Written and Directed by: Carol Frank
Starring: Angela O'Neill, Wendy Martel, and Pamela Ross
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
Who'll survive the final exam?
By 1986, the slasher movement was more or less dwindling down, at least from a box office perspective. Audiences simply weren’t turning out for these things like they once were, not even for Jason Voorhees, whose return in Friday the 13th Part 6 actually made less money than its predecessor. But that wasn’t really stopping a lot of folks from still producing slasher movies even if they didn’t exactly have much of a creative spark behind them. Case in point: Sorority House Massacre, a shameless Halloween rip-off released eight entire years after John Carpenter’s seminal slasher. You could maybe forgive it if Roger Corman produced this thing just a year or two after in an attempt to make a quick buck, but it’s almost galling that someone thought this was the shot in the arm the genre needed in 1986. The most charitable take might see Sorority House Massacre as an attempt to strip the slasher back down and return it to its roots by recapturing the stalk-and-slash simplicity of Carpenter’s movie; the most cynical take just sees it as an especially derivative (if not downright lazy) addition to the slasher canon.
The truth is somewhere between those two extremes because Sorority House Massacre does have a little bit more going for it. See, it doesn’t just rip off Halloween—it also helps itself to a little bit of the dream logic of the then-emerging Nightmare on Elm Street series. After her aunt passes away, Beth (Angela O’Neill) moves into a sorority house, where she begins to have recurring nightmares about a psychotic killer terrorizing a family. Somehow, the dreams inspire an inmate at a local asylum (John C. Russell) to escape and embark on a killing spree as he makes his way to the sorority house. Now, you and I know that this cat is probably Beth’s brother returning home to finish the homicidal job he started all those years ago. We’ve seen Halloween. Beth and her friends apparently have not seen Halloween (or its sequel). In fact, at one point, they watch Slumber Party Massacre on TV, which does them no good.
It doesn’t do the audience much good to be reminded of that movie either, since Slumber Party Massacre is unquestionably the more impressive of the two “Massacre” series that Concord Pictures produced. Where that movie (and its sequels) exhibit a wry sense of humor and an unhinged imagination, Sorority House Massacre is more like the classmate that copies your homework, and the only reason it doesn’t look obvious that he copied it is because he only hastily jotted down about half of it. The basic outline of Halloween is intact here: the escaped mental patient returning to a childhood home to resume a killing spree. You have a psychiatrist that knows it’s bad news that he’s escaped. There’s a scene where the protagonist looks out the window during a heavy-handed foreshadowing lecture.
But none of this is done with the skill or style on display in Halloween, of course. Michael Myers was a playful phantom with an iconic boogeyman mask, our boy Bobby here can’t be bothered to put on a mask, much less a whole ass costume. He looks like he rolled out of bed a little late for his psychology final, not a calculating serial killer who’s been biding his time, waiting to kill the sister who escaped his clutches years earlier (spoiler). Likewise, his psychiatrist isn’t about to go the lengths Dr. Loomis does to stop Myers; she mostly just lets everyone know how dangerous Bobby is (via phone at one point) and that’s it. Poor Beth, her sisters, and their dopey boy toys are left to their own devices when Bobby comes calling. And, of course, John Carpenter did all of this stuff with restraint and panache, his dazzling camerawork elevating his stalk-and-slash to the stuff of legend. Director Carol Frank, to put it lightly, does not. Sorority House Massacre is a one-note routine, its psychopath content to simply stab victims with a knife. Forget Halloween: this one can’t even really contend with its more creative splatter movie contemporaries that at least offer an array of demented murder set-pieces.
But I will say this one does have one of the more charming casts, insomuch as they resist the typical sorority stereotypes. They’re all perfectly pleasant girls, all of them completely supportive of each other and of Beth especially. So many of these things (especially from this later slasher era) include one obvious asshole that deserves whatever awful fates await, but this one mercifully resists that cliché. There’s a little bit of cattiness early on when one of the girls doesn’t understand why Beth is still in mourning, but she’s quickly informed that her aunt was more like her mother, leading to a contrite apology. These girls are so dedicated to each other that they even sit around trying to decode Beth’s bizarre nightmares with a textbook from a dream studies class. Honestly, if not for the title and a handful of dialogue, you’d forget these girls are in a sorority altogether. They mostly just feel like roommates who hang out and try on each other’s clothes during a montage set to mall muzak.
Those nightmares are also noteworthy because Frank takes Sorority House Massacre to an appropriately dreamy plane. Because of—and thanks to—the low budget, the nightmares aren’t elaborate but rather operate on the sort of lo-fi dream logic of the first two Elm Street movies. Warbling slow motion effects, warping locations and characters, and inexplicable imagery combine for some killer sequences. A scene where Beth encounters three little girls playing on the sidewalk in front of the house feels like a direct rip-off of similar scenes in the later Nightmare sequels, but they hadn’t even been made yet. (In fact, you have to wonder if someone involved with those movies saw this one and decided to swipe the location—it’s eerily similar). It’s just too bad that all of this is in the service of teasing out a mystery with an obvious conclusion: the recurring visions of mayhem unfolding in the house are actually Beth’s memories of the horrific slaughter she survived as a child, something that doesn’t unlock for her until she finds herself in the cellar during the climax. I am left to wonder if anyone acting as Beth’s caretaker even bothered to notice she’d return to the site where her brother murdered her entire family. Seems like something that would’ve been in the paperwork.
But that’s just the sort of thing you have to go with when it comes to most 80s slashers, and this one especially. You really can’t complain about it because that little bit of absurdity goes a long way in helping to distinguish Sorority House Massacre. Simply put: you’d rather these things be kind of brain-dead instead of outright boring. This one does struggle to toe the line at times, but it ultimately comes out on the right end, thanks in large part to 76-minute runtime that doubles as an act of clemency. Speaking of heavy-handed classroom scenes, there’s a part where a chalkboard displays a brain diagram that prominently labels the reptilian portion, which might as well be a mission statement. Look no further than the title: anything bearing the name Sorority House Massacre is expressly looking to appeal to and bludgeon the lizard part of our brain that craves gratuitous titillation and wanton violence. Let the record show that it does this, if nothing else.
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