Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Sorority House Massacre (1986) dir. Carol Frank

Logline: After the sudden death of her aunt, Beth (Angela O'Neill) is invited to sleep over at her friends' sorority house until she can get things settled. Unfortunately for her generous pals, Beth has established a psychic link with a madman who is hellbent on tracking her down and finishing a mission he started long ago. It's lights out at the sorority house on this night of ice cream gorging, fashion shows, and murder.

Crime in the Past: Thirteen or fourteen years ago (give or take a year), a man named Robert Henkel (John C. Russell) murdered his mother, father, and five of his sisters before being caught and put into an asylum. His sixth sister escaped with only a scratch.

Bodycount: 9 pledges pledge no more. Hazing is rough on the pulse.

Themes/Moral Code: Sorority House Massacre does my work for me. About half way through it points out what I'd already taken note of: the fact that all those wriggling knives poking out from walls, mirrors, and desks in Beth's dreams sure do seem sort of phallic. The film establishes this same point when the sorority gals gather around a book that helps its reader interpret dream symbols. Their little game of pop psychology results in the exclamation "the knife is a phallic symbol!" and the question "are you afraid of sex, Beth?" She claims she isn't, and we're left at that. This whole cheeky scene attempts to throw a little monkey wrench into such an easy reading of the slasher film's visuals (while it then attempts to be a more mature psychological thriller--key word "attempts"), but there's no escaping the fact that the film certainly makes some rather phallic use of its knives.

Also worth noting is that while there is a smattering of nudity early on from some of its sorority sisters, none of it is particularly sexualized. The camera doesn't linger as these girls geek out and lose their tops while trying on an array of eyeball-scarring pastel trash bags masquerading as '80s fashion. It's difficult to imagine such nudity was intended to be titillating-- it feels naturalistic and matter-of-fact, a middle ground between including the required nudity and keeping the show tasteful. I suspect this was writer/director Carol Frank's choice, and it's welcome.

Killer's Motivation: Robert "Bobby" Henkel escapes from his asylum to track down and take out his only surviving sister, Beth (though not before stopping off at the hardware store for supplies). He has a psychic awareness of Beth's location, so he finds it easy to track her down. His motives differ slightly from the typical crazed slasher villain's: in another (perhaps intentional) twist on slasher movie morality, Bobby isn't killing all the sorority sisters because of their sexual liaisons, but because he mistakes them all for his actual little sisters. He's driven to kill the morally innocent, rather than the morally guilty, presumably to spare them from something. What that something is we're never told, though whatever it is encouraged Bobby to wound and destroy his own ears way back when. (As the doctors helpfully explain, he heard something "he couldn't unhear").

Final Girl: Beth, with her androgynous haircut and wardrobe, makes a rather typical final girl. She's plagued by dream visions of a knife trying to catch her. It's revealed (as if we couldn't tell) that she's the killer's sister (in a twist ripped straight out of Halloween II (1981)). In every way she's typical of her character type. She's somber and moody, never participating in any of the other girls' activities. For these attributes she survives the film (at least as the credits start to roll), but they also prevent her from becoming of any interest. At one point she's kind of snuggling with a guy on the couch, for which he promptly is stabbed in the back-- Beth is quick to blame herself for his death. She's right: she understands slasher conventions, and her role within them, all to well.

The Good, the Bad, & the Cheese: Sorority House Massacre is as silly and superfluous as its title would make you think, but I'm worried that no one told director Carol Frank. The film is decently enjoyable and more than occasionally (especially during Beth's surreal dream sequences) filmed with some skill, but it's apparent that it takes itself much more seriously than we do. With talk of "psychic bacon," a dress-up montage, and lines like "I remember lime jello," it's surprising that it shoots for the sophisticated thrills of a Halloween (1978). This film tries its hardest, I suppose, but never allows us to forget that what we're watching is, at its best, a loose spinoff of the Slumber Party Massacre series. That trilogy understands its satire of the subgenre-- but this film merely motions towards it while aspiring to heights far out of its own reach.

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