Thursday, August 28, 2014

Census Bloodbath: Back To Skull - Day 4

For the crossover review of this film over at Kinemalogue, click here.

Year: 1984
Director: Larry Stewart
Cast: Daphne Zuniga, Vera Miles, Clu Gulager
Run Time: 1 hour 37 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

As we venture out further and further into the murky depths of university slashers for our Back to School spectacular, things - as they are won't to do - begin to get a little hackneyed. Although I remember enjoying the 1984 sorority slashfest The Initation the first time I watched it, after about 50 of these reviews, the sheen wears off just a little.

The Initiation is a perfectly serviceable slasher with an all-star cast, but five years into the slasher boom, the flop sweat was beginning to stain the screen and it couldn't recapture the magic of similar films like the markedly superior The House on Sorority Row

It's at the very least better than Hell Night.

"Delta Rho Chi, Never Will Die."

This is the soon-to-be ironic motto of the local sorority, of which only 4 out of 15 pledges remain. Alison (Hunter Tylo) is your typical sorority girl - boy crazy, gorgeous, and ready to toss out full frontal at the drop of a hat. She is not the focus of our story. Megan (Frances Peterson) is the vile pledge trainer, drunk on sex and power. This is not her story. Marcia (Marilyn Kagan) is affable and demure, haunted by the taunting of the Greeks who mistake her innocence and purity for virginity. She's oh so close, but no, this is not her story. Kelly (Daphne Zuniga) is a warm-hearted pledge, the daughter of wealthy couple Dwight (Clu Gulager) and Frances Fairchild (Psycho's Vera Miles). She has lately been having dreams about a mysterious incident in her past, in which she watches her mother and father having sex in a mirror and stabs her father before another man bursts in, who then gets burned alive in a  fireplace. Whether this is a dream or a repressed memory she can never be sure, having suffered from amnesia and completely losing everything before age 9.


Was anybody keeping track of how many times I mentioned sex in the character descriptions? The Initiation occupies an awkward space between "at least the sexual characteristics are more varied than 'horny slut likes to bang bang'" and "this is uncomfortably dark and morally dubious." Honestly I would have preferred good old erotic exploitation to the nightmarish house of horrors that makes up about 50% of our characters' sexual development.

The "parents having sex" thing was a given, but "molested by a violin teacher" is patently not. Far better films than The Initiation would come unpinned tackling that particular topic, but this film - being what it is - careens wildly like a roller coaster car in a Final Destination movie. The Initiation handles its delicate topic in an outrageously clumsy way, suggesting that all the girl in question needs to soothe her troubled psyche is some vigorous porking.

Of which there is much to be had at Delta Rho Chi.

Sexual politics aside, The Initiation is a decent bit of fun in the immediately post-Nightmare era, one of the last gasps of non-supernatural slashers. Although the clumsy mishandling of its erotic elements plunge the film like a stone in the river of my esteem, The Initiation provides something a little different, just enough to pique my interest. 

Written by soap opera veteran Charles Pratt Jr. (whose CV includes 300 episodes of All My Children, 387 General Hospitals, and 304 Santa Barbaras), it's no accident that the plot pulls out all the soapy stops, replete with sexy dream therapists, hidden family secrets, amnesia, and SPOILERS [Evil Twins.]. The man deserves an Oscar for the "Repressed Desires" theme party alone.

But try as it might with all its lather and antics, The Initiation suffers from a lethargic first half, where it insists on being a bad college psychological drama rather than a bad soap opera slasher, which is a much less punishing thing to be. Luckily the second half delivers. When the pledges find themselves trapped in Kelly's father's mall during a prank gone wrong, the kids play in the stores, screw around with boys, and are offed one by one by a mysterious killer in creative, rewardingly drippy sequences.

For a slasher fan, it doesn't get much better than this. Perhaps it's best if you don't think about it.

The acting isn't great. Zuniga, though later she became a fairly medium-sized celebrity, is not in her best form, and James Read as her dream therapist/quasi-boyfriend lets his eyebrows completely subsume his persona. It's like watching two caterpillars battle for domination over an impassive, fleshy battlefield.

The kills aren't great. An impalement with an arrow fails to line up both sides of the appliance properly - either that or Megan has a small wormhole located just above her gallbladder - and some of the makeup shows its seams.

But there's a party full of glitter, 80's teens (by far the most likeable horror ensembles) get to play around in various mall stores doing their 80's teen thing (which, although I can't understand it for the life of me, includes doffing your top for twenty seconds, then going roller skating), and there's more blood than a lot of its peers and that adds up to a lot, ramping up the absurdity factor.

All in all, The Initiation is not the worst piece of crap I've ever seen. But I've already seen two better films this week, so I'm not going to toot its horn more than it deserves. It's a fairly entertaining movie, but as sorority flicks go, there have been way better offerings both before and after this one. If you find yourself loving The House on Sorority Row or other low budget titillators like The Slumber Party Massacre, maybe this film is worth your time, but otherwise I'd steer clear of it.

Killer: [Terry Fairchild (Daphne Zuniga)]
Final Girl: Kelly Fairchild (Daphne Zuniga)
Best Kill: I'm partial to harpoons and mid-coitus mayhem, so Ralph's death by harpoon gun while he's on top of Marcia is by far a standout.
Sign of the Times: Ladies and gentlemen, I'd like you to meet Heidi. Raise your hand if you're shocked she never made a movie outside of the 1980's.

Scariest Moment: The opening nightmare sequence is hellish, rapidly edited, and massively disorienting.
Weirdest Moment: Ralph shows up to a party dressed as a penis.
Champion Dialogue: "It's like looking for the meaning of life in a donut hole."
Body Count: 10
  1. Nurse Higgins is stabbed to death with a trowel.
  2. Dwight Fairchild is stabbed in the neck with a trowel. 
  3. Todd is stabbed in the chest with a trowel.
  4. Andy is hit in the head with an axe.
  5. Megan is shot in the chest with an arrow.
  6. Chad has his throat slit offscreen.
  7. Allison is stabbed to death.
  8. Ralph is harpooned in the back.
  9. Marcia is killed offscreen.
  10. [Terry is shot through the chest.]
TL;DR: The Initiation is an uneven, but pleasantly bloody and soapy affair.
Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 1170

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