“[She] is a dying breed. When she goes, the whole species will be extinct,” quips sorority sister Diane (Harley Kozak) about her overbearing housemother in Mark Rosman’s cheapie slasher film, The House on Sorority Row.” Released in January of 1983, the quaint splatter flick debuted at the tail-end of the golden age of the genre.
Impelled by the financial success of Halloween (1978), studios began saturating the market with familiar tales of psychotic killers stalking and murdering nubile persons in grotesque fashion. Often assailed by critics, the genre transcended established limits of on-screen violence while appealing to a generation molded by skepticism. The Vietnam War and Watergate scandal dominated headlines during the early part of the disco era; J. Edgar Hoover, the embodiment of political conservatism under Lyndon B. Johnson, was caught spying on citizens and harassing leftist groups; the energy crisis led to the United States leaning on potentially hostile Middle Eastern countries for oil; 52 American citizens were taken hostage in Tehran, Iran. Uncle Sam was becoming unreliable in the eyes of its youth.
The world of popular entertainment took notice. The Dead Kennedys sang about secret police and the government flu, Roseanne Conner inspired her co-workers to quit when the new supervisor raised quotas on production and slasher cinema’s young protagonists haphazardly challenged the authority of persons of power.
The youth of Valentine Bluffs ignored the orders of the town mayor and organized a holiday party in My Bloody Valentine; young couples ventured into an unfamiliar, wooded area despite the harsh warnings of a forest ranger in Just Before Dawn; teenagers snuck out to drink alcohol and have sex in John Carpenter’s Halloween; and seven sisters hatched a devious plan to get back at their domineering housemother in The House on Sorority Row.
The American middle class objected to this movement away from traditional social values. In accordance, the deviant behavior of horror’s young heroes was met with sudden and often bloody death. From Kevin Bacon’s magnificently gory coup de grace in 1980’s Friday the 13th, to the discovery of Jeanie’s blood-soaked head in a toilet in The House on Sorority Row, horror enthusiasts were treated to a number of eye-gouging, throat-slitting, paint-the-walls-red displays of gore and carnage.
By the time Freddy Krueger began stalking the Freudian dreamscapes of Elm Street’s youth in Wes Craven’s 1984 genre reboot A Nightmare on ElmStreet, the genre had run its course. Fans had tired of the formula. “Dead teenager” movies were no longer performing at the box office. Diane’s above allusion to her housemother could be directed at The House on Sorority Row itself. It is the last great entry in the gilded 1980-1983 slasher cycle.
Rosman developed his directing chops working as assistant to “the master of the macabre,” Brian De Palma during his final years at NYU before breaking away to develop The House on Sorority Row. The film’s prologue depicting a failed home birth is photographed in a black and white style reminiscent of the same thrillers of the 1950s and 1960s that helped shape De Palma’s own twisted aesthetic. After a patient 32-minutes, we are presented with the first slashing.
The picture’s strength is rooted in its opening act. It develops the sorority sisters before delving into more gruesome territory. The opening scenes of the movie play like a coming-of-age adventure story more interested in developing drama than scares. When the mean-spirited Mrs. Slater thwarts the sweet and innocent Katie and her sorority sisters of their plan to have an end-of-year bash, they retaliate by forcing her at gunpoint to climb into the algae and bullfrog-infested swimming pool. But when the gun accidentally goes off, the girls’ free spirited lives turn from promising to pitiful.
Rosman sets the sisters up as more than mere cannon fodder for the killer. They are each afforded their own personality. When the film moves into blood-spewing territory, we are invested. Still, this is a story about a group: a group of friends that make a stupid and careless mistake and must deal with the emotional impression it has made on their lives. Rosman photographs the girls in wide shots, allowing the audience the opportunity to gain more information about each character and how their individual dispositions are molded by the larger group. Viewers feel the emotions of the girls and apprehend what is happening to them. In a particularly effective long take, Rosman pans across a roomful of partygoers, their limbs dancing like the flames of a fire, their faces epic portraits of excitement. He comes to land on the sisters huddled together in the corner, brows creased, faces tense, their eyes windows into their mental anguish.
The movie may open like a 60s thriller, but its body is pure 80s slasher, satisfying one genre trope after another in glorious fashion. Its introduction alludes to a past tragedy that will ultimately contribute to the murders in the film. All the necessary characters and plot points are present from red-herrings and final girls to fake scares and cars that won’t start. Its setting is the college campus, perhaps the most popular of slasher motifs save for maybe the summer camp. There’s even the moment when the killer, presumed dead, springs back to life.
Where The House on Sorority Row eclipses its rivals however is in style and use of mise en scene. Its dreary prologue is contrasted against a whimsical credit sequence that presents the youthful characters as they perform their frivolous pre-evening activities. There is a softness to the imagery that crossed with the dreamy score lends everything a sense of innocence, a feeling of playfulness.
Shortly thereafter we are shown Mrs. Slater sitting in a gloomy attic, her face lit by the diffuse glow of the moon spilling through the window. In a later scene Katie noses around the same room, a sallow candle her only source of light, its flame an arc of warmth in the darkness, the clutter around her casting hard shadows that reach out like knobbly hands. Though eerily reminiscent of a similarly creepy set piece utilized in the protoslasher Black Christmas, the set is visually foreboding. Consider the lettered building blocks arranged to spell out the name Eric on a shelf in the background, a character later revealed to play a major role in the unexplained events of the picture.
The jester mask worn by the killer may inspire laughs in a different context but in this scenario is utterly terrifying. A jack-in-the-box resembling the killer is dropped into a handful of murder scenes throughout the movie.
And then we come to the end. Katie is drugged and used as bait to lure the killer into the open. The illusory dance with death is conveyed through an expressionist arrangement of colors evocative of the 1970s Italian giallos that preceded the slasher cycle. The lurid pinks and purples act as manifestations of Katie’s sickened condition. Rosman utilizes stop edits to emphasize her hallucinatory state.
The artistry and innovation of Rosman’s direction turn potentially trite material exciting. Mashing the formally inventive styles of 1960s thrillers and 1970s giallos with the codes and conventions of the 1980s slasher results in a suspense flick that is as intriguing as it is bloody. I’ve been a huge admirer of the slasher since I was introduced to the genre as a boy. The House on Sorority Row is undoubtedly one of my favorites. It may have been released when the genre was diminishing in quality and popularity but it holds its own against the best the genre has to offer.
SINCE ITS RELEASE:
Following the release of The House on Sorority Row Mark Rosman stepped away from horror to direct the Disney films, Blue Yonder and Life Size. Kate McNeil has had a fairly successful career in TV appearing in various capacities in such shows as As the World Turns, Bodies of Evidence, Love Boat, American Dreams and Big Love. The slasher film saw a bit of a resurgence in the mid 1990s due again in part to Wes Craven and his genre-buster Scream. The film deconstructed the slasher in a way that was clever and suspenseful. The House on Sorority Row received the remake treatment in 2009. The updated version, titled simply Sorority Row, was met with cynicism by audiences and critics alike. The film is available on blu ray through Scorpion releasing. The disc features a boatload of extras including storyboards for Rosman’s intended ending. The House on Sorority Row will be playing select theaters on September 27th as part of Bloody Disgusting’s Retro Nightmares series.