Judging by the title and the posters for The House on Sorority Row, most people would cast it aside as just another in the long line of mindless, exploitative slashers where buxom college beauties meet their untimely doom at the hands of a deranged killer. Much to my surprise, and hopefully yours as well, Sorority Row is a classy and sophisticated slasher that bears little resemblance to the its feeble-minded and hollow brethren. It is one of those films where the bright and cheerful nature of the opening credit sequence serve as an unnervingly deceptive beginning that makes you feel as if something is, or quickly will be, very wrong. It’s hard to put it into words how certain flicks can get under your skin so quickly, and especially with something as simple as long shots of a sorority house and the surrounding property and and upbeat score, but if there is one thing this movie has going for it, it is its carefully conceived visual and audio presentation, which belie its true nature more often than not. But before I get ahead of myself and pass final judgment of this movie, let us first set up what the movie is about.
The seniors of an unidentified college sorority are planning on throwing a big party to celebrate their graduation, but house mother Dorothy Slater doesn’t approve of the her house being the venue for such alcohol-induced debauchery. To get back at her, the gals play a cruel prank on Slater, which has much more drastic results than they initially intended. Now, as the party they had planned rages on, the girls, along with a few of their guests, are being stalked and picked off one by one by an unseen assailant.
Certainly nothing earth-shattering in that synopsis, but if there is one thing that this, and other gems of the horror genre prove, it’s that lack of total originality can be trumped by style, substance, and a keen sense of direction and timing. Director Mark Rosman, in his directing debut, adheres to choice few of the slasher rules we buffs have come to know, respect, and often times loathe. The flick doesn’t start off with a grisly murder, as most slashers do, but does get the ball rolling in fairly swift fashion regardless. Even better is that fact that Rosman understands how momentum can elevate a slasher film, and keep things moving forward even if the scene doesn’t contain a kill, a cat and mouse device, or a jolt. His timing, especially for someone who had no (according to the gods at IMDB) feature film directing experience previous to this outing, is truly the glue by which all the other pieces of Sorority Row are held snugly together by. His cinematography and photography team are also strong while not being overly daring, and he never feels the need to film women as objects or mannequins, leading to a feeling of individuality and independent characteristics for each one of the main ladies. In the final act, Rosman also delves deep into the bag of surreal lighting effects and creepy, off-kilter framing techniques to give the final harrowing set pieces a bold touch of dreamy distinction from the rest of the film. The film runs an almost perfect 90 minutes, and I never once got the feeling that a scene was interjecting in the interest of padding for time, something you can easily identify in many slashers, both old and new. Rosman really pushes the story foward with every shot, and shows just as much confident ability when shooting during the night or the day. It may be a little devoid of the “money shots” we are used to being able to recall from the most famous of the slasher kin, but being a bit different can make you stand out just as much as being nostalgically memorable.
The acting, much like the directing, isn’t quite what I would call memorable. Instead of getting a particularly hammy or referential performance out of anyone in particular, we are given solid acting that only devolves into over acting on a few harmless occasions. But if your a slasher flick fan, and haven’t realized that over the top acting is going to hit at some point or another, you may be watching the wrong type of films. Our gaggle of sorority gals eat up most of the screen-time and luckily the best of the bunch, namely Katherine (Kate McNeil), Vicki (Eileen Davidson), and Diane (Harley Kozak) are the ones doing most of the heavy lifting. Vicki excels at being the pampered super bitch whose vengeful and spoiled nature wind up setting the events in motion that cause everyone so much grief. Katherine is the honorable and scrupulous “final girl” type who is at odds with the general consensus of the group, but isn’t above some innocent pranking, as long as it stays innocent. Lastly, Diane is the “smoker” of the bunch, who owns quite the wicked A-Team van and wears a CBGB’s t-shirt in one, which pretty much sums up what kind of woman she is, which is an AWESOME one. There are a few other, cannon fodder like girls in the group, including a homely, southern looking gal and an air headed blond who has the thought-processing power of a grain of salt, but they are mostly there to round out the flock, lend support to the main two sisters (Vicki and Katherine), and get taken out. The thespians playing these women all look about the right age to be just days away from graduating a four-year college, and are used on screen to their fullest potential. No one seems out of place playing their respective roles, and they all come off as convincing, both in their mannerisms and actions. A special nod must be given to Lois Kelso Hunt who plays Dorothy Slater, and really nails being a crabby, stubborn old bat who is on the verge of a complete, and dangerous, mental breakdown.
When it comes to blood letting, Sorority Row doesn’t shy away from giving the audience a few splashes of the red stuff, but it doesn’t revel in it either. The flick is fast-moving, increasingly moody, and mildly atmospheric. The gore gives way to these qualities, and it doesn’t “suffer” from it, it just coexists. We get some fine kills, nothing in the way of “Oh man I HAVE to youtube that later” quality, but still fine deaths none the less. The few gore gags that are there are well done, including a severed head in the toilet, and a rapid, but jagged and very painful looking throat slashing with quite a unique tool. The blood is of the runny, watery, Italian variety, for those of you out there like me who notice that kind of thing. Other technical considerations also pass with flying colors such as the slick score that pops up just at the right times, and a high quality of image clarity and detail that is only obstructed for brief moments due to the artifacts of film making with actual film. I feel compelled to revisit an earlier comment I made about the opening credits though. Whoever composed or chose that music deserves an award from me personally, because that little piece just set the tone for the rest of the movie so well. It still bugs me.
Much like Hell Night, Sorority Row is just another great example of how a good little flick can get buried underneath the weight of its more infamous ilk. It oozes its own sense of style and feels and, as I said before, is very classy and elegant in a way I wasn’t quite sure a slasher taking place in or around a Sorority house ever could. The acting is inspired, the directing is icy and deft, and the final and third act has enough “WHOA!” moments and hairpin turns to snap you out of any complacency you may have been feeling yourself succumbing to during the first hour. The use of red herrings is also clever and not abused, but if I ever see a ball with a bell in it roll towards me, all you will see is my backside as I hightail it out of there. If you’re a slasher buff who thinks they have seen it all, chances are you haven’t seen this, and you definitely should in the very near future. For more casual horror fans, there are probably droves of other, more easily accessible, slasher fair to burn through before you need to dig deep for this little diamond in the rough, but if you are looking for something that is just a bit left of center and doesn’t play by all the rules, it may be time to pledge your allegiance to the house on sorority row. I would stay away from the pool though. I heard it has quite a history…