Saturday, October 13, 2018

Hubrisween 2018 :: H is for The House on Sorority Row (1983)

Tinted over in an unhealthy shade of blue we flashback to June 19, 1961, where, as a thunderstorm of ominous portent rages, Dorothy Slater goes into premature labor. A Dr. Nelson Beck is called and rushes to her side, quickly diagnoses things are dire, and determines an emergency C-section is in order to save both the mother and the baby. With no time to take her to the hospital, Beck does the best he can under the circumstances but something goes terribly, terribly wrong. And when Dorothy wakes up, she asks to see her baby; but judging by all the grim faces surrounding her the child most likely did not make it. Maybe.

Cut to the present, where we join graduation day already in progress for the girls of Theta Pi. And after taking a senior class photo in front of the expansive sorority house, seven of the sisters start packing up their rooms for the last time along with the underclassmen; most of whom have already cleared out for summer break. In one room, Katie Rose’s mother is there to help her pack, hoping she’ll move back home. But Katie (McNeil) isn’t sure what she’s going to do with her degree -- except to not move home. 

Here, the mom notices the turgid swimming pool stagnating in the backyard, which looks like it hasn’t been cleaned since before even she was Theta Pi, and comments how typical of Mrs. Slater to not do anything about it. The Roses are then interrupted by the noisy arrival of Vicki (Davidson), who borrows Katie for a minute to say hold off on packing up. Seems Vicki has conspired with the other Pi seniors to stay on at the house until the end of the week for one final blow out, where, Vicki promises, an arranged blind date will be waiting to party with Katie.

Meanwhile, Mrs. Slater (Hunt), who is the house mom for Theta Pi -- in fact, I’m pretty sure it’s the same house where tragedy struck two decades ago, arrives at a clinic for an appointment with Dr. Beck (Lawrence). She pauses at the entrance to wistfully watch a young child playing with a ball before moving inside. Here, one can’t help but notice with all the years and accumulated mileage how the decrepit Mrs. Slater now requires the use of a cane to stay mobile. But this is only one of many health woes suffered by the elderly woman, and Dr. Beck once more encourages her to check into a hospital before her declining health -- both physically and mentally, gets any worse. But Mrs. Slater refuses, saying she will have the entire sorority house to herself for the next three months. And why this sabbatical is important causes a sinister turn in the conversation, as the patient warns her doctor, who implores Mrs. Slater to stop living in the past, if he tries to stop her from doing as she pleases, she’ll see to it what he did during the botched operation will be his undoing. What this all means exactly, we don’t know -- yet.

Meantime, the graduates of Theta Pi have gathered in one of the bedrooms and are passing around a bottle of champagne. And as we go around the circle we meet Diane (Kozak), Jeanie (Meloy), Morgan (Draigie), Liz (Zido) and Stevie (Dorsher), as they toast to their success with Katie for the fifth or sixth time. A returning Mrs. Slater hears this commotion, crashes the party, and demands to know what they are all still doing here -- just as Morgan nearly throws up on her, who was on her way to the bathroom to hurl when she ran into the old woman at the door. Diane sobers up quick and says they’re all sticking around to throw a party at the house since another venue fell through. Figuring this was all Vicki’s idea -- who is noticeably absent, Slater promises to take care of her later. But for now, she wants all the girls out of the house by morning. It’s the 19th after all, and unlike all the other houses on campus, Mrs. Slater always closes up this house on that date as far back as anyone can remember.

And as Diane rallies the troops, saying the sorority bylaws state they can stay as long as they like, Mrs. Slater returns to her room, where she starts pulling class photos of all the girls she’s sired over the years, takes them out of the frame, tears them up, and throws the remnants into the fire -- except for the most recent, which she takes the cane to first, impaling a picture of Vicki. And speaking of Vicki, she’s currently sneaking her boyfriend, Rick (Sergio), into her bedroom after a shooting tutorial with his pistol for reasons we’ll get to in a second. Turns out Mrs. Slater was waiting for her and ambushes them en flagrante delicto and uses her cane to slash open Vicki’s waterbed as she screams slutty epitaphs at the girl. A soggy Vicki answers in kind, chasing her down the hall, waking everyone else up, swearing to get even with the old hag -- and sooner than she thinks.

The next morning, as they all lounge around that gawdawful pool, Vicki reveals her revenge plan and gets all the other girls to play along with her elaborate prank except for Katie, who objects on maturity grounds. Outvoted, Katie can’t stop these machinations but she does catch a glint of something moving through the attic window, where no one is allowed to go except for Mrs. Slater. 

Meantime, at the clinic, Dr. Beck goes over Mrs. Slater’s latest test results, attributing her current fragile mental state over the traumatic delivery suffered back in ‘61. This condition is worsening due to her age and deteriorating mental faculties, and he fears she’s nearing a complete psychotic break, which will only aggravate the patient’s tendency toward violence.

Back at the house on sorority row, Vicki’s prank is now in motion. It begins when Mrs. Slater finds the girls not only still there the following morning but decorating the house for their party. But before she can have a conniption, Vicki asks if she’s missing something and points the old woman to the pool, where her cane is floating on an inner-tube in the middle of the muck. Vicki then pulls out Rick’s gun to force Mrs. Slater into the ghastly pool to retrieve it. The others weren’t in on this part of the prank, and a panicked Liz tries to wrest the gun from Vicki but it goes off, hitting Liz in the leg. Vicki turns the gun back on Mrs. Slater, who falls into the pool after Vicki fires three more warning shots. 

But once she hits the water, Liz miraculously recovers and laughs with Vicki. Apparently, the gun was full of blanks to the relief of the others. But this prank backfires when Mrs. Slater lunges out of the pool and strikes Vicki with her cane. Startled, she squeezes the trigger, the gun discharges another round, and the elderly woman falls back under the water. And when Katie and Stevie jump in and retrieve her, blanks or not, the old woman is now dead.

Blind panic follows, but Vicki soon takes charge, prevents a call for help, and bullies all the others in line, saying they’re all culpable in this not-so-accidental death. She reasons since Mrs. Slater had no relatives, they can just hide her body and dummy up. Katie is the last hold out, but Vicki warns their lives are over if anyone else finds out. She finally agrees when the band arrives to set up for the party, which is due to start soon. And so, these seven sisters conspire to hide the body at the bottom of the pool for now to deal with later. Thus the body is bound up in a blanket, weighted down, and sunk.

Later, needless to say, none of the girls are really having a good time as their party reaches a fever pitch. Katie meets her blind date, Peter (Kuhn), a nice enough fella, who can’t seem to snap the girl out of her guilt-fueled funk. One drunken reveler is having a ball, but when he wanders off to have a pee in the woods he is attacked an impaled by someone with Mrs. Slater’s cane, which should still be at the bottom of the pool. Then, a woman’s screams can be heard coming from outside near the pool. 

But it’s just a bunch of drunks screwing around, trying to toss some poor gal into the filthy pool, whose lights are on. But wasn’t Stevie supposed to remove the fuses to make sure that very thing didn’t happen? And where is Stevie anyway? And more importantly, where did Mrs. Slater go as the remaining sisters can clearly see despite the murk that the pool is now empty and the body they were trying to hide is now gone...

Back in the late 1970s, between features, noted curmudgeon and filmmaker, Brian De Palma, was teaching film studies at his alma mater, Sarah Lawrence College, in Yonkers, New York, where he conceived a “hands on training exercise” for his students, where they would raise money, form a crew, shoot and edit a film all under his supervision. The end result was Home Movies (1979), a slice of life family drama based mostly on De Palma’s own life experiences; essentially a film about a young man making a film. Officially co-directed by De Palma and a rotating group of film students from varying schools in the New York area, the maker of Carrie (1978), Blow Out (1981) and The Untouchables (1987), would later claim the student directors were only responsible for about 5% of what you see on screen, making the whole thing rather dubious in my book.

Now, one of those assistant directors on Home Movies was Mark Rosman. Rosman had been a student at UCLA before transferring to NYU to finish up his film degree. Upon graduating in 1980, he returned home to Los Angeles; and from his experience working with De Palma he realized the best way to break into the movie business was to just make his own movie. And taking a page from John Carpenter -- Halloween (1978), and Sean Cunningham -- Friday the 13th (1980), he felt writing, directing, and producing his own independent horror film would be the easiest genre to sell for distribution before moving on to better things once established. And so, while staring out the window of his parent’s basement at their swimming pool, Rossman got an idea and started hashing out a script for something he called, Seven Sisters.

Inspired by his life as a frat-rat at UCLA, Rosman combined these experiences with elements from Henri-Georges Clouzot’s thriller, Les Diaboliques (1955), where a couple of women conspire to hide the body of a murdered husband in a swimming pool, which quickly unravels due to many plot twists so righteous I won’t spoil. Rosman wasn’t a fan of the visceral elements of the current horror trend, and wanted to make more of a suspense thriller that could pass as a slasher movie, which was the current box office du jour at the time. Thus, he didn’t want his female characters to just be victims of some faceless psychopath, but make them guilty of something other than drinking or having sex. Something so terrible it would, essentially, make them culpable in their own deaths.

Once finished, Rosman shopped his script around but found nary a nibble until he connected with an old friend, Rene Eram, who just so happened to work for VAE Productions. Based out of Washington, D.C., VAE, which had specialized in industrial shorts and business promo reels, was ready to expand and take a shot at a feature and signed on to finance Rosman’s script for $125,000, which was about half of what he’d budgeted it for. But the novice filmmaker thought, screw it, and just do it. Thus, the film was originally going to be shot in Washington D.C., but while scouting locations Rosman found a huge house in nearby Pikesville, Maryland, that had been foreclosed on and would be perfect for his needs -- except for the lack of a communal bathroom, which was later remedied by some inserts shot at the Baltimore School of Dentistry.

Once the house was secured, they discovered a couple of squatters living there, who quickly joined up as production assistants instead of just being tossed out. For the rest of his minimal crew, Rosman rounded up mostly amateurs to keep costs down. He’d worked with his cinematographer, Tim Suhrstedt, before on Home Movies, and the rest were locals, including a few from John Waters’ film circle like Vincent Perronio -- Pink Flamingos (1972), Female Trouble (1974), who served as the film’s production designer, who set to work converting the home into a sorority house.

And one of Perronio’s biggest challenges as filming commenced over the summer months of 1981 was maintaining the integrity of the integral pool’s appearance, which had to be ghastly and dirty enough to hide the initial body on the surface and yet clear enough underneath to identify the others as more and more corpses wind up in the water as Rosman, like Clouzot, had a few twists to unravel in his script once the murder and mayhem begins, beginning with the true fate of Mrs. Slater’s baby.

There are plenty of clues her child most likely survived and Mrs. Slater kept him hidden in the attic, which resembles a child’s nursery, Here, evidence shows his name was Eric, and Mrs. Slater’s routine was to let him out of the attic and give him full run of the house during the summer months. And now that this routine has been interrupted? Eek. And eek again. But this still doesn’t answer why she would hide him like that, and keep his existence a secret all these years. Obviously Dr. Beck knows what she’s been up to, right? Then again, maybe he’s the killer out to clean up his mess and keep it all a secret.

Then again, of course, this is all conjecture on the audience’s part. So while odds are good Eric is the killer, we don’t know for sure if it was him who killed the errant party goer or stabbed Stevie repeatedly in the face and chest with his mother’s cane in the basement as she was messing with the fuses. What we do know for sure is the killer isn’t Mrs. Slater, whose body literally falls on top of Morgan from a secret trapdoor entrance to the attic. And as the conspirators gather round the body, they have no idea who could’ve moved her up there. But they can sort that out later, says Vicki, who suggests they take the body to Parkview Cemetery for a more permanent solution, reminding them they’re all in this together. At first, she gets no answer -- except from Katie, who’d been trying to calm the hysterical Morgan down, who smacks Vicki across the face as a reminder of whose fault all of this really is.

And as the party continues around them, Diane is sent to round up Rick’s van while Vicki, Liz and Jeannie throw the body into a wheeled dumpster and start pushing it toward the road and away from the revelers. Only the van isn’t coming as the killer has struck again, skewering Diane with the cane through the sunroof. Meantime, Katie goes to check on Morgan, who was sent to bed after a few belts of liquor to calm her down. But Morgan isn’t there because earlier she’d been drawn onto the balcony by a child’s music box, where she is also run through by the lethal walking stick. And so, after searching the whole house, Katie checks the attic, where we get a good look at the surroundings, including a large harlequin costume hanging on the wall that resembles the figure on the music box bait. She also finds a birthday card signed, To Eric … love, Mother, before Peter blunders in, very drunk, who was looking for her and starts happily playing with all the discarded toys. Before they vacate the loft, they discover a birdcage whose occupant lies crushed on the papers lining the bottom.

Meanwhile, the three girls humping the dumpster down the lane unwittingly smash it right into a campus security car. Jeanie makes a break for it back to the house, but Vicki and Liz remain, make a few lame excuses for what they’re doing, and are nearly undone when the guard wants to know what they’re really hiding in the dumpster until he gets called away to check on a report of a dead body found nearby. After he’s gone, the two girls continue on to the van, figure Diane ran out on them, load up the corpse, and head to the cemetery. Meantime, Jeanie makes it back to the house where she’s attacked by the killer, manages to get away, and finds refuge in the kitchen where she runs into Katie, who promises to go and find help. Left alone, Jeanie arms herself with a butcher knife when she hears someone breaking into the house. The killer then herds her upstairs into the bathroom, where she winds up being stabbed in the neck with her own knife.

By now, the band is gone, the party is winding down, and most of the guests have cleared out. Katie has rounded up Peter, telling him several of her friends are missing -- and now they can’t find Jeannie. Katie moves to phone the cops, thinks better of it, hangs up, shrugs, and tells Peter they all must have just left the party, which she suggest he does, too. Once he reluctantly leaves, Katie takes a closer look at the bracelet Jeannie pulled off her attacker, which turns out to be a medical alert bracelet with Dr. Beck’s phone number to call in case of an emergency, which this most definitely is. Over the phone, Katie reveals several of her friends are missing and the violent circumstances leading her to call but won’t say where Mrs. Slater is now. And while Katie waits for the arrival of Dr. Beck, Vicki and Liz make it to the cemetery, where they find an open grave. And after the two of them effort to dig it a little deeper to bury the body, Liz moves to bring the van in closer only to get her throat torn open by the killer. And when Vicki comes looking for her and discovers the body, the killer pounces and beats her to death with the cane, which by now has quite a few notches on it.

Back at the house, Katie is showing Dr. Beck what she found in the attic. Seems Mrs. Slater first came to Dr. Beck because of his “fertility experiments” but something went wrong. And ever since, every June 19th, Mrs. Slater celebrated Eric’s birthday as if he was a normal, loving son. But before he reveals anything else, Katie spots something floating in the pool through the window, rushes outside, and sees it’s Diane and Morgan’s dead bodies. After comforting the tearful girl, Dr. Beck phones the police and echoes Katie, who says to go to the cemetery because the killer is most likely after the rest of the conspirators. Then, Dr. Beck drives Katie to the cemetery to meet with the sheriff. Along the way, she confesses the whole thing, thinking Mrs. Slater wasn’t really dead when they put her in the pool and the body they found later was most likely Stevie. And now, a vengeful Mrs. Slater is out to kill them all.

When they arrive at the cemetery, they find Vicki and Liz, dead, at the bottom of the open grave; but when they check on the body in the van, Beck pulls back the blanket to reveal it really was Mrs. Slater all along. He’s alive, declares Dr. Beck, referring, obviously, to Eric Slater. On the way back to the house, he informs Katie the police aren’t coming before injecting her with a mild sedative and sets her out as live bait so he can lure Eric out and capture him with a tranquilizer gun. Seems the baby was deformed and mentally underdeveloped due to his apparently illegal fertility treatments and now he wants to rectify that mistake. 

And as the drugs start to really kick in, Katie starts hallucinating in a fairly effective phantasmagorical altered state sequence as she sees her dead friends assemble on the patio and then march off toward the pool. Then, Beck mistakes a curious Peter, who was too drunk to drive home, for Eric and tranqs him. And while he reloads, Katie rallies out of her delirium and makes a break for it. But instead of running outside, she runs upstairs. (Forgive her, she’s semi-sedated.)

As Beck searches for her, and rationalizes his actions out loud as he goes, instead of finding Katie, who is in Vicki’s room retrieving the pistol, the good doctor instead runs into Eric, who stabs him with the cane, knocks him over the railing, and then watches as he plummets to the foyer below. Then Katie, now armed, finds Eric, whose head looks severely deformed, standing over the corpse (-- I think in one version of the script it was revealed Beck was the father or at least the, uh, donor). 

She fires the gun until it’s empty, forgetting it’s still loaded with blanks. Thus, the stalk and chase is on as Katie tries to hide from Eric (Serio), whose efforts lead her into the bathroom, where she finds poor Jeannie’s severed head mounted in one of the toilets.

Then, when this chase finally terminates in the attic playroom, we discover, in the film’s most effective scene, that Eric not only beat Katie up there but had time to dress in that harlequin costume, too, which suddenly animates right behind her! And as they struggle, Katie gets her hands on a vintage doll and pops the head off, revealing a very sharp mounting spike, and then uses this to stab Eric repeatedly until he finally falls down through the open trapdoor to the lower floor. Thinking her nightmarish ordeal is over, Katie lies on the ground next to the stairwell, relieved, unaware that her attacker’s eyes just popped back open below her.

Throughout its many permutations, Rosman’s script for Seven Sisters went through several different endings. In the first draft, the film ends with Katie in the hospital being pushed along in a wheelchair, and then it’s revealed Eric is the one pushing the last survivor to her eventual doom. Another version had the police investigating the aftermath of the massacre, and when they find the body in the harlequin costume it’s unmasked to reveal not Eric but Katie, dead, and apparently framed for the crimes while Eric lives on for the inevitable sequel. 

In the actual shot ending, this same scenario plays out as the authorities fish all the bodies out of the pool, one of them in the harlequin costume, which, again, turns out to be Katie, which plays right into Rosman’s initial idea of his protagonists getting what is coming to them. But the eventual distributor didn’t like it, feeling it was too much of a downer, and it was decided to just leave it open-ended with that final jump-scare. This footage appears to be lost and the only extant evidence is a single photograph. These same distributors didn’t like the title of the movie either, feeling they couldn’t sell a horror movie called Seven Sisters. And after kicking around several other titles like House of Evil and Screamers, it was finally settled on The House on Sorority Row (1983).

For his cast, again, to save money, Rosman decided to shoot non-SAG and had an open “cattle call” in New York and Los Angeles for novice actresses. Veteran Soap Opera fans will easily recognize Eileen Davidson, who later starred in Santa Barbara, The Bold and the Beautiful, Days of Our Lives, and The Young and the Restless (-- or as my dear sweet Mama Bear used to call it, The Young and the Rowdy). Harley Jane Kozak also appeared on Santa Barbara and The Guiding Light, as well as other feature films like Parenthood (1989) and Arachnophobia (1990). Lead player Kathryn McNeil also put her time in on the soap, As The World Turns. And McNeil was a last second replacement when the original actress backed out at the last moment over fears of future legal issues with SAG. The cast was paid $50 per diem when they were on the call sheet. Beyond that, they had to fend for themselves with the bugs and the bats infesting the Koinonia campground barracks they were housed in for the duration of the shoot in Pikesville.

The shoot itself was plagued with difficulties. Rosman had basically run out of money during pre-production, and then faced a revolt from the crew and the film lab when paychecks started bouncing, meaning no more dailies and no more crew. Out of money and out of options, Rosman’s movie was about to die uncompleted, then and there, but after a quick trip home to California, he convinced a wealthy cousin to invest an additional $60,000, which allowed the director to at least finish principal photography at the location in Maryland. Back in Los Angeles, additional inserts were shot in Rosman’s parents’ backyard in an effort to punch up some of the murder set-pieces -- most notably when Vicki gets stabbed in the eye with the cane handle. Seems Rosman was unhappy with the local FX crew back in Maryland and had to cut several scenes short because the gags were lacking and looked too fake -- except for the scene of Jeannie’s head in the toilet, which required no prosthetics just Robin Meloy sticking her head through a fake toilet and a lot of stage blood.

Once he had a work-print cobbled together, Rosman started making the rounds with several studios again. Initially, there was some interest from MGM but they quickly backed out due to the sudden slasher backlash, opening the door for Film Ventures International (FVI), who gave Rosman an additional $100,000 to finish post-production on the film, hire Richard Band to compose the whirling Wurlitzer score to match the circus motif of Eric’s secret room, and complete the color correcting and audio mixing, including a complete dub of Lois Hunt, whose voice Rosman didn’t find menacing enough as Mrs. Slater.

Once the film was finally completed, FVI started with a limited regional release in New Mexico and Nevada in November of 1982, where it did well enough to garner a wider release, earning FVI over $10 million on their $100,000 investment. FVI was based out of Atlanta, Georgia, and was run by a fella named Edward Montoro, who made a killing in the early 1970s importing and distributing dubbed over Italian imports, scoring huge hits with the Bud Spencer and Terence Hill slapstick spaghetti westerns, They Call Me Trinity (1970) and Trinity is Still My Name (1971). They followed that up with the equally successful Beyond the Door (1974), which was an Italian rip-off of The Exorcist (1973) -- so much so, Warner Bros. filed suit to get the picture out of theaters but lost the case. These kind of rip-offs were FVI’s stock specialty, as they also backed William Girdler’s Grizzly (1976), a JAWS (1975) knock-off where a national park needed to be closed instead of the beaches.

In 1980, FVI’s luck kinda ran out when they imported Enzo Castellari’s, L'ultimo squalo (1980), which wasn’t so much another JAWS knock-off but JAWS and elements of JAWS 2 (1978) presented again with the serial numbers filed off hoping no one would notice. Well, Universal’s trademark lawyers sure noticed; and this time, the courts agreed and Great White (1981) was sued out of theaters after Montoro had spent a ton of money on advertising for a national rollout. FVI took a bath on Great White, and as the company teetered on the verge of collapse, they tried to shore things up with a few slashers: Pieces (1982), another gonzo import, Mortuary (1983), and The House on Sorority Row. Then, in 1984, Montoro embezzled a million dollars from the company’s dwindling reserve, skipped off to Mexico, and was never seen or heard from again, leaving a now bankrupt FVI behind, which officially closed its doors for good in 1985.

Luckily for slasher fans everywhere, The House on Sorority Row made it into theaters before FVI went tits-up. I fell in love with the movie the first time I rented it on VHS many a moon ago, feeling Rosman had crafted himself an excellent murder mystery, whose twists weren’t cheats and played fair with the audience. Then again, I’ve always favored the whodunits over the howtheydunits when it comes to slasher movies. And so, I think The House on Sorority Row sits right behind My Bloody Valentine (1981) as the second best slasher movie of ever made in my humble opinion -- thanks to a solid story shot and told effectively, and a game and likeable cast (-- there’s a reason all those gals wound up on those soaps and beyond, Boils and Ghouls), who you don’t want to see get killed. And it’s a film that rewards you with repeated viewings as you always pick up something new each and every time. The film was remade in 2009 as Sorority Row, and while it wasn't THAT terrible, accept no substitute and stick with the original. Trust me.

What is Hubrisween? This is Hubrisween. And now, Boils and Ghouls, be sure to follow this linkage to keep track of the whole conglomeration of reviews for Hubrisween right here. Or you can always follow the collective head of knuckle on Letterboxd. That's eight reviews down with 18 to go! Up Next: The Management of this Hotel is Not Responsible for Any Ectoplasmically-Induced Injuries. Please don't poke the ghosts.

The House on Sorority Row (1983) VAE Productions :: Artists Releasing Corporation :: Film Ventures International / EP: Thomas W. McMahon, John Ponchock / P: John G. Clark, Mark Rosman / CP: Ed Beyer / AP: Alec Rabinowitz / LP: Robert Maier / D: Mark Rosman / W: Mark Rosman / C: Tim Suhrstedt / E: Paul Trejo, Jean-Marc Vasseur / M: Richard Band / S: Kate McNeil, Eileen Davidson, Harley Jane Kozak, Janis Ward, Robin Meloy, Jodi Draigie, Ellen Dorsher, Lois Kelso Hunt, Christopher Lawrence, Michael Kuhn

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