We are now a couple of weeks into a new school year. In Canada, students have finished their frosh week fun and are likely (or should be) getting into their coursework. Fraternities and sororities at U.S. colleges may still be ‘rushing’ potential pledges. In this edition of Re-Animated, in honour of college life, I’ll be dusting off a ‘golden era’ slasher film – The House on Sorority Row.
Film Ventures International released The House on Sorority Row on January 21, 1983, in the midst of the slasher film’s glory days. Despite never capturing the attention of films like Friday the 13th, The House on Sorority Row was a modest box office success. Set in a sorority house, the movie unfolds on graduation day, following seven sorority sisters stalked by an unseen killer after a prank goes horribly wrong. In the years following its release, The House on Sorority Row has built up a cult following. It proved to a successful enough film to warrant a 2009 remake simply titled Sorority Row.
The House on Sorority Row – A Gothic-Inspired Slasher Film
The House on Sorority Row is clearly a B-level entry to the slasher genre. Fans of the movie might best describe it as a ‘hidden gem’. Given that it released well into the slasher film cycle, it’s not surprising that writer and director Mark Rosman closely follows the familiar slasher narrative. As much as Rosman adheres to the formula, he still manages to add enough fun twists to set his movie apart.
Together with the movie’s setting in a sprawling old house and Sorority Row has an almost unique Gothic feeling to it.
Most ’80’s slasher films built in a mystery to their story with red herrings to spare. The House on Sorority Row actually surprises with a rather engaging mystery behind the scenes of its carnage. You won’t mix up its story with Agatha Christie or Arthur Conan Doyle. Still Rosman adds enough ambiguity to the story to keep viewers engaged in between the ‘stalk and slash’ scenes. Together with the movie’s setting in a sprawling old house and Sorority Row has an almost unique Gothic feeling to it.
Additionally, The House on Sorority Row is frequently scary enough to keep horror fans watching. Rosman puts the wicked and supposedly deceased house mother’s cane to good use in several scenes. A surprisingly well-staged ‘stalk and kill’ sequence in a bathroom stall is a highlight. Arguably, Rosman saves the movie’s best moment for the end. The House on Sorority Row has one of the best final reveals you’ll see in a slasher film. It’s worth waiting until the end.
Sorority Row – Bigger, Louder, And Shinier
Sorority Row is just about everything slasher films were not. It’s a slickly made remake with top-notch production values, editing, and glossy camera work. You would be hard-pressed to find a slasher film from the ’80’s that looks as good as Sorority Row. Its cast included a ‘who’s who’ of attractive, up-and-coming stars from the time period. In other words, Sorority Row was glossy enough to market to its MTV audience.
Yet in spite of of how well the remake cleans up, it’s neither compelling nor scary at any point. Simply put, Sorority Row is perfunctory horror film that looks like it was put together by a committee. If you created a checklist of standard horror devices you’d find them all here. Loud sounds proceeding a jump scare? Check. The tilting mirror trick? Check. Obligatory nudity? Check. For a movie that is so jammed with horror stereotypes it’s almost impressive how little of it actually works.
For a movie that is so jammed with horror stereotypes it’s almost impressive how little of it actually works.
To be fair, director Stewart Hendler nails a few good death scenes. Notably, one hard-drinking sorority sister has a champagne glass shoved down her throat. The lack of practical gore effects will likely jade seasoned horror fans. Less demanding viewers will likely mindlessly lap up the frenetically edited R-rated kills.
It’s too bad Hendler didn’t put more of the movie’s budget toward crafting a better story and more logical conclusion. While The House on Sorority Row had a fun, Gothic mystery with a killer ending, Sorority Row’s big reveal is lazy story-telling. Like every part of the remake, Hendler jacks up the original film’s cane to a ‘pimped out’ tire iron. With all the attention given to making the remake faster and louder, it’s surprising how boring the killer is in Sorority Row.
Pledge the Original House on Sorority Row
The 2000’s saw Hollywood raid ’80’s horror for a slew of horror film remakes. Generally speaking, most of these remakes (The Stepfather, Prom Night) landed with resounding thuds. Occasionally, one of these remakes turned out to be a fun update of an old classic, like My Bloody Valentine. In either case, most horror fans won’t be lining up to pledge Sorority Row over the vastly superior The House on Sorority Row.