What some horror buffs consider the best of the "dorm killer" films, The House on Sorority Row is one of the most interesting slashers to be released in the early 80's, but my God is it a maddening film (just look at the poster, and then when you're done reading this look at it again and think about how misleading it is). Not because it's wholly terrible, but because the final half of the film is so well made it makes you wonder what the filmmakers were thinking with the execution of the first half of the movie. It contains some bright spots in its giallo like style and mystery, but the first half of the film's aesthetic is that of a USA "Up All Night" movie (which is alright when you've got others around to watch this tripe with, but it is hell when watching it alone). However, the awfulness of the beginning doesn't keep The House on Sorority Row from being one of the most interesting slashers I've watched so far this summer. It's definitely worth checking out.
The film opens in a horribly shot sequence that is supposed to take us back to 1961 where we see a woman being told that her child didn't survive childbirth. So, what do the filmmakers do to give us this authentic period feel? They put the world's worst blue filter on and make the scene almost impossible to view…I guess it was supposed to pass as black and white. Anywho…flash-forward to present day as there is a group of girls partying after graduation at a sorority house, but evil Mrs. Slater (the woman from the beginning) puts the kibosh on that, and plans to ruin their weekend by doing horrendous, evil things like popping water beds with her cane! Well, the girls decide to prank Mrs. Slater, the prank goes wrong, Slater ends up dead, they try to hide the body, the body ends up missing, yadda yadda yadda…you know the rest.
The film is definitely trying to be something more, though, than the other "dorm killer" movie of 1982, The Slumber Party Massacre, as the filmmakers are clearly more interested in their script and how they can evoke a creepy, giallo type mood with their story (which to their credit the filmmakers really do try to sell the viewer on the mystery of the story, and after the rough opening the movie does settle down and turn into a pretty decent slasher with a twist that is definitely an homage to the giallo).There's also more time spent on the mystery elements of the script than on random killings, and as far as slasher acting goes, Final Girl Katherine McNeil is pretty damn good here.
The movie, thankfully, doesn't contain a bunch of false scares; instead, the filmmakers go about trying to pass off their film as a Black Christmas type slasher where a house full of people go on with their business despite being stalked by a killer outside who terrorizes the house party throughout the night. The film is essentially two styles: American slasher for the first half and giallo for the last (the ending, with its bright colors, ethereal tone, and odd close-ups and cross-cutting is definitely an homage to the Italian horror films of the 70's), and this schizophrenic aesthetic (its shortcomings are obvious in the opening moments; however, at the end you can see the filmmakers do a lot with very little in the style department) sadly relegates this interesting entry into the slasher subgenre to the "could-have-been-better-if-only…" category. It does contain one shocking image that I wasn't prepared for: When our Final Girl is putting all of the pieces together near the end of the film, and she is remembering her murdered friends, quick cuts of the murder scenes flash on the screen. One such flash-cut is that of her friends severed head in a toilet (this image is my new banner picture)...an image that shocked me because nothing that happened in the film previous could have prepared me for the ultra-violent image. It's just one example of how the film is surprising and shocking and actually quite good in its final moments.
The first half of the film will drive you batshit insane with how awful it is, but the end is like a completely different film (and what an ending, too!) that hearkens back to the stylish gailli of Argento and Fulci (the music box scene at the end reminded me of Fulci's Murder to the Tune of Seven Black Notes) of the 70's with its use of a haunting music score as the film fades to black, and the way the film just kind of ends, without any real tidy conclusion. It's almost as if the filmmakers had to convince their financiers that they would make money with their generic first half of a slasher film, and then they were able to make the film they wanted to make all along in the last 45 minutes. What an odd film that could have been so much more had the tone of the last half of the film been present throughout. Still, despite all of its flaws, The House on Sorority Row is definitely a notch above most of its slasher contemporaries.