Ratings Key

= Excellent. The best the genre has to offer.
1/2 = Very Good. Perhaps not "perfect," but undoubtedly a must-see.
★★★ = Good. Accomplishes what it sets out to do and does it well.
★★1/2 = Fair. Clearly flawed and nothing spectacular, but competently made. OK entertainment.
★★ = Mediocre. Either highly uneven or by-the-numbers and uninspired.
1/2 = Bad. Very little to recommend.
= Very Bad. An absolute chore to sit through.
NO STARS! = Abysmal. Unwatchable dreck that isn't even bad-movie amusing.
SBIG = So Bad It's Good. Technically awful movies with massive entertainment value.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Initiation of Sarah, The (1978)

Directed by:
Robert Day

Brian De Palma's CARRIE was released in 1976 to excellent reviews, just as impressive box office returns and even award recognition (a rarity for a genre film). Over the next couple of years, several 'misfit strikes back' horror films were made to cash in, including this made-for-TV movie; a thinly-disguised rip-off of the aforementioned classic that debuted on ABC. It's reasonably entertaining and benefits from a good cast, though it's not without a few glaring missteps along the way that we'll be getting to here in a bit. Kay Lenz stars as Sarah Goodwin; a shy, demure, plainly-dressed and misunderstood girl who doesn't quite fit in with her adoptive family. Her cold, social climber mother (Kathryn Grant) wants Sarah and her bubbly, outgoing sister Patty (Morgan Brittany) - who will both be attending Waltham College as freshmen - to pledge the most popular sorority house on campus. Unfortunately, Sarah learns a lesson in snobbery as the target sorority (Alphu Nu Omega) shuns her in favor of her sister. The only sorority actually interested in accepting Sarah as one of their own are the Phi Epsilon Delta, a sisterhood of cast-offs and misfits, headed over by reclusive house mother Erica Hunter (Shelley Winters), who takes up a peculiar and sudden interest in our troubled heroine.

As if being flatly rejected and separated from her sister isn't bad enough for Sarah, she also becomes the prime target for humiliation by the popular sorority who turned their noses up at her. Blonde megabitch Jennifer Lawrence (Morgan Fairchild) seems to make it her mission to treat Sarah as horribly as possible. She mocks the PED's (calling them "Pigs, elephants and dogs"), forbids Patty from seeing or talking to her sister, tries to ruin Sarah's budding relationship with a teaching assistant (Tony Bill) and then organizes a very cruel prank against her. Little does she know but Sarah is harboring some powerful psychic/telepathic abilities which reach their pitch whenever she's angry. Eventually, Mrs. Hunter encourages Sarah to use her powers against the rival sorority and things end in a fiery black magic ceremony.

The school setting, bullied outcast with telepathic powers, evil blonde bitch and weird religious fanatic mother figure are just the tip of the iceberg for the CARRIE parallels. This one goes a step further by blatantly ripping off the famous prom scene by having poor Sarah get all prettied up in a nice white dress only to get pummeled with mud / rotten vegetables and then do an entranced, wide-eyed stare from underneath the muck. The pacing is also a problem as the first hour is incredibly slow-moving and the last fifteen minutes are a rushed, confused mess. There are numerous plotholes as well. It's mentioned that Sarah's birth parents were involved in the sorority rivalry many years earlier, and even a suggestion that Winters' character is actually Sarah's actual birth mother, but the story threads are curiously dropped altogether. Furthermore, the Winters character seriously lacks motivation for what goes down at the finale and the film does a sudden, jarring switcheroo on the primary antagonist that makes the 'revenge' portion anti-climactic and unsatisfying.

Under the circumstances, most of the cast does a good job. Though the try to downplay her looks via frumpy wardrobe and a flat hairstyle, it's difficult (if not impossible) to make Lenz unattractive to the point of her eliciting unwarranted cruel treatment from the sorority snobs as seen here. Still, as per her usual, the actress does a credible job inhabiting her role and elicits an admirable amount of sympathy for her. Winters alternates between likably eccentric and over-the-top, blowsy camp (and is watchable in either mode) and Fairchild is positively perfect in her part. Playing an extremely timid, possibly lesbian music student at the unpopular sorority, Tisa Farrow (who'd later sleepwalk through her roles in the Italian gore-fests THE GRIM REAPER and ZOMBIE) gives a surprisingly good performance. Also on hand are Robert Hays (of AIRPLANE! fame) as Fairchild's boyfriend, Talia Balsam (daughter of Martin), Elizabeth Stack (daughter of Robert) and Deborah Ryan (KISS MEETS THE PHANTOM OF THE PARK). Michael Talbott, who has a small role here, also appeared in CARRIE. Interestingly, his character in both films is named "Freddie."

British director Day, whose career lasted from the mid-50s until the early 90s, also directed the genre films CORRIDORS OF BLOOD, THE HAUNTED STRANGLER (both 1958 and both starring Boris Karloff), FIRST MAN INTO SPACE (1959) and the TV movies RITUAL OF EVIL (1970) and (the excellent) MURDER BY NATURAL CAUSES (1979). The original (hrmmm...) story was co-written by Tom Holland.

The film has been released multiple times on both DVD and VHS, and is quite easy to find. It was remade in 2006 (also for TV) by Stuart Gilliard. That version featured Fairchild again, this time cast as Sarah's mother.


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