THE INITIATION is yet another sorority-themed slasher movie (see also HOUSE ON SORORITY ROW, SORORITY ROW, SORORITY HOUSE MASSACRE I and II, KILLER PARTY, BLACK CHRISTMAS, BLACK XMAS), but it’s toward the high end of that list as far as quality. “Introducing Daphne Zuniga” as Kelly (although she had already been in THE DORM THAT DRIPPED BLOOD), one of a group of new pledges beginning their Hell Week at a college in Dallas or Fort Worth while somebody possibly connected to her is going around stabbing people, mostly with a 3-pronged gardening tool.
It’s got a little bit of HALLOWEEN and a little bit of A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET. The HALLOWEEN is in the section that takes place in an insane asylum where the inmates all get loose at night and mob a nurse’s car. She gets stabbed, but we don’t see who did it, and none of these witnesses are gonna be able to explain it. They just giggle uncontrollably, suck their thumbs or flick their tongues like lizards.
In order to make it not too much like HALLOWEEN’s asylum escape sequence they actually model it more after ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST, both in the setup of the facility and the use of a Nurse Ratched type as the victim and possible inspiration for the murder spree.
The NIGHTMARE part comes in when Kelly wants to do her paper on dreams and nightmares. She hooks up with the Nathan Fillion-esque teacher’s assistant Peter (James Read), who’s doing his doctoral thesis on dream studies and, like in ELM STREET 1 and 3 does sleep experiments with EKGs or whatever hooked up and studying REMs and whatnot.
Kelly explains to him that she has a personal reason to want to study dreams. She’s had a reoccurring nightmare since she was a kid involving her parents, a strange man, mirrors, stabbing and fire. The movie actually starts with her nightmare. The soft focus tells us it’s a dream, the disorienting editing really sells it, but it’s easy to guess that it’s something she actually witnessed in her childhood (especially later when she explains that she once fell out of a treehouse and lost all memory of her earlier life). Imagine having this as one of your vague childhood memories:
So as a man burns alive and her mother carries her out of the room she jolts awake, only to see ten women in nighties holding candles and occultishly chanting above her. These sorority traditions are a freaky way of life. It makes for a real strong opening.
Kelly’s parents are played by Vera Miles (PSYCHO) and Clu Gulager (RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD), they’re rich and own a department store called The Fairchild Building. Or at least they refer to it as a department store when they tell Kelly that to get into the sorority she has to get the keys to the building and they have to sneak in at night and steal the night watchman’s uniform. When we actually see it though it’s a huge, upscale mall with an open center and about 10 stories wrapping around it.
It seems like kind of a cool job to be the one guy alone in there at night. But also kinda creepy. Of course, this ends up being the location for the last act as the pledges sneak around trying to get the uniform, a sister and some boys try to scare them, and the unseen killer starts shooting arrows at them and stuff.
The gore is somewhat mild. One missed opportunity: a bowling ball suddenly comes rolling at them in a mall hallway, but it turns out to be the boys trying to scare them. It would be great if the killer pelted them with bowling balls. There’s not alot of stuff you haven’t seen, and there’s your usual “Come on guys, you can come out now, it’s not funny” type of cliches. But it’s not one of these amateurish regional movies. It’s well made, pretty well acted, has a good feel to it.
One unfortunate problem I had has to do with a major plot twist. I’ll try not to give it away, but it has to do with the nightmare scene. Kelly has interpreted it a certain way her whole life, and later finds out something different. The trouble is that watching it right up front you assume (or at least I assumed) the correct thing about what was going on, so it’s not a surprise when she finally catches up later.
Director Larry Stewart was not a newcomer trying to use a popular and low budget form to break in like many of the horror directors. This is his only theatrical movie, but it came after a long career in TV. As an actor he co-starred in the famous serial Captain Video, Master of the Stratosphere and later showed up on The A-Team and even as an employee of the Blue Moon Detective Agency on Moonlighting. He parlayed his acting career into being a casting director for the original Twilight Zone and then directing episodes of TV shows from Thrill Seekers to Hunter. It might be relevant that he directed some shows starring women: The Bionic Woman, Police Woman, Charlie’s Angels. It’s also the only theatrical credit for writer Charles Pratt Jr. Ironically there’s a line making fun of soap operas, but he went on to write for The Colbys, Santa Barbara, General Hospital and All My Children.
Most importantly the leads are all pretty good, likable, not too stupid, and that goes a long way. I especially like Beth (Paula Knowles), the cool friend who decides she’s had enough sorority bullshit and quits instead of going and getting killed. I was surprised to see that THE INITIATION is her only credit. Good job on your one movie, lady.
Another character I like is Peter’s nerdy research assistant, kind of a comic relief character, but smarter than everybody else. She figures out the whole mystery while researching it off screen, and explains it all to Peter. Then he leaves her behind when he goes to try to save the day. No respect, I tell ya.
In the interest of intellectual honesty I have to admit that this one gives some possible ammo to the “virgins can’t get killed” idea that I questioned in SCREAM and BEHIND THE MASK. The character Marcia (Marilyn Kagan) keeps talking about being a virgin, and immediately after having her first consensual sex gets attacked. (SPOILER) She almost gets away, too, but eventually gets it.
But anyway, check out the cool Tom Selleck poster.
(note: this is arguably Christmas horror too, since there is a Christmas display in the mall. Other than that though there’s no mention of it, so there’s not alot of holiday atmosphere if you want to watch it at that time of year.)
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.