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05 July 2022

Arrow Video presides over THE INITIATION OF SARAH (blog review)

If you though hazing was tough, you  could lose your soul when you take part in THE INITIATION OF SARAH, on Blu-ray from Arrow Video.

Dowdy – well, Hollywood dowdy – orphan Sarah (Kay Lenz, MOVING VIOLATION) is ignored in favor of her prettier sister Patty (Morgan Brittany, TV's DALLAS), even by their mother (Kathryn Grant, ANATOMY OF A MURDER) who is excited about the likelihood of biological daughter getting into Waltham College's elite Alpha Sigma Nu. The two freshman coeds tour the sorority houses and Patty is handpicked by Alpha Sigma Nu president Jennifer (Morgan Fairchild, THE SEDUCTION), who also indirectly suggests Sarah should pledge rival house PED ("Pigs, Elephants, and Dogs").

Sarah does indeed find herself mysteriously drawn to the Pie Epsilon Delta – whose housemother Mrs. Hunter (Shelley Winters, WHOEVER SLEW AUNTIE ROO?) also teaches courses in magic practices of primitive peoples – who do not participate in pledging or initiations and tell Sarah to leave her name if she wants to join. ANS is one of a number of houses that ask Patty to pledge while PED is the only one that asks Sarah. Jennifer starts driving a wedge in between Sarah and Patty by forbidding the pledge's association with the rival sorority; but Mrs. Hunter not only offers insight into Sarah's past but also offers a means of controlling her powers that create CARRIE-esque telekinetic mayhem whenever she is angered.

Although teaching assistant Paul (Tony Bill, CASTLE KEEP) does not believe in Sarah's powers, he is suspicious of Mrs. Hunter whose rivalry with Alpha Sigma Nu dates back twenty years to the death of a pledge during an initiation ritual with a special twist. As Sarah tries to band her unpopular sisters together in solidary (including ZOMBIE's Tisa Farrow and CRAWLSPACE's Talia Balsam), she becomes more self-confident. When she publicly calls Jennifer out on her bullying behavior – combined with a psychic shove into the fountain – Sarah becomes the prime target of ANS' beef with PED.  Unfortunately for ANS, Mrs. Hunter is teaching Sarah how to focus her powers towards vengeful ends and her own coming initiation requires a special sacrifice.

Although THE INIATION OF SARAH could perhaps be likened to producer Charles Fries' variation on rival TV producer Aaron Spelling's SATAN'S SCHOOL FOR GIRLS, it – along with Fries' THE SPELL – is far more indebted to Brian De Palma's film adaptation of CARRIE from a cruel prank that unleashes Sarah's telekinetic fury to the successive jump cut tilted close-ups of Lenz that prefigure her attacks. Although it makes some interesting parallels between sororities and cults – including the climactic intercutting of the two sororities equally sinister ritual which both require a show of blind faith by the pledges – it seems as though large chunks of the narrative are missing, either never scripted by episodic TV scribes Don Ingalls and Carol Saraceno (from a story by FRIGHT NIGHT's Tom Holland) and mentioned in passing, or cut down for a workable running time for a two hour slot (at ninety-seven minutes, it's already about twenty minutes longer than most of Spelling's equivalent 1970s horror entries which were destined for ninety-minute slots).

The unknown identity of Sarah's mother seems of some importance to the story but is dropped and the story seems to leap forward by large bounds at a time with characters remarking more on the changes in Sarah's character than the viewer is shown.  We also never learn much about the basis of the rivalry between the sororities and the ritual-gone-wrong, making it seem like a case of mean girls with a long-standing grudge. None of the scares are actually chilling but the film maintains its dramatic tension and has an okay atmosphere.

The cast is a bit long-in-the-tooth for college students – the same year, Bill would play the burnt-out father of a teenage rape victim in the Fries-produced TV movie ARE YOU IN THE HOUSE ALONE? and Robert Hays (who plays Fairchild's boyfriend) was just two years away from playing the shell-shocked ex-pilot in the uproarious AIRPLANE! –  but Lenz does her best with a script full of holes, Fairchild is appropriately bitchy, and Brittany suitably conflicted (Winters is the only one that seems to be phoning it in). CARRIE's Michael Talbott appears briefly as another frat brother. Composer Johnny Harris (FRAGMENT OF FEAR) would follow this assignment up with Gus Trikonis' THE EVIL  The film was remade for ABC TV for Halloween 2006 with DAWSON'S CREEK's Mika Boorem and TERMINATOR: THE SARAH CONNOR CHRONICLES' Summer Glau as the sisters, and BRIDE OF CHUCKY's Jennifer Tilly replacing Winters.

THE INITIATION OF SARAH hit home video in the 1980s via WorldVision Home Video, but it was through MGM's acquisition of the Fries library that Scream Factory has brought it to DVD in a double feature with ARE YOU IN THE HOUSE ALONE? (itself subsequently upgraded to Blu-ray as part of Vinegar Syndrome's TELEVISED TERRROR COLLECTION VOL. 1). While the DVD featured an interlaced transfer from the broadcast video master, Arrow Video's Blu-ray is derived from a new 2K restoration of the film's original camera negative.  Colors are vibrant but lean towards the naturalistic in terms of grading.  The garden maze miniature looks even more unconvincing in HD but the make-up appliances to Fairchild during the climax hold up surprisingly well (perhaps better with the greater visible detail over the old video master where it looked rather slapdash).  There is some moments of coarseness and softness baked into the seventies opticals, but gone is the overall dreamy veil of the video masters which tended to make a lot of the film look as though it were shot with the sort of diffusion filmmakers utilized during the seventies and eighties on sunny exterior sequences.  The DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 track more than adequately renders the original mono mix which was not particularly ambitious even in its supernatural sequences, best serving the fidelity of the score.  Optional English SDH subtitles are also included.

Extras start off with an audio commentary by TV Movie expert Amanda Reyes – editor of ARE YOU IN THE HOUSE ALONE? A TV MOVIE COMPENDIUM: 1964-1999 – who has provided commentary and visual essays on Blu-ray releases of the TV genre films DON'T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK, THE VICTIM, NIGHT TERROR, as well as ARE YOU IN THE HOUSE ALONE?, CALENDAR GIRL MURDERS, and CHILD IN THE NIGHT, the three films that comprise Vinegar Syndrome's aforementioned TELEVISED TERROR: VOLUME 1.  She discusses the target demographic of TV movies as women in the home 18-49 reflected in anxieties and concerns over family, second wave feminism, and salacious topical subjects, as well as the greater scrutiny of films in the TV season that THE INITIATION OF SARAH played following reactions to the sexual and violent content of the Linda Blair-in-juvenile detention TV movie BORN INNOCENT along with criticisms of "jiggle TV" like THREE'S COMPANY.  Reyes also highlights the showbiz family connections of several of the cast members including Balsam, Farrow, Nora Heflin – niece of Van Heflin – Grant, then-widow of Bing Crosby for whom the film was billed as her comeback (although she would not make another film appearance until 2010's QUEEN OF THE LOT).

"Welcome to Hell Week: A Pledge's Guide to The Initiation of Sarah" (16:33) is an appreciation by film critic Stacie Ponder and Queer Horror programmer Anthony Hudson, co-hosts of the "Gaylords of Darkness" podcast, who make a campy case for why queer audiences would relate to and read in to films in which an apparently heterosexual protagonist is "othered" as well as elements of sublimated lesbian sexuality that seem more obvious in the "smitten" friendship between Sarah and Mouse.

"Cracks in the Sisterhood: Second Wave Feminism and THE INITIATION OF SARAH" (14:48) is a visual essay by film critic and historian Alexandra Heller-Nicholas in which she looks at the tensions of different factions of the feminist movement brimming under a "popcorn revenge movie", and the multiple meanings of sisterhood in the film including who is an ally and who is working in their own interests drawing comparisons between Hunter and Jennifer as both exploiting the notion of unity among women in contrast to Sarah's plea to her sisters that they "be nicer to each other" and to themselves.

"The Intimations of Sarah" (16:19) is an interview with film critic Samantha McLaren who suggests that the film is not a knockoff of CARRIE but a project reshaped following the success of that film and, thus, informed by it.  She moves beyond the surface comparisons to the film's themes and symbolism including the maze and its associations of death and rebirth, queer themes, and the witch as a transgressive but not always evil figure.

In "The Initiation of Tom" (8:58), screenwriter Tom Holland recalls getting into stage acting, landing a contract with Warner Bros., wanting to direct and finding screenwriting a more fulfilling compromise than acting, and his original story for THE INITIATION OF SARAH that had Sarah turning her enemies into barnyard animals.  He then recalls being in demand for genre work but having the success of his first feature screenplay THE BEAST WITHIN – following an aborted first attempt at adapting FLOWERS IN THE ATTIC without the incest – overshadowed by the collapse of United Artists.  Since the interview only focuses on his work as a screenwriter, it concludes with a brief discussion of his screenplay for PSYCHO II.  The disc closes with an image gallery.

Not provided for review were the reversible cover featuring newly commissioned artwork by Luke Insect or the fully-illustrated collector's booklet featuring new writing by Lindsay Hallam and Alexandra West (included with the first pressing only).

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