NOVEMBER 23 VHS MOVIE REVIEW : THE INITIATION OF SARAH (1978)
THE INITIATION OF SARAH (1978) may be wearing CARRIE’s hand me downs but I don’t think that’s such a damnable thing. There are worse fates than knowing exactly what to expect from a movie and can there ever be too many stories about psychic nerd revenge? Being born for television broadcast prevents SARAH from going hog wild or stomping on too many toes. You’ll find no skewering of religious fanaticism here; pigs blood is replaced by mud (and rotten tomatoes) and a sweaty work out will have to do as a stand in for sex. BRIAN DePALMA’s classic needn’t fret being usurped by this imitator anytime soon but let’s be real here, there’s only one movie in the world that features the unsinkable SHELLEY WINTERS and employs two of the world’s most notable MORGANs (We’re talking FAIRCHILD and BRITTANY.) Yes, this also-ran may as well be titled THE IMITATION OF CARRIE but it endures thanks to its fetching cast.
KAY LENZ (who will later star with CARRIE alum WILLIAM KATT in 1986’s HOUSE) is our wallflower Sarah. She’s a real uggo I guess on account of she wears oversize sweaters. We understand that Sarah is special from the first scene when she stops her more socially acceptable stepsister Patty (BRITTANY) from being raped ten feet in front of her on a beach. Rather than merely yelling “Hey, stop raping my sister in front of me!” Sarah uses her crazy power to knock the guy on his ass. INITIATION may fall infinity short of the emotional depths to be found in BRIAN DePALMA’s take on STEPHEN KING’s novel but the relationship between these two sisters, one with the opportunity for larger acceptance and one without, is actually pretty interesting in a BASKET CASE kind of way. In fact, Sarah’s interactions with others may be what ultimately rescues this movie from the superfluous retread zone.
Once in college, Patty is accepted by a highfalutin, snobby sorority lead by tweezer-faced glamorpuss Jennifer (the FAIRCHILD) and Sarah is relegated to a dumpy sorority of theoretically drab outcasts. We’re lead to believe that Patty is the fortunate one in this scenario, but I beg to differ. I admit that the idea of FAIRCHILD forcing me to don hobo drag and beg for change has always been a fantasy of mine but I still think Sarah receives the better deal. She gets to live in a gothic mansion helmed by creepy Mrs. Hunter (brilliantly insane WINTERS) and her roommates include Alberta “Mouse” (Italian horror staple TISA FARROW of ZOMBIE & the underrated says me, THE GRIM REAPER), butch, Izod clad Allison (slick chick TALIA BALSAM of the underrated says me THE KINDRED), and groovy Barbara ( Yay! Plunger gal NORA HEFLIN of the BLAIR-tastic BORN INNOCENT!) For all of Sarah’s supposed awkwardness, she’s also often seen canoodling heavily with dreamy assistant teacher Paul Yates (future MY BODYGUARD director TONY BILL.) Add to all that gravy the fact that Sarah has coveted psychic powers and I’m hardly convinced that hers is the sticky end of the lollipop. All Patty gets is the opportunity to watch Jennifer manipulate DONNA PESCOW’s future squeeze ROBERT HAYS. (Yes, that’s an ANGIE reference. Holla, Philly!)
Anyways, Patty and Sarah’s sororities have a long history of hating on each other and it puts a giant wedge in their once simpatico relationship. Eventually Sarah starts developing a backbone and throwing grand pianos at her sister and dunking bitch Jennifer in a fountain. Her new found moxie is an inspiration to her sorority sisters and to her house mother who wisely decides to harness Sarah’s hate to put an end to the rivalry but unwisely decides to use beloved Mouse as a human sacrifice in a garden maze ritual. Ultimately many things catch on fire and FAIRCHILD’s face gets crusty.
If you are looking for simple entertainment, INITIATION is a fluffy success. It’s a veritable late night classic and the scene involving FAIRCHILD’s fountain comeuppance is highly memorable and plenty o’ fun. Still, it’s unquestionably undercooked and rough around the edges. I’m convinced that SHELLEY’s character is, in fact Sarah’s real mom, but for some reason that revelation is never exploited or properly addressed. I’m also of the thinking that SHELLEY’s witchcraft is the cause of an injury that befalls “Mouse” but we’re never allotted any acknowledgment or evidence in that area either and that would have helped too. Unable to fall back on gore or sex, the television movie’s major strength comes in the form of characterization and story and these needlessly dropped threads leave a major dent.
This is a fun movie but there’s no reason why it couldn’t be more effective too. Unlike CARRIE’s ultimate end, SARAH’s feels strangely unfinished and substantially less satisfying. INITIATION may know whom to follow but it doesn’t seem to understand why or where. As I said though, you do get WINTERS and two, count em’, two legendary MORGANs and that ain’t hay. Too bad SARAH is so oblivious to just how good she’s got it.
NOVEMBER 23 VHS MOVIE REVIEW : THE INITIATION OF SARAH (1978)
Since old school TV movies like Duel, Don't Go To Sleep, etc are just as good if not better than comparable theatrical features, I figured The Initiation Of Sarah, made for TV in 1978, would be a perfectly decent Carrie ripoff. After all, it boasted a story by credit for Tom Holland, and was remade recently, so it must have SOME merit, right?
Yes, it does. SOME. Unfortunately, "some" is not "a lot", and thus the movie is mostly pretty forgettable, with a snail's pace and a lack of the "balls" that those other TV horror films had. Whereas Don't Go To Sleep has a little girl killing her whole family, this supernatural sorority girl can't even bring herself to kill the horrible girl who humiliated her. At least, I don't THINK she kills her - she just makes it really windy at the sorority (?) and the girl gets old crone face, but it doesn't seem like she dies (the epilogue makes no mention of it). Instead (spoiler!) she uses her power to kill the evil witch who runs the rival sorority, killing herself in the process. So our body count is 2 - our hero and a villain (Shelley Winters, by the way). Apart from the wind, the only other thing Sarah does with her powers is make the water too hot in the shower while the 'bad' sorority girls are in there, but she lets them go before any real harm comes to them. So it's the equivalent of Carrie going the prom and just turning the punch sour and maybe letting Chris get minor burns. In other words, WEAK revenge, lady.
Until this non-epic non-showdown, it's just a lot of yammering, as Sarah's sister Patty gets initiated into the "bad" sorority (i.e. the popular one) while Sarah gets inducted to their rival's house, populated by less attractive girls and a total lack of sisterhood (when Sarah and Patty visit the house to check it out, no one even bothers to welcome them, nor do they have any sort of pledge period). And this of course puts a strain on their relationship, as Patty is not allowed to talk to her in public (a pledge rule) and it makes Sarah feel less wanted. It's sad, sure, but it lacks any real punch. Maybe if Patty had gone to the "dark side" and turned on her, it would be more tragic, but from the start Patty defies her new friends and defends Sarah when they pick on her. So there's no real weight to the "conflict".
(It SEEMS like there is, however - one of the sorority sisters looks exactly like Patty, rendering some scenes confusing for me.)
Since it's a 1970s movie, it's fun to see some future stars looking young. Morgan Fairchild plays the bitchy sorority sister who hates Sarah the most, and Airplane!'s Robert Hays plays the William Katrole, duping Sarah into thinking he likes her, leading to the prank that sets her off (though true to this movie's nature, he instantly feels guilty and takes the high road, snubbing Fairchild). Of course, when I say "young" I mean compared to now; none of these people would pass for fresh college graduates let alone freshmen - the average age of the cast seems to be about 26.
My favorite character is probably Paul Yates, the teacher who falls for Sarah despite the fact that, you know, that's totally WRONG. But no one seems to have any problem with it, and he has the best introduction of all time: after Sarah saves Patty from an accident that she caused (one of the few "action" moments in the first 80 minutes of the movie), he walks up and says, all in one breath, "Hey, that was good going, she could have been killed! My name is Paul Yates." His delivery is hilarious too - he says "she could have been killed" almost as if he was impressed, like someone saying "she's really good!" in response to a dance routine or something. Also he looked like my ex-godfather John, who went crazy in the 90s, embezzled a bunch of money from his car dealership, and disappeared. Wonder what happened to that guy.
ABC Family or one of those remade this movie (with Fairchild returning) not too long ago, though that sort of pedigree leads me to believe that if anything, its even tamer (though the trailer - which I put below since I couldn't find one for the original - at least promises a demon of some sort). It's weird that an unabashed ripoff of a successful movie wouldn't even try to one up it (Carrie's a great film, but no one can accuse it of being fast paced), but maybe someday someone can do the "Supernatural Sorority Loser" movie right.
NOVEMBER 23 VHS MOVIE REVIEW : THE INITIATION OF SARAH (1978)
Director – Robert Day, Teleplay – Kenette Gfeller, Don Ingalls & Carol Saraceno, Story – Tom Holland & Carol Saraceno, Producer – Jay Benson, Photography – Ric Waite, Music – Johnny Harris, Special Effects – Cliff Wenger, Art Direction – Herman Zimmerman. Production Company – Charles Fries Productions, Inc./Stonehouse Productions.
Kay Lenz (Sarah Goodwin), Morgan Brittany (Patty Goodwin), Morgan Fairchild (Jennifer Lawrence), Shelley Winters (Mrs Erica Hunter), Tony Bill (Paul Yates), Tisa Farrow (Alberta ‘Mouse’), Robert Hays (Scott Rafferty), Kathryn Grant (Mrs Goodwin), Deborah Ryan (Bobbie Adams), Talia Balsam (Allison), Nora Heflin (Barbara), Elizabeth Stack (Laura O’Neill)
Plot: Patty Goodwin and her adopted sister Sarah sign into Waltham College as students. Both seek to be accepted into a sorority and apply to the exclusive Alpha Nu Sigma house. Patty is readily accepted because her mother was a member of the alumni, while the shy Sarah is rejected. However, Sarah is accepted by the Phi Epsilon Delta house who are regarded as losers by Alpha Nu Sigma. Alpha Nu house head Jennifer Lawrence then insists that Patty ignore and treat Sarah cruelly to demonstrate her loyalty. However, Sarah has occult powers, including the ability to move things with her mind. Mrs Hunter, the Phi Epsilon Delta housemother, encourages Sarah to find her powers and use them to take revenge against Alpha Nu Sigma for her humiliations.
The Initiation of Sarah was a modestly popular tv movie of its day. It is, to put it plainly, a blatant imitation of Carrie (1976). The two films have near-identical plots – in both, there is a mousy underdog of a heroine who undergoes numerous humiliations; in both, her principal tormentor is a beautiful blonde super-bitch; in both, she makes a transformation from mousy to beautiful after a guy appears to ask her out, although this turns out to be a cruel prank played on her by her bullies who then pelt her with something horrible (pig’s blood in Carrie, what look like tomatoes and mud here) whereupon she gains her comeuppance against her tormentors with the use of psychic powers.
Certainly, the basics of Carrie manage to work well when transported into the elite world of the sorority house. More than anything, The Initiation of Sarah is a film about an underdog sorority standing up against the fascism of good looks and cliqueish bitchery. There at times that there seems something heartfelt and personal about the story on the part of the writers (two of whom notedly are women).
The film is slow moving – for all its being a copy of Carrie, there is very little in the way of psychic manifestations. There are odd plot ends that are left unanswered – throughout a mystery is made of Sarah not knowing who her parents were and it hinted that they have something to do with Phi Epsilon Delta’s sinister past, but this is a story strand that is forgotten and left unresolved.
Where The Initiation of Sarah goes awry is when it tries to blend the basics of Carrie with a plot about sinister occult ceremonies going on in the sorority – perhaps an element that was inspired by the tv movie Satan’s School for Girls (1973), which also aired on ABC. The film draws an intriguing analogy between occult rites and the sorority initiation ceremony in a series of crosscuts. However, the film is let down in these scenes by the rather ridiculous sight of plump, brassy voiced Shelley Winters ritually chanting while outfitted in red robes. The producers have clearly tried to cast Winters in the mould of Piper Laurie’s mother figure in Carrie and there is an identical climax in both films where Carrie/Sarah causes the Piper Laurie/Shelley Winters figure to be consumed in a fire. This also serves to twist the climax of The Initiation of Sarah askew – as with Carrie, this should have consisted of Kay Lenz using her powers to take revenge against Morgan Fairchild and the Phi Epsilon Delta sorority, but instead the climax involves Lenz suddenly standing up against Shelley Winters (who has otherwise been portrayed throughout as sympathetic) and to realize that her powers are evil. It is something that in its last minute, left field arrival throws the film’s sympathies and dramatic thrust off balance – the film throughout has tried to engage us in an underdog psychic comeuppance fantasy, yet when it comes to the expected payoff it suddenly gets cold feet and decries the powers as evil.
Kay Lenz is a worthy casting choice in the title role – an actress who both has a demure beauty, yet at the same manages to convincingly project being mousy and introverted. The big name on the credits is Morgan Fairchild, a few years before Fairchild found fame on tv’s primetime soap Falcon Crest (1981-90). Fairchild’s frosty platinum blonde blankness is perfectly suited to the role of uber-bitch. There is the prize schlock moment where, after humiliating Kay Lenz, Fairchild is psychically shoved into a fountain.
The film was remade as The Initiation of Sarah (2006) with Mika Boorem as Sarah, Summer Glau as the sister, Jennifer Tilly in the Shelley Winters role and even a reappearance of Morgan Fairchild, this time playing Sarah’s mother.
The film routinely directed by Robert Day, a veteran director from the British film industry who also made the likes of Corridors of Blood (1958), The Haunted Strangler (1958), First Man into Space (1959), Hammer’s She (1965) and various Tarzan films. Screenwriter Tom Holland later went onto direct various genre films such as Fright Night (1985), Child’s Play (1988) and Thinner (1996).
NOVEMBER 23 VHS MOVIE REVIEW : THE INITIATION OF SARAH (1978)
The 1970s was a golden age for televised horror. Perhaps it was because that decade is considered by many to have been the last great golden age for cinema and that quality bled over even into the made-for-TV movie biz, but there were quite a few supernatural-oriented TV movies produced that were shockingly good, and despite showing the sometimes campy earmarks of the era in which they were made, many still hold up quite well today. They just don't make them like they used to. Just watch the Sci-Fi Channel any given Saturday night and you'll know what I mean.
For even further proof one need look no further than the ABC Family Channel's remake of the 1978 cult classic TV movie The Initiation of Sarah. I freely admit that it has been so long since I saw the original version (a film that like many of its era appeared in frequent rotation in syndication during much of the Eighties, where myself and most others saw them for the first time) that I don't vividly remember all the details of the plot but I do vividly recall it leaving a good impression on me as a fairly effective supernatural chiller that relied more on mood and atmosphere than cheap shocks and special effects that drive much of what we see today. Far from perfect, most surely dated given the decade it was made, but a solid effort none the less.
This remake has clearly been dumbed down dramatically to appeal to tweener audiences, preferably the same teen girls that wear "Princess" T-shirts and can recite for you every cast member of a show like "Laguna Beach". Gone is the ominous mood and atmosphere of dread in favor of some slick (and not-so-slick) special effects and a tone that's too jokey and lightweight to elicit any real scares. I'm not even sure this movie even knows what being spooky is. Even R.L. Stine put more effort into giving the audience goosebumps than this.
Sarah Goodwin (Sleepover's Mika Boreem) and her fraternal twin sister Lindsey (Serenity's Summer Glau) are off to Temple Hill College and all but guaranteed acceptance into Alpha Gamma Nu, the most popular sorority on campus which their wealthy mother (Morgan Fairchild, who co-starred in the original version) was once a member. Terminally cheerful Lindsey is only unhappy when she worries that her supposedly troubled due to being psychic powered ala Carrie sister will spoil things for her as she has apparently done for much of their lives. While Lindsey goes full speed ahead into trying to get into the good graces of Alpha Gamma Nu, the sorority's queen bee, the witchy in more ways than one Chorinne (Joanna Garcia, giving the best performance in the film), only seems to have eyes for Sarah. This is because Sarah is "The One" and the blood of "The One" must be drained and fed to the eternal flame. You see Alpha Gamma Nu is a demonic sorority with a sacrificial altar in their basement that's surrounded by this ring of fire from which stems the Alpha Nu's eternal youth and other assorted supernatural powers. The fire is beginning to fade and now they're desperate to initiate Sarah ASAP for the ultimate sacrifice that they've been waiting 18 years for. Sarah cannot be sacrificed until she has willingly given herself over in the form of getting initiated into Alpha Nu.
Sarah is alerted to the danger awaiting her and her sister as well as the reality behind her powers by Dr. Hunter (Jennifer Tilly, channeling Morticia Addams by way of Betty Boop), the college's European Mysticism instructor and head mistress of Pi Epsilon Delta, a sorority of good Magi that are the sworn enemies of evil Alpha Gamma Nu. Toss in a hunky guy named Finn for Sarah to fall for, a new Sara Rue look-a-like best friend who never really contributes much to the plot, Chorinne's right-hand henchwoman, and a lot of manipulation, backstabbing, potions, spells, and chanting and you end up with a remake of The Initiation of Sarah that sacrifices damn near everything that made the original worthwhile in favor of a flimsy hybrid of Mean Girls and "Charmed".
I can think of no better example of what's wrong with this remake than when Sarah learns a shocking secret about her mother that should have completely shattered her world. I mean we're talking about the sort of revelation that would make one question their entire life. Yet learning this barely registers anything more than some minor pouting on Sarah's part and she's back to making out with her boyfriend two scenes later. There isn't even a scene where this bombshell gets dropped on Lindsey. This happens again with another big revelation dealing with the scars on Sarah's wrists that she's been covering up with some bracelets. It's referenced that she's attempted suicide several times before and may even be into cutting herself. The truth behind those cuts is revealed in a scene that doesn't even involve Sarah and, best I could muster, she never even learns this truth herself nor is the subject ever brought up again.
It becomes aggravating how nothing ever sticks in this film and anything that might add some weight to the story gets brushed away like it was nothing. If you're going to include stuff like this then you'd better damn well deal with it in at least a semi-believable manner. It's as if it was initially written to be a darker, more serious film like the original but then the producers ordered a rewrite to make sure everything remained ultra light and breezy even though these heavier aspects of the screenplay were left in the final script.
The original movie portrayed Sarah Goodwin as an emotionally withdrawn and rather downbeat individual. Other than being occasionally surly and getting freaked out whenever she inadvertently causes something to shatter or go flying with her powers, this Sarah Goodwin is almost as cheerful as her ever giddy sister and really just your average girly grrl despite Lindsey constantly paying lip service to what an emotional trainwreck she supposedly is. Mika Boreem is a perfectly fine actress. Heck, everyone here does a good job acting-wise. But it doesn't change the fact that the performance doesn't fit the character and it's again due to the film being too lightweight for the story it seems to want to tell.
I fully realize that this movie was produced by the ABC Family Channel, but still, if you're going to make a movie that includes references to human sacrifice, blood drinking, suicide, occult rituals, etc. then it hardly seems too much to ask that the filmmakers try and make something at least up to the standards of a show like "Buffy, the Vampire Slayer" that dealt with the same sort of subject matter on a weekly basis with a vastly superior balance of intelligence, humor, maturity, and suspense. Besides, this is the same ABC Family Channel that regularly airs Cruel Intentions, a film with a plot that's hardly family friendly regardless of what they cut out to make it acceptable for airing on broadcast television. ABC Family even included a "Viewer Discretion Advised" disclaimer for The Initiation of Sarah and I'll be damned if I know why. Perhaps it has to do with the scene towards the end where Sarah drops by Finn's dorm room for a quickie deflowering so that she won't have that pesky virginity stifling her full power for the final showdown with the Alpha Nu’s.
That third act really is quite stupid. The idiocy begin with Sarah giving up her virginity to Finn during that impromptu booty call, then Pi Delta's in black robes begin chanting a loud vortex of wind and magic around the Alpha Gamma Nu house that no one else in the neighborhood seems to notice, a big plot twist gets tossed in that really does feel like a twist that's been thrown in just for the sake of there being a twist, and it all culminates in an overly long music video style montage of young women in black robes and stern looks on their faces marching forth to the tune of a song called "Children of the Revolution." I have no clue what the heck was up with that last part there since these were the good witches and this montage actually did a better job making them seem like a menacing force than anything else in the movie ever did to make the Alpha Nu's appear evil.
And a word of advice: Don't tell the person trying unsuccessfully to stab you to death with the enchanted sacrificial knife that it can only harm you if it has some of their blood on it and then casually turn your back on them. You're just asking for it.
Now in the film's defense, it's such fluff that it breezes by quickly and the actors are good enough to make this remake watchable even as it does a disservice to both the original and the audience. But no doubt I suspect 14-year old girls will lap this up and tell their best friends just how cool that movie on TV was the other night right after they finish gossiping about which actor in The Covenant they thought was the cutest. They're clearly the target audience. Anyone else that watches will just get caught in the crossfire.
In an interesting move, ABC Family's website is currently offering viewers the opportunity to watch both this remake and the original versions of The Initiation of Sarah online via broadband for free. I'd urge checking out the original myself. Heck, I may even revisit it myself.