The House on Sorority Row (1983)

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You know you’re in good hands about five minutes into The House on Sorority Row. As Richard Band’s lush score swells, the credits unfold over a series of images that depict a girl’s “getting ready” routine with totemic importance. Shot and lit like outtakes from a classy 80s perfume ad, hairdryers blow in slow motion, lipstick is twisted, nail varnish applied; it immediately lends the film a feminine edge and, unlike the similarly woozy opening to Brian De Palma’s Carrie, manages to do so without any nudity or sexualisation.

One of the earliest entries in the “guilt slasher” sub-genre – one that usually focuses on a group being stalked because they are all complicit in a crime or evil deed, think I Know What You Did Last Summer – a lot of what makes this such a striking and effective example is the strong female ensemble. Most of the girls are active characters, not just passive, half-naked airheads with a “stab me” sign plastered on their head. They are each defined and the film’s main conflict comes from the tension between them and not necessarily the threat of the killer. There’s an extraordinary moment as all the girls dance with all their respective boyfriends and the camera pans between them, one by one, capturing each of their faces weighed down by the secrets they hold and totally uninterested in their oblivious partners. Director Mark Rosman fills the movie with a lot of these inspired little touches to connect the girls through blocking and cinematography. This, paired with some impressive art design by John Waters’ regular collaborator Vincent Peranio (who would go on to have an accomplished career on countless Baltimore-set projects including The Wire) really add a lot of class to what could have otherwise been serviceable and plain.

Things even get weird and expressionistic at the eleventh hour with a trippy hallucinatory sequence which introduces some Bava-esque coloured lighting as the heroine is drugged and tries desperately to stay awake. Hardcore purists might bemoan the fact that most of the murder sequences lack the excessive gore and impressive effects work of most canonical slashers, instead the emphasis here mainly comes with the aftermath of the killings as the girls discover the mutilated bodies. There’s some good stuff there, including the eerie image of a girl’s head dumped in a toilet but for some it might be too little too late. There are a few other niggles like the weirdly abrupt, if effective, ending and the unceremonious way the “lead bitch” is disposed of. So much of the film builds on the conflict between her and the other girls but the thread is oddly cut-short amidst a hectic last act. It’s a narrative flump that probably could have earned this movie the full five stars if it was executed perfectly. Never mind. This is still a terrific slasher. An immediate favourite.

Watched on 88 films blu ray.

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