Sunday, November 27, 2016

Recommendations :: Hacking and Slashing Our Way Through Arrow Video's New Release of Larry Stewart's The Initiation (1984)

Plagued by a recurring nightmare, where, as a child, she wakes up holding onto a decapitated doll, follows some strange noises and stumbles upon her parents doing the horizontal bop, then stabs her father in the thigh with a pair of scissors, and then watches as another stranger enters the bedroom, who comes to blows with her father, which finds the stranger being tossed into the lit fireplace, whose flames quickly consume him, Kelly Fairchild (Zuniga) is ready to find some interpretive answers. Enrolled as a psych-major at the local college, Kelly turns to a grad assistant, Peter Adams (Reed), in the abnormal-psych department, who specializes in dream analysis for some advice on a term paper she wants to write in an effort to make this all-too-real night terror go away.

Adams offers to help if Kelly will volunteer for a study in support of his own doctoral thesis by hooking her up to several sensors and brainwave monitors while she sleeps and dreams, all ensconced inside his office -- more of a glorified janitors’ closet, really, along with his ever-suffering lab and research assistant, Heidi (Jones). Kelly agrees and relates the nightmare to Adams, who thinks Freud would have a field day with all the subconscious imagery and classic dream symbols involved (-- phallic stabbing of her father, fire, reflections). Here, Rachel also reveals she went through a bout of amnesia when she was a child after falling out of a tree-house, so she can offer no real answers to the origin of the dream because everything that happened before the age of seven is just gone.

Meanwhile, at a nearby sanitarium, one of the unbalanced patients clandestinely instigates a massive break-out to cover their own escape, stabbing the most abusive Nurse Ratchet surrogate to death for good measure. That night, Kelly’s parents, Frances and Dwight Fairchild (Miles, Gulager) receive a call from the very same institution, warning them about the deadly incident. They are also none too happy to hear about their daughter’s efforts to get to the bottom of her long-standing dream for reasons they keep very close to the vest, forbidding her from probing further -- advice she summarily ignores. And then, as her real estate entrepreneur father efforts to leave town on a business trip to secure the plot for his latest mall in Houston, Dwight is stabbed with the exact same hand rake that killed the nurse, and then gets his head lopped off by a machete by the still unseen killer.

Meantime, Kelly is also pledging a sorority with only one more obstacle to conquer to bring hell week to an end and achieve full sisterhood in Delta Rho Chi. And to accomplish this final pledge prank, Kelly and her fellow pledges, Marcia (Kagan) and Allison (Tylo), must break into one of her father’s malls and steal a security guard’s uniform and bring it back to Megan (Peterson), the bitchy rush chairwoman, who has a few surprises in store for her pledges once they’re locked inside the cavernous shopping center; namely a trio of wildcards by the name of Chad, Ralph and Andy (Bradley, Strout, Malof) sent in to scare them. However, the joke will soon be on all of them as the mystery killer is already inside, has offed the lone guard, and is now currently waiting in the shadows to pick them off one by one...

A prolific producer on the small screen, with shows ranging from The Wild Wild West (1966-1969), Mission: Impossible (1969-1972), Wonder Woman (1977-1979) and Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979-1980), Bruce Lansbury had just wrapped up The Powers of Matthew Star (1983), had some money burning a hole in his pocket, and was looking to spend some of it on a feature in hopes of cashing in on the waning slasher-boom before it finally bled out and died. One of his underlings, Scott Winant, got wind of this and looked up one of his old USC film school buddies, Charles Pratt Jr., and together, they successfully pitched the idea of a sorority prank gone horribly awry in a department store which triggers the prerequisite murder and mayhem.

Pratt Jr. was the son of Charles Pratt Sr., who had produced the vermin-fueled horror films Willard and Ben (1971, 1972) and the Buford Pusser Walking Tall trilogy (1973-1977), and was about to embark on a lengthy career writing for the soaps, including Santa Barbara, All My Children, General Hospital, and is currently the head writer on The Young and the Restless. This influence kinda shows up in The Initiation (1984) as there is a lot of sudsy melodrama, family skeleton subplots, and other soap opera elements to be found therein; a film of two very different halves that would prove just as schizophrenic as the lead character. (Sort of.) It didn’t help that the film was made by two different directors, which haunts the film and helps explain away its distinctive split personality.

Shot in Dallas, Texas, at Southern Methodist University, an abandoned Holiday Inn, and the Dallas Market Center -- a 5,000,000 square foot structure that technically wasn’t a mall but a wholesale trade center with showrooms occupying its multiple levels for home d├ęcor, apparel, fashion accessories, shoes, housewares, furniture, appliances and assorted gifts that was closed to the general public but open to bulk retail buyers, interior designers, and manufacturers -- the production only had a two week window to film before the limited budget dried up. But after only two days, while his footage looked spectacular, director Peter Crane was already two days behind schedule and was quickly removed from the picture and replaced with Larry Stewart, a veteran TV director, who quickly got the film caught back up. Alas, his speedy efforts lack the same delirious punch of Crane’s material (-- the dream sequence, the scenes at the mental hospital, and all the killer’s POV shots) and on this front the film never quite gels together properly.

As for the script itself it’s kind of a blatant mash-up of elements of Happy Birthday to Me (1981), Hell Night (1981), and the criminally underappreciated slasher, The House on Sorority Row (1983). Pratt does his best to sprinkle some clues and false leads and suspects into this mystery as The Initiation is officially a whodunit, with Adams digging into Kelly’s history to try and make sense of her dream when what she says doesn’t match with the data from his sensors.

Actually, it’s Heidi who unravels this mystery when she flexes her library-fu powers, which are mighty, as she pulls the string on the Fairchild family by digging into the microfiche of the Dallas Herald and what unravels proves that Kelly’s dream wasn’t a dream at all but repressed memories of catching her mother cheating on her father -- and it was her real father, Jason Randall (Dowdell), who wound up horribly burned when he caught Frances and Dwight in flagrante delicto! And who also wound up locked up in the very same asylum where all of this killing started -- he typed ominously. And then all of these threads converge at the mall, where a night of frights slowly devolves into everyone trapped inside pairing up and splitting off -- except for Kelly, who start bonkin’ and dying in that order by axe, arrow, harpoon and hunting knife. And as we reach the penultimate climax, turns out Pratt has a few more surprises up his sleeve to whomp the audience over the head.

As always, Arrow Video delivers a full payload, making the disc easy to recommend. The image and sound are clean and clear, with the usual double-sided box art, including the brilliant original poster that can be read on many Freudian levels. The package also includes an interview with Pratt, and two separate interviews with stars Christopher Bradley and Joy Jones, who all bring plenty of stories and anecdotes on the film’s accelerated production. There’s also a commentary track by the crew of The Hysteria Continues podcast, headed up by Justin Kerswell and the indispensable website, Hysteria Lives, and author of Teenage Wasteland: The Slasher Movie Uncut. The track is jovial and enthusiastic, if perhaps a bit too crowded and hampered by “conference call” audio issues as each voice fights to be heard; and while it appears to be more about their history with the film and not the production itself stick with it as it gets meatier as it goes.

Taking into account its haphazard production history I’m going to let The Initiation skate on a lot of the stuff it trips and stumbles over. Miles and Gulager were both walking through this thing as fast as possible, but the rest of the cast -- Daphne Zuniga, Hunter Tylo, James Reed, Joy Jones, Trey Stroud, and Marilyn Kagan help things hack and slash along as the film achieves the rare air of not wanting to see any of these people listed get killed.

When it was released in late 1984 The Initiation was kind of marks the end of the first wave of slasher movies, where after it would no longer be about whodunit but howtheydunit.  Frankly, I was more intrigued by the opening two acts as we dig into Kelly’s fragile psyche before we reach the paint-by-numbers body count third act. There’s plenty of blood but the grue kinda takes a backseat during a lot of the kills for those who judge these kind of things on that level. (It feels like some of the gore has been restored but I think it was always there, we just couldn't see it on all those old chopped and cropped VHS prints.) And while the plot is kind of fun to unravel, the film p’rolly would’ve been better served to lose a couple of those subplots to tighten things up a bit because I think there’s a crackerjack 80-minute movie to be found in the 97 bloated minutes of The Initiation. As is, I like it well enough -- the final big twist isn’t a cheat and makes sense, and I’m a sucker for these things anyway, especially when we don’t know who is doing the killing and, sorry, no spoilers here, and can heartily recommend it on those grounds alone and with the latest Arrow effort makes this disc a complete no-brainer for slasher fans. 

The Initiation (1984) Georgian Bay Productions :: Bruce Lansbury Productions :: Jock Gaynor Productions :: Initiation Associates :: New World Pictures / EP: Jock Gaynor, Bruce Lansbury / P: Scott Winant / D: Larry Stewart / W: Charles Pratt Jr. / C: George Tirl / E: Ronald LaVine / M: Gabriel Black, Lance Ong / S: Daphne Zuniga, James Read, Marilyn Kagan, Hunter Tylo, Trey Stroud, Peter Malof, Christopher Bradley, Joy Jones, Robert Dowdell, Vera Miles, Clu Gulager

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