Being too young in the early '80s to see any R-rated films in the theater, my only exposure to contemporary horror was through TV ads, the posters displayed at my local theater, and whatever was reported in the pages of FANGORIA. More than any other horror films at the time (save perhaps for The Shining), slasher films were so intimidating to me that I couldn't even stay in the room when a commercial for the likes of My Bloody Valentine or Fade to Black would come on TV. Being a latch-key kid, I was always alone in the house after school until my parents came home and inevitably an ad for the latest slasher film would abruptly appear between the breaks of, say, reruns of The Odd Couple and I'd either have to ride it out in terror or scurry into the kitchen until it was over. I couldn't imagine what it would be like to watch one of these films in their entirety.
Of course, once I finally did catch up with all of them months - sometimes years - down the line, the experience always turned out to be a little less than what I had anticipated. How could it not? But because I had carried an image of these films in my imagination for so long and because the build-up to seeing them had been so powerful, that early mystique will never completely dissipate for me. But The House on Sorority Row (1983) was a film I was unaware of until years later. I don't know if it was just not widely released, or if I just blanked out on it or what. But I have no recollections of anticipating this movie at all. In 1983, THOSR came out towards the end of the slasher cycle so maybe if I did see an ad it just didn't hit me as being all that important. Still, coming out at the tail-end of the slasher boom didn't stop Curtains (also from '83) from making a lasting impression on me. Then again, seeing a killer in an old lady mask skating across a frozen pond to 'ice' their victim will do that.
Whatever the case, it wasn't until the late '80s when I saw the video box for The House on Sorority Row sitting on the shelves of a Movie Gallery by my house that I finally became aware of it. But the lame box art didn't make me think I stumbled across anything special and I figured if the movie was any good a die-hard slasher aficionado like myself would've known about it. Over time, as I went through the horror section of all my local video stores and gave any title that looked semi-promising a look, The House on Sorority Row was still left on the shelves of every video store that I had a membership to. For me, it was a hard movie to be excited about.
Eventually, in the name of leaving no slasher film behind, I rented it. And as it unfolded I was chagrined to find out that all this time I had been passing by one of the best slasher films of its day. This was far more thoughtful and ambitious than other films in the slasher sub-genre I had so eagerly jumped at a chance to watch. Written and directed by Mark Rosman (just twenty-four at the time, and who had worked as an assistant to Brian DePalma), The House on Sorority Row aspired to be more than the average slasher film. Rosman brought a dark, dry wit to the film and a visual style that made the most of a low budget.
Like most slasher films of the time, The House on Sorority Row opens with a flashback to a troubled episode from decades past as a doctor comes to a pregnant woman's home to deliver her baby. The birth doesn't go well and before we see the baby, the film jumps to the present day where a group of sorority sisters are out to defy the wishes of their elderly house mother, Mrs. Slater (the woman seen in the prologue), and remain in their house a few extras days in order to throw one last party before leaving. This goes over like a lead balloon with the puritanical Mrs. Slater and the old bitch wastes no time going head to head with Vicki (Eileen Davidson), the young bitch who's the most aggressive (and promiscuous) of the sorority sisters. After Mrs. Slater rips Vicki's brand new waterbed open with her falcon-headed cane (a great prop that gets utilized throughout the film) while Vicki is in the middle of screwing her boyfriend, Vicki swears to deliver a vicious payback to Mrs. Slater.
The problem is that the prank that Vicki conceives - like every other prank in a horror movie - quickly goes Too Far, leaving the Theta Pi sorority sisters with a dead house mother to explain. The sorority's resident good girl, Katey (played by Kate McNeil), tries to get her sisters to do the right thing but no one wants to face the consequences - or defy the forceful Vicki - so stowing the body becomes the immediate issue. A quick (if half-assed) solution is reached and the party they've planned for goes on as scheduled.
What follows is something like the slasher movie version of The Trouble With Harry as the woman's body keeps vanishing only to be rediscovered and needing to be hidden someplace else. At the same time, the seven guilty sorority sisters are being slain one by one by a figure wielding Mrs. Slater's telltale cane. As mysteries go, this one isn't all that impenetrable - especially when early in the film, Mrs. Slater is seen paying a visit to the doctor that presided over the botched delivery and it's clear from their conversation that the story of her child didn't end that night in 1961. And when Katey discovers that the attic of the sorority house has been decorated as a child's bedroom, it isn't hard to put it all together and understand that a mutant kid is alive and looking to avenge his mama. Rosman makes effective use of old-fashioned children's toys in setting up several of the murders as a kind of calling card for the killer - the most notable prop being an old wooden jack-in-the-box with a harlequin clown.
In an effort to keep some element of mystery going, Rosman doesn't turn Mrs. Slater's son into a Jason-esque boogeyman. Until late in the movie, we're supposed to wonder whether Mrs. Slater has somehow survived to take revenge into her own hands. But the notion of Slater as the killer is such a lame red herring, it seems like Rosman would've been better off assuming that the audience knows the truth about 'Eric' from the get-go (even if the characters don't). At least then his appearance could be played up as something distinctive. A life-sized harlequin outfit worn by Eric does make a memorable impression late in the film (an image foreshadowed not just by the jack-in-the-box but by an illustration of a harlequin seen hanging on Katey's bedroom wall in one of the earliest scenes) but in general, Rosman shows little interest in creating a new horror icon.
What Rosman did do is make The House on Sorority Row into a mordant little thriller with the kind of touches that show Rosman wasn't just out to make a catalog of murders. For instance, a large banner that reads "Everything's Coming Up Roses!" is visible in the background while the sisters try to deal with the accidental death of Mrs. Slater. There's also a great moment where two sisters pushing a large dumpster down a road with Mrs. Slater's body inside accidentally ram their corpse-mobile into a parked police car. I also like the fact that Rosman lays in a subtle parallel between Eric and Katey in that when we see Katey's mother early in the film, Rosman cast an actress (Ruth Walsh) who's older than someone who would usually have a child Katey's age (she isn't ancient by any means but she looks to be in her 50s, at least). The implication being that Katey's mother was a woman who had her child later in life than most but unlike Mrs. Slater, her story had a much happier outcome.
The gore effects of The House on Sorority Row (courtesy of Rob E. Holland, who - in his last credited gig - subsequently headed up the FX on one of my favorite '80s exploitation movies, 1985's Tenement) aren't among the most impressive of the early '80s but they get the job done with Mrs. Slater's distinctive cane doing it's share of damage. More accomplished is the film's acting talent with with many of the sorority sisters going on to successful acting careers. Eileen Davidson ("Vicki") has been a busy soap opera actress since 1990. Harley Jane Kozak ("Diane") worked in soaps as well and most famously played the mom in 1990's Arachnophobia. Janis Ward ("Liz") was active in '80s television, showing up in episodes of Remington Steele, Magnum P.I. and T.J. Hooker and her most recent acting credit was in 2005. And lead actress Kate McNeil (who looks like she could be the separated-at-birth twin sister of Beast Within actor Paul Clemens) appeared in George Romero's Monkey Shines (1988), the Jean-Claude Van Damme thriller Sudden Death (1995) and most recently has been seen in a 2005 episode of Bones. For Jodi Draigie, Ellen Dorsher, and Robin Meloy, however, this was their one and only acting credit. But hey, four out of seven members of a slasher movie cast going on to make it professionally is one hell of a success ratio!
Being a low-budget slasher movie made by a first-time writer/director, there's naturally some silliness to be found in THOSR. Mostly involving the plausibility of Mrs. Slater being able to keep her monstrous maniac of a son hidden undetected in the attic for twenty-something years while generations of sorority sisters have lived in the same house. That seems like it'd be an impossible stunt to pull off - especially as I didn't see a separate toilet installed in the attic so that means Eric would've had to come down and mingle sometime! And in the final face-off between Katey and Eric, Katey grabs a doll and pulls off the head to reveal a large knife sticking out of the neck and then uses it to stab Eric. But what I want to know is this: why the hell is there a knife concealed in this doll and how would Katey even know it was there in the first place? Every time I've watched this film, I've always wondered if I was missing something early in the film that set this element up. But it seems like we're supposed to just go along with it. Luckily the movie is appealing enough to make that an easy task.
My other lingering issue about THOSR is that if you're going to keep your dysfunctional, deformed child hidden away from the world for the entirety of his or her life, couldn't you at least give them a nice room to live in? I mean honestly, would it have been so hard for Mrs. Slater to decorate that attic space so it wasn't such a miserable hellhole? Some new wallpaper, some toys that aren't artifacts from the '30s, some carpeting even. Even if your kid's a mutant freak, you don't have to make him live like one. With nicer things to look at, some normal toys to play with (like ones that aren't packing knifes, for instance), who knows how Eric would've turned out? That's all I'm saying.
Currently slated for a remake that looks to discard most of the plot points of the original (the house mother is no longer the nemesis of the kids and I'm guessing that there'll be no son in the attic so this really will be a in-name-only affair), The House on Sorority Row remains a keeper. I may have been late to the party on it but this is one slasher film that doesn't need nostalgia as a crutch. Or a cane.
For a further appreciation of this '80s favorite, visit my pals over at Kindertrauma for much more on The House on Sorority Row.