OCTOBER 9 VHS MOVIE REVIEW : SISTERS OF DEATH (1977)
Director: Joseph Mazzuca
Starring: Arthur Franz, Claudia Jennings, Cheri Howell, Sherry Boucher, Paul Carr, Joe E. Tata
A sorority initiation ritual goes horribly awry, and seven years later… someone wants revenge.
Okay, STOP THE PRESSES. It had previously been unknown to me that you could get both this amazing movie AND the masterful Messiah of Evil on ONE disc for a mere $8! THAT is your entertainment value, right there. Of course, for $10 more you could get both movies plus 48 more on 50 Chilling Classics. But this and Messiah of Evil are definitely among the highlights, so to have them on one disc, WOAH.
I often turn to my 50 Chilling Classics boxed set—THE PREMIER entertainment value of our modern day—when it's late and I want to watch something but know I won't have time to finish it. Or I just want something really cheesy. Anyway, this INDISPENSIBLE horror movie set scores again with the goddamned awesome Sisters of Death! Bitchy babes! Horny houseguests! Perturbed patriarchs! Sudden dogs! How can you go wrong?
We begin with this sorority initiation ritual taking place on a rather sparse set. Two women kneel as three women with veils over their heads watch the ritual. Look at the frame above —from that moment on [a mere 1:20 in] I was hooked. So one of them [who turns out to be Sylvia] is conducting the ritual, put a bullet in an odd two-barrel gun, holds it to one of the pledges' heads, and pulls the trigger! Nothing happens, and the blond Judy is admitted to the sorority. Judy is played by Claudia Jennings, former Playboy Playmate of the Year who died at 29 when she fell asleep at the wheel of her VW convertible. So Sylvia loads the gun again, steps to the other girl and BLOWS HER FUCKING BRAINS OUT!
But come on, you knew that was coming.
We then have this rather nice credit sequence where the women's faces are frozen in expressions of horror and anguish beneath their veils [it's a bit like the moment in The Birds where Tippi has to just stand still with a shocked expression on her face]. You'll also notice that the red credits are arranged in lines that create interesting visual compositions with the image they appear with.
Seven years later, Judy gets a strange message in the mail. It says that she's pre-approved for a low 3.9% interest rate on balance transfers if she acts before August 31st. And she gets another message, referring to that fateful night, and inviting her to a mysterious get-together. She screams!—then makes plans to go.
We next meet some other SOD [sister of death] as she hitchhikes. She gets picked up by some lecherous Mexican with a big mustache [cutie Paul Fierro in his final role], and it's only a matter of time before his hand is creeping up her leg. I would of course be asking if he could reach better if I sat in his lap, but she says no, and he tries it again, at which point she pulls out a bible and starts reading it. He starts laughing uproariously and takes his hands off her—he's like, if you're that clever, you deserve not to be bothered. And I'm at home holding my head and saying "Wait a minute—was that scene actually, like, really good?"
Then another one, who turns out to be the charmingly idiotic Francie, who is clad in American flag patterns, by the way, gets pulled over for speeding. She tries her charms on the cop, and finally gets out of the ticket by saying she was speeding because she just really had to pee. Anyway, all the women arrive in one place, where these two thugs [suave white 70s thugs in tight pants], Joe and Mark, have been paid $500 to deliver the women to a certain spot and then leave. Joe is played by Joe E. Tata, who went on to play the bartender on Beverly Hills 90210. One of the SOD, Penny, protests about getting in this car with these two strange thugs to be delivered somewhere they know not, but the other SOD act like she's just hopelessly square and force her to go along.
They are delivered to this big mansion with a pool with a feast laid out next to it and a big sign saying "Welcome Sisters," and they're all so dumb and superficial they disregard the fact that they have just been driven to an unspecified location in the desert and LEFT, with no way to get back, all at the direction of a mysterious person they don't know, and they think it's all just RADICALLY AWESOME! Soon they discover that they all have separate bedrooms with a new bathing suit in each one. "It's fantastic!" squeals Francie, "It's wild fun!"
But what about those horny thugs? Can they just leave that whole house full o' poon untapped? Of course not. So Joe convinces Mark to go back—Joe is really quite obsessed with getting in there—and they climb over the non-electrified electric fence. They make passes at Sylvia, who is NOT receptive, to say the least, but the fun-lovin' other SOD think it's fine. Then it seems that they all one by one go to bed, because next thing we know the guys are drunk and left alone on the deck. Apparently it's supposed to be the dead of night, but it's a little hard to tell with all the brilliant sunshine. Are they in the Arctic Circle? Intercut with all this are the feet of a man who is walking downstairs for 30 minutes.
SPOILERS > > > So Judy wakes up the next morning screaming! And she finds a photograph of herself in her room! And the rest of the SOD have gotten them too, and Sylvia wants to know which one of them did it! She doth protest a tad too much, methinks. But everyone else is too polite to point this out. Then they turn around and there a mysterious guy there! He seem to know all of them, and soon they realize that he's Mr. Clybourne, the father of the girl who was shot! And I'm betting he's not there to tell them there's no hard feelings. The SOD insist it was an accident, but he says that one of them switched the blank with a live bullet, and thus one of them is a killer. But somehow I get the feeling that he's going to kill them all anyway.
Now follows my favorite moment, when Judy FREAKS THE FUCK OUT and runs outside. This wakes up the slumbering dudes, and they all run—and see that the electric fence is now turned on! Then one of them mentally snaps and there's a great slo-mo shot of her collapsing in anguish, and all of them generally realizing that they are FUCKED. Not such wild fun now, is it, Francie?
The thing is, this setup is actually quite good! The movie all along has been very off-kilter and creepy in ways that are hard to describe—it's a tonal thing—but this scene is where it all snaps together [before falling apart]. First the whole idea that we and the girls KNOW who the killer is. Then the fact that he's RIGHT THERE in the house with them, creeping around in crawlspaces and an apartment that they have no access to. And most potent of all, that these women KNOW they did something wrong, so the idea that they will suffer for it fills them with the anguish that somehow, all along, they've known that THEY DESERVE IT. And since they're trapped—as opposed to something like I Know What You Did Last Wednesday Between The Hours of 1:22 and 3:47 PM—they know that THEY'RE GOING TO GET IT.
So now they're stuck in this house with this killer, and he's not receptive to their pleas. Arthur Franz as Mr. Clybourne is fine, but I started thinking—based on his creepy performance in Obsession—how amazing Cliff Robertson would have been in this role. The whole suburban dad who's snapped—I like it. Anyway, it seems that all he has is a gun, which seems like not enough to fend off these seven people, but somehow it works for him.
Then someone, I think it's Penny, is out on her knees doing to mumbo-jumbo religious chant in the driveway! That's just not something you see every day. Then she goes over, sits on the curb, and sparks a doob! That's our Penny. Now, one might have thought that Penny would emerge as our final girl, as she's been the voice of caution and reason all along, but you'd be wrong, because she gets strangled! I guess she DID do drugs, so it's obvious that she deserves to die.
Meanwhile, Judy is NOT letting the fact that she is a captive in a house with a homicidal madman prevent her from falling in love with Joey. Talk about a meet-cute! Meanwhile we're seeing Dad upstairs making bullets… like… forever… and then he has a little reverie over his dead daughter and starts to play a flute piece. Then follows EXACTLY the kind of creepy, atmospheric scene that I SOOOO dig as his flute music carries throughout the house, and we have a nice long sequence of all the characters getting creeped out by it. And how does our marvelous Francie respond to the reality that she is trapped in a house with a psycho who is going to kill her and her friends one by one? She's going to take a shower! "Cleanliness is next to godliness, right?" she says, "So I figure, if I'm next to Him, Clybourne won't get next to me." That's using your noodle, Francie! Really, I guess there is absolutely nothing that can get this woman to take anything seriously. Then Judy sees a giant tarantula in her room, but when someone asks her what's wrong she says "Oh, just a spider." Now, dear reader, is a Tarantula ever really JUST A SPIDER? Or is it A GODDAMNED HUGE FUCKING KILLER SPIDER? Just asking. Sylvia is then menaced by the spider as it slowly creeps across her 24-foot-wide bed. It crawls up on her belly, at which point she freaks and runs out of the room, down the hallway, and into the living room with the tarantula still clinging to her belly! That thing would have sunk its fangs into her by now. Anyway, you may have noticed that things have tending gradually into the silly… I mean, not like they weren't all along, but the good, genuinely creepy elements are fading out, leaving only silliness. Ah well, what can we expect?
So the guys go outside—don't miss Mark's UNMISTAKABLE boner around 1:07:27—when there's a SUDDEN DOG that chases Joe into the fence where he is fried like the potato. I don't believe we caught so much as ONE glimpse of that dog before it suddenly ran around the corner. Then Mark and Judy and Sylvia are going to dig their way out under the fence when Judy takes two steps and is like 'Oh! I sprained my ankle!' Bitch, are you really that lazy? That is TOTALLY what I was like as a teenager when my Dad wanted me to mow the lawn. "Oh! I've been decapitated! Sorry, Dad!" Anyway, so they work for a while and then turn around and Sylvia is GONE! The ending is a series of twists, including a doozy right at the very end, that I wouldn’t dare spoil for you.
< < < SPOILERS END
Overall, a very fun watch. It’s got a shocking opening sequence, a lot of genuinely creepy atmosphere, a really scary scenario—even if it’s not fully carried through—and superficial hot women of the 70s, which is always a recipe for amusement. This movie was actually filmed in 1972, but not released until 1977, for some reason. This is really crying out for a remake, one that could sort everything out, have it make sense, and bring the story to cohesion. In the meantime, this version will more than suffice, if you’re able to simultaneously enjoy the cheesiness and look past that to the pretty effective story within.
Should you watch it?
Yes, if you can enjoy the cheese and also get into the story.
OCTOBER 9 VHS MOVIE REVIEW : SISTERS OF DEATH (1977)
Meet The Sisters they are kind of like a small sorority. Like most sororities The Sisters have a complex initiation ritual that a pledge must go through before they are accepted into the sisterhood. Something goes horribly wrong during an initiation and one of the young pledges ends up at the wrong end of a loaded pistol. For seven years the remaining members of The Sisters haven’t really talked about the accident, or really to each other. Their silence is about to be broken however as each of them receives an invitation in the mail for a reunion along with five hundred dollars cash to pay for expenses. Who sent out the invitations? Well that is revealed along the way.
Director: Joseph Mazzuca
Starring: Arthur Franz, Claudia Jennings, Cheri Howell, Sherry Boucher
“An invitation to six beautiful women…for a deadly sorority reunion!”
When one reads the summary on the back of the box for Sisters of Death one could easily get the thought into their heads that they are about to watch a standard paint by numbers body count movie, those who have such thoughts in their heads are only partially right however. Sisters of Death is more than just your typical “body count” film. The film was actually filmed in 1972, but it wasn’t released until 1977 and it stars some very beautiful women from the era including one former Playmate who died a tragic death not long after the movies release.
Sisters of Death starts in a very 1970’s and very creepy way. The Sisters are all standing in a group performing an initiation ritual. The girl’s faces are all hidden behind shrouds so their identities are unknown to the viewer. After the opening speech is given to the young pledge class one of the sisters begins to put a loaded pistol up to each pledges head. The viewer watches in horror as the trigger is pulled and only a harmless click is heard. A few minutes later once again the pistol is placed against yet another pledges head only this time there isn’t a harmless click. There is a loud gunshot and we are offered a glimpse of a young girl holding onto her blood stained face screaming, one had better not blink because it really isn’t on the screen for very long. I should point out at this moment that Sisters of Death is not a gore film. Most of the deaths involved in the movie aren’t shown on screen. When the dead bodies are found it is usually a beautiful girl lying in a pool of blood, most of the time it isn’t even a human doing the killing but I will get to that in a minute.
After the opening sequence the viewer is treated to the credit sequence, done in complete 1970’s fashion. There is just something about the movies from this era that always catches my attention and I especially love that this type of sequence is rising again in popularity due to young film makers.
When the sequence ends we are introduced to the first of The Sisters. Her name is Judy, played by former Playmate Claudia Jennings. Judy receives an invitation in the mail asking for her attendance at a reunion for The Sisters. After Judy reads the invitation she is mildly shocked to also find five one hundred dollar bills neatly packed into the envelope. Judy quickly gets to work attempting to find out who is behind the reunion. When Judy calls one of the other Sisters she is shocked to learn that her sister isn’t behind it, in fact the sister believes that it was Judy who actually sent out the invitation.
Over the next few sequences the viewer is introduced to the rest of The Sisters. There are five of them all together and all are from different walks of life. Judy is in love with a very powerful man and is now living the kind of life a woman who wants power would live. One of The Sisters is a straight up hippie chick that is seen doing all kinds of weird things throughout the movie. One of The Sisters decides to hitchhike to the rendezvous sight. When her ride starts to get a little too fresh the woman pulls out a Bible and starts reading it, for some reason this causes the pervert to stop trying to grope her and instead he starts laughing.
As the women arrive at their destination and start to greet each other the viewer gets to meet two guys who are sitting in a car. While the guys are sitting in the car they make comments about the women’s looks and about their job. The two guys are hired by someone who isn’t named to bring The Sisters to a secluded location and that is really all they are told. Their car however has all but the needed windows blocked off with sheets, oh yeah it’s also a station wagon. The women are all exchanging pleasantries with each other when the two men approach them and tell them that they are their escorts to the reunion. Some of the women are ready to jump immediately into the car, a few are kind of skeptical at first. Personally I would hope that most women who are reading this would be a lot smarter than to just randomly jump into a station wagon that just screams “rape mobile”.
The women however don’t even seem phased during the ride. The group of five mostly laughs and looks pretty for the camera while the two men who are driving try to steal glances at them and their revealing clothing. After about an hour of travel one of the girls speaks up, but they are soon at their destination. The mansion where the women arrive is seriously out in the middle of no where surrounded by a large fence. The host for the party spared no expense however for the girls. As the group arrives they find a very large welcome sign and a small feast complete with large amounts of alcohol. There is a swimming pool and conveniently the women also discover that their host has also left each of them a swimsuit so that they may enjoy the pool and the viewer may enjoy their bodies. While exploring the house one of the girls also finds a painting in one of the rooms, only the painting is covered by a large black sheet. Instead of removing the sheet to possibly get a clue as to who their host is the girls decide to start partying.
The two hired hands are only gone for a minute after dropping the girls off when they decide to head back. It’s a party after all and both of them being swinging 70’s bachelors why should’t they go enjoy themselves with the happy women. As the two men make their way up to the house they discover that the fence surrounding the house is actually an electric fence. They can tell that the fence is electric because it has a box with a red light bulb on it, one of the guys makes the statement that he really doesn’t trust light bulbs (yeah the dialogue in the film can get pretty unintentionally funny for most of the film). Electric fence or not nothing is going to stop the guys from joining the party and it’s only a matter of time before they are inside. At first the woman are uncomfortable with the two guys there but after a few drinks everyone lightens up and it becomes a party.
The host of the party is of course revealed to the viewer not long after the women arrive in the mansion. For most of the film the host appears to simply stalk around the mansion and use a lot of secret passages. He also spends a lot of the movie making his own bullets and in one scene he plays a really mean flute solo (seriously). It isn’t until the next day that the host makes himself known to the guests of his mansion. Of course he isn’t very happy that his hired hands have decided to attend the party, but they will only be around for a little while. The host for the reunion is actually the father to the pledge that was killed by the Sisters seven years ago and for the next few days while he has them trapped in his mansion he is going to stalk and kill each and every one of them.
Sisters of Death is a great example of the prototype of the slasher film. All of the elements that in the next few years would become part of the formula for a successful slasher film are there. There really isn’t any nudity or gore, as I said earlier in the review most of the violence in Sisters of Death happens off of the screen. In fact the host tends to use animals to do his dirty work. There are several scenes involving a tarantula until it is squashed with great authority, a rattle snake makes several appearances throughout the film and there’s even a really mean dog that does the dirty work. Combine the animals and the electric fence there really is only a couple deaths in which a murder weapon is actually used.
What sets Sisters of Death apart from most body count films however is that about half way through the movie the killer is revealed complete with his back story. He doesn’t just silently stalk his prey either, in fact he dramatically introduces himself by removing the black sheet from the painting showing a portrait of his murdered daughter.
Sisters of Death just seeps with tension and atmosphere though, well when the women and two guys aren’t doing something completely stupid. When I make this statement I mean it for instance two of the group decide to make an SOS sign for any planes that fly over head to see, it really is too bad that the letters of the sign are about the size of a mouse pad. Two others also attempt to dig a hole under the fence using a hatchet and a funnel, because you can get much more done that way. Whenever one of the group slips away from everyone else though it is only a matter of time before they are found murdered. As a viewer one would think that the group would simply stay together to avoid this but that wouldn’t give us much of a movie. There are also twists and turns everywhere about the reason for the reunion, apparently one of The Sisters went to the murdered girl’s father as a witness and the two are working together. I won’t even mention that the final scene of the film is so wonderfully 1970’s I wish every movie would end this way.
Sisters of Death is great fun for those who like beautiful women and mystery, a sense of humor however is needed to fully enjoy this piece of drive in past.