The 1980s were THE decade for slasher flicks. The subgenre of horror really picked up steam in the ’70s, but it was in the ’80s when it matured, like a fine wine. It also, somewhat paradoxically, got less gory. But that’s a subject for another day. For now, it’s enough to know that in 1983, someone made a slasher film called The House on Sorority Row. Oh, the possibilities.
From writer/director Mark Rosman, The House on Sorority Row tells the tale of a prank gone wrong. The Pi Theta house is about to shut its doors for summer break. The graduating sisters of the sorority want to throw one last bash before they all scatter to their adult lives. But the house mother/landlord, Mrs. Slater (Lois Kelso Hunt), isn’t having any of it. She needs the house for her own purposes, and wants the young women out.
Mrs. Slater has apparently been a domineering figure in the lives of the sorority sisters. After four years of putting up with her, the girls aren’t about to let Mrs. Slater ruin their big night. Their idea is to frighten Mrs. Slater with a gun firing blanks. How that will ensure they get to throw their party is a mystery, but it is believable that college kids didn’t think that far ahead.
The instigator of the prank is Vicki (Eileen Davidson), who holds a particular disdain for Mrs. Slater. The goody-two-shoes heroine of the film, who thinks the prank is a bad idea, is Katey, played by Kathryn McNeil. Author and actress Harley Jane Kozak also makes her film debut playing another of the sisters, Diane.
Of course, the prank goes wrong. Now the group has a dead body on their hands, and party guests showing up in a few hours. It’s quite the dilemma. Do they call the cops? Of course not. They hide the body and throw the party! But, they might not have done a good job checking to see if Mrs. Slater was really dead. At some point during the night, the body disappears, and sorority sisters start turning up dead, hacked to death with the sharp head of Mrs. Slater’s cane.
The sisters of the Pi Theta house make for a wonderful set of targets. And a somewhat touchy one. This movie was released only five years after Ted Bundy murdered and bludgeoned his way through a sorority house in Florida. Previously, a showing of Black Christmas, which dealt with similar subject matter, on national television two weeks after the murders caused some controversy. Does that make this movie insensitive? Were it made today, with a similar real-life tragedy hovering near the same point in time, there would be loud voices condemning the production. But loud voices are not the same as numerous voices. A film like this could be made thirty-five years ago with no trouble because the outrage chamber of the Information Age didn’t yet exist.
Anyway, slasher films need victims — preferably in a group setting, and somewhat isolated. A kids’ campground, a cabin in the woods, a sorority house. Wherever.
The main reason this film works, though, is the actresses. As an ensemble, they feel like a group that has been together for years. There’s a fair amount of college tropes to contend with, but the cast doesn’t feel like a group that was assembled just to shoot a movie. Maybe some of the dialogue wasn’t the best to work with, but for the most part, the cast did well. Except for Jodi Draigie as Morgan. Her performance can best be described as vacant.
This movie holds onto the mystery surrounding all the killing to the very end. It’s not much of a twist, to be sure, but it still works. There is quite the climax near the end, however. Katey, through some wild machinations, ends up with some nice drugs flowing through her veins, and Rosman changed the lighting and camera work to reflect her state of mind. It’s a clever bit of filmmaking, and raised the tension in the final act.
The House on Sorority Row is fading away into cinematic history, but it’s a decent watch for fans of slasher flicks.