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The House on Sorority Row (1983)

Liberation Entertainment
DVD Released: 1/12/2010

All Ratings out of
Extras: 1/2

Review by Mike Long, Posted on 12/31/2009

Movie trends come and go, but few have seen as much action as the slasher horror movie cycle of the early 80s. Following the success of Halloween, producers were falling over themselves to copy the formula of this hit. The first wave mimicked Halloween by picking holiday-themed titles. The second, smaller wave aped Friday the 13th by having the movies take place in the woods. As the cycle began to die out, filmmakers were trying to find unique locations for their movies. A few were set on college campuses, and the best known of this group is probably 1983's The House on Sorority Row.

As The House on Sorority Row opens, we meet the sister of Pi Theta, seven of which have graduated and will be leaving school. This group of girls plan a going-away party, but their house mother, Mrs. Slater (Lois Kelso Hunt), rejects this idea, telling the girls that they must pack up and leave as soon as possible. Ring-leader Vicki (Eileen Davidson) decides that she has had enough of Mrs. Slater's bullying, and convinces the girls to go through with the party. On top of this, she plans to pull a prank on Mrs. Slater. The prank goes horribly wrong, and Mrs. Slater is seriously injured. Level-headed Katey (Kathryn McNeil) wants to call the police, but the other girls convince her to cover up the crime and go back to the party, as if everything is fine. However, someone begins to murder the group, killing those responsible for the incident. As the body count rises, and the party dies down, those left alive must try and determine who is stalking them and what kind of dark secret lies in the attic.

By 1983, slasher films had become two things, commonplace and indistinguishable. They all featured a masked killer, teenaged/twentysomething victims who did ridiculous things, gore, sex, and, in most cases, a mystery as to the killer's identity. The only thing that set these movies apart was where they took place, what the killer's mask looked like, and how the killer died at the end. Sure, horror fans ate these films up and many were (relatively) successful, by I think that few watched the movies expecting a life-changing experience.

In its defense, The House on Sorority Row does try to do some things differently. But, before we get to that, let's look at what traditional slasher elements we find here. The girls like to drink, party, and have sex. A prank goes wrong, ala Terror Train. One character, Katey, attempts to rise above it all and always do the right thing. But, when you really examine The House on Sorority Row, you see that what we have here is an updated version of Bob Clark's Black Christmas. The sorority house setting and the creepy attic (and the rocking chair by the window in the attic) were clearly influenced by that classic film. And, of course, the location of the prank and its result is taken directly from Les Diaboliques.

But, again, Writer/Director/Producer Mark Rosman does try to put his own mark on things. The movie has a slick look and never feels truly low-budget. Save for Jodi Draigie, the acting is pretty good. Despite the modern, sorority house setting, Rosman has attempted to give some parts of the film a gothic feel -- the attic is certainly creepy. The best moments come in the film's finale. A hallucination sequence is truly a standout, and it's shades of Carnival of Souls gave me the chills. The last few minutes contains a great "no way" moment as the killer is revealed. The actual ending is sort of lame, as we get a cheesy "freeze frame" ending. (See below for alternate ending.)

Save for a few of the classics, by today's standards, most of the 80s' slasher films look cheap and cheesy. While some of The House on Sorority Row falls into that category (the clothes and that band aren't doing the film any favors), this one is a cut above the rest. The story is solid, the acting is OK, and the director clearly wasn't there just to make a buck. Perhaps the recent remake (which I've yet to see) has sparked some interest in this older film, and slasher completists will want to check it out.

The House on Sorority Row pushes a dumpster down the road on DVD courtesy of Liberation Entertainment. The film has been letterboxed at 1.85:1 and the transfer is enhanced for 16 x 9 TVs. The DVD box promises a "high quality transfer from a recently discovered pristine 35mm print". Perhaps some of those words don't mean what I think they do, because this doesn't look great. The film opens with a flashback and you're going to think that there's something wrong with your TV or that the scene is taking place near a nuclear plant, as everything glows a neon blue. In the present, the colors are better, but they are a bit washed-out. The image is somewhat sharp, but there is visible grain throughout. The image is also riddled with defects from the source material -- some mild, such as black specs, and others more noticeable, such as green scratches which run vertically on the picture. The image is never overly dark or bright, and I didn't note any overt blurring or pixellating. The DVD carries a Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track which provides clear dialogue and sound effects. First of all, I'm surprised to see this labeled as a 5.1 track, as I didn't detect any surround or subwoofer effects. The dialogue is clear for the most part, and the stereo effects are OK. However, be prepared to adjust your volume when the band starts, as the music is louder than the dialogue.

The House on Sorority Row DVD contains a few extras. We begin with an AUDIO COMMENTARY from Writer/Director/Producer Mark Rosman and actors Kathryn McNeil and Eileen Davidson. This is a pretty good commentary, and I'm surprised how many details this trio remembers about this film shot over a quarter of a century ago. They talk about the cast and the production and they relate stories of shooting on a low-budget. The "Alternate Ending" (40 seconds) is merely a still with Rosman describing a final shot which was cut from the film. "Storyboard Comparisons" (5 minutes) gives us a side-by-side look at scenes from the film and the very crude storyboards. The DVD has a PHOTO GALLERY, and the TRAILER for the film, which is 3 minutes long, but never gives us a clear idea of what the movie is about.

Review Copyright 2009 by Mike Long