewart
Starring: Vera Miles, Clu Gulager, and Daphne Zuniga
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
“That's beautiful. You've got all the classic symbols there; mom, dad, fire, strange men..."
Many slasher movies open with an obligatory prologue that lets you know the movie isn’t fucking around: here’s a teenager (or two), soon to be placed in a perilous situation that ends with them butchered by an unseen maniac. You know the sort, mostly because so many slashers copied it from the Halloween formula. Some did it with more gusto than others, and few did with as much as The Initiation, which opens on a delirious scene involving a little girl. We watch as the scene unfolds with the soft focus haze of a nightmare or a fuzzy memory—or perhaps both: she tiptoes through the house, eventually walking in on her parents having sex. Another man is there too, though, and the little girl intrudes just in time to see other, mysterious interloper roast to death, leaving the audience with so many questions. Chief among them: just what in the hell is going on here? Also, was that Clu Gulager torching that guy?!
Our answers do arrive, perhaps not quickly, but the pieces do begin to fall into place. We discover that this sequence is a recurring nightmare for Kelly Fairchild (Daphne Zuniga), a freshman college student whose psychology course provides a natural springboard for her interest in dreams. As it so happens, her teaching assistant (James Read) has developed a method that allows patients to reconcile with traumatic dreams and memories; naturally, Kelly is curious, especially since a childhood accident left her with amnesia that prevents her from remembering anything before she turned nine years old. It’s not all about schoolwork and research for her, though, as she also has found time to pledge to a sorority, and Hell Week is imminent, to be capped off by a daring initiation rite: this year, the girls will break into a nearby mall that just happens to be owned by Kelly’s father (who is in fact played by Clu Gulager, thus satisfying one of the pressing issues from the prologue).
Did I mention a psychopath also breaks out of a sanitarium just a few counties over? As you can glean from the mouthful of a synopsis here, The Initiation is not the most elegantly scripted slasher. With its abundance of subplots, it takes its time in arriving at the simple logline it’s perhaps best known for: this is one of a handful of 80s mall slashers, wherein a group of teens gather at their monolith of consumerism to die horribly—well, eventually, anyway. In truth, the film spends just as much time at the university and Kelly’s childhood home in order to untangle the film’s central mystery: just what really happened when this girl was younger? Her parents share some cryptic dialogue at one point that hints that nothing is quite what it seems when it comes to their lives, laying the groundwork for the rest of the plot threads to finally interweave later in the movie.
Not that you really need any hints, mind you. It’s fairly obvious that Kelly’s recurring visions aren’t the product of a dream at all but rather recollections of a very real—and very violent—event that disrupted the course of her life. You will sense that perhaps her father isn’t her father at all, well before the on-screen sleuths here figure out even. In most cases, such a procedural would be frustrating and dull; here, though, I’m willing to give everyone involved the benefit of the doubt. It’s almost as if they want you to figure out the central mystery and lull you into a false sense of smug, self-satisfied complacency. By the time the slashing begins in earnest during the last 20 minutes or so, you watch, secure in the knowledge that you know exactly who is butchering these kids and why.
Here’s the thing, though: you’re absolutely wrong, as that false sense of security allows The Initiation to pull a fast one on you with a fairly wild ending that features two genuine surprises. Suddenly, everything you thought you knew is wrong, or at least not the complete story—rather, it’s all been part of an elaborate bit of misdirection that allows this one to secure its spot among the era’s more memorable slashers. Granted, some of it is a bit of cheat: there’s no clues about one of the revelations, which would prompt you to cry “bullshit!” if it weren’t so outlandishly great. The Initiation really just goes for it towards the end, completely justifying its overwrought set-up and numerous subplots. Most slashers don't even require so much plotting, much less have the conviction to pull it off as well as this one, putting it more in the company of the Italian giallo than its American contemporaries.
At times, at least, I should say, because there are definitely moments when The Initiation is just a goofball slasher, mostly thanks to its characters. While this isn’t the most memorable cast, Zuniga makes for a terrific, sweet lead whose earnestness actually lends some gravitas to Kelly’s struggle to uncover the truth. Just about everyone surrounding her is a pretty dispensable array of catty sorority girls and their horny frat boy counterparts. One of the latter—whose name is Ralph Bonner—attends a party dressed as a giant boner, to give you an idea of what we’re dealing with here. More questionable in terms of development is another characters’ revelation that she was molested by her violin teacher as a 12-year-old, a confession that naturally dovetails right into her boyfriend (the aforementioned human boner, naitch) trying to comfort her with sex.
It’s such a bizarre, almost gross little flourish that accentuates just how odd The Initiation can be at times. I mean, how many 80s slashers are notable for their adult cast members? This one not only boasts Gulager but also Vera Miles as his on-screen wife, effectively bridging the gap from Psycho to its low-rent slasher descendant. Neither has a ton of screen time, but they’re both delightful all the same: Gulager isn’t taking any shit here, buddy boy, and at one point barely glances up from his newspaper during a conversation. Sadly, he’s not around for too long, leaving Miles to assume the role of Kelly’s hysterical, over-protective mother, who at least plays a large role in the climax.
Most of the slashing itself is reserved for the climax, specifically once the sorority pledges have holed up in the mall, where most of them meet a gruesome fate via hatchet, garden fork, and even a harpoon. By the end of the film, the mysterious killer has racked up a double-digit body count that’s revealed in all its glory when our survivors stumble upon some of the corpses, effectively giving the make-up team another chance to show off its gnarly work. The desolate mall itself makes for a naturally atmospheric slaughterhouse, as the kids meet their end among empty, creepy corridors and abandoned stores. It’s perhaps not enough to unseat Chopping Mall as the definitive mall slasher, but it makes solid use of its setting. On the whole, The Initiation is a slasher that I like more with each viewing: between its setting, a handful of memorable cast members, some vicious violence, and its deliriously nonsensical climax, it boasts everything a slasher requires to count as a success. Pair it with Happy Birthday to Me for one doozy of a double feature.
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