Tuesday, November 30, 2010

THE INITIATION OF SARAH (1978) - Carrie-sploitation rendered as sorority house tragedy

Here's the opening of the film, although you can watch the whole thing currently on Netflix instant watch in the U.S.. Canadians might be S.O.L. on this one. I hope not eh.

Sarah is painfully shy, but thankfully she has a hot sister (Patty) that takes pity on her (pity tinged with love). Normally, Sarah would spend her summers at home, but Patty invites her to the beach. However, a local studmuffin swimmer happens upon them and offers to teach Patty a special swimming maneuver (no doubt a variant of the breaststroke), ditching Sarah in the process, and showing what happens when you try to hang out with your hot sister at the beach. Anyway, as a faceless male who isn’t wearing a shirt, he immediately tries to rape Patty (made for TV rape, but still), all in full view of invisible wallflower Sarah. Thankfully, this supposed wallflower manages to summon up some telekinetic powers, causing the dude to fall over. While not quite as exciting as a karate chop to the balls, it successfully puts the kibosh on the sister rape, and that’s what’s important.

Well, we flash forward to the fall, where the sisters leave home to begin college together, as a team. The wily reader may find it curious that these sisters are both in the same year of schooling. Maybe their mother plopped them both out within a 17 month span, refusing to give her vagina a well deserved break in the interim. Unfortunately, Patty was forcibly squeezed out too soon, leaving her with a less developed brain, causing her to be held back a grade in school. Oh wait, Sarah was adopted. That totally makes sense. After all, the sisters could not be more different from each other, unless one of them was Asian or something. I’m glad rich whitebread parents adopt disadvantaged children from third world countries, if for no better reason than you can quickly discern which kids are adopted. Anyway, the villain is quickly established when they drive by one of the head sorority bitches who stands around and judges them. She’s played by Morgan Fairchild and wears a sweater tied around her neck, which, in this case, is all the character development you really need.

The sisters scope out the local sorority houses, hoping to pledge themselves into a Greek institution (that sounds vaguely dirty, but I am unable to connect the dots here). I don’t know about you, but I have a feeling that socially awkward angst + telekinesis + pledge hazing = trouble (if my math is on point). Well, they happen into Morgan’s sorority, and a portly pledge quickly explains that this particular sisterhood only cares about money and looks, while academics are completely ignored (along with substance and basic morality, it would seem). In a sad twist of fate (via a cunt-ruled hierarchy), Morgan wants Patty to pledge but refuses to even consider Sarah, driving a potentially catastrophic wedge between the two sisters, potentially breaking up the team, as it were (not to mention possibly taking away Sarah’s only friend in the world).

Taking a break from all the human drama, the sisters happen upon a very angry dog. Sarah again uses her powers to telekinetically communicate with the dog to leave them the fuck alone, maybe convincing it that there's a squirrel convention going on nearby. Their sorority house tour takes them to the PED house (not “performance enhancing drugs”; just some Greek numbers) where the girls actually do homework and stuff, instead of just sitting around all day feathering their hair (Morgan Fairchild in the seventies, natch). Sarah seems to actually enjoy the company of these “weirdos” (to the extent that she can enjoy company), but her high falluting sister is less than impressed. While they are pretty much polar opposites, potentially being driven away from each other into competing cliques, Patty does look out for her sister, even attempting to fix her hair and make her look all pretty like. However, during a phone conversation, their rich bitch mother tells Patty to go ahead and ditch Sarah and join the rich bitch sorority. She explains that she pities Sarah, but her mom tells her to grow a pair and not be swayed by such trivial emotion. After all, Sarah's not really a sister and a daughter, but an object of pity who is lucky someone even bothered to give her a place to live. Unfortunately, Sarah overhears the conversation, getting psychically riled up again. She stares angrily into a mirror until it cracks, leaving only her own fractured portrait. While not as explosively exciting as maybe watching her shoot lasers out of her eyes and blowing shit up, it all seems rather fitting under the circumstances.

Of course, Patty gets into Morgan’s sorority, and Sarah into the PED house. As part of her pledging, Patty is cruelly forced to proclaim in front of her sister that she will no longer associate with PEDs, “pigs elephants and dogs” (so THAT’S what it stands for; I probably shouldn’t have assumed it was Greek). This sets off Sarah yet again (as it would anyone), and her anger causes a piano to nearly miss crushing her sister. As it happens, a group of guys were lifting the piano just as Patty was walking underneath. I don’t know why assholes are always trying to lift pianos five stories with a couple of bungee cords. You can’t carry the fucking thing up a flight of stairs? At least it’s not as bad as when two guys carry a big pane of glass across the street during a chase scene. You know, a cop is in hot pursuit of a criminal in a motorcycle chase when, suddenly, two schmucks carry a piece of glass across the street, oblivious to the sound of roaring engines. The biker criminal narrowly escapes smashing through the glass, but the cop is not so lucky, crashing through and flying 120 feet in the air as crime wins again. My point is, why the fuck do people need glass transported by hand instead of by truck? Does an office building get a new window put in, and they pay some movers to carry the old window to a trash dump across the street? Even if they actually have some asinine reason to do so, how about you use the fucking crosswalk? Boy, I’ll rant about anything. Either way, this is the most batshit insane movie/T.V. cliche ever devised. To think someone would even have the balls to try it once boggles the mind.

Well, the house mother of PED is played by Shelly Winters, which is a bit of an omen, I guess (or maybe totally fitting). PED sister Tisa Farrow gives Sarah a tour of this creepy sorority house straight out of a horror movie (well, this is sort of a horror movie, I guess), while Morgan tours Patty through a brightly lit sorority house palace of sorts. To further accentuate the difference between the two sororities, Morgan Fairchild is very Morgan Fairchild-esque, while Tisa is highly skittish and neurotic, whose sole pastime is playing the violin in a sad and empty room. She even mentions that she got “sent away” a couple of times. I guess she’s a bit depressed about being the lesser Farrow, and by lesser, I mean she never got to schnook Woody Allen. Well, I hope not. You know, I wouldn’t put it past him actually. I need to stop dwelling on this point lest visuals begin to pop into my already diseased noggin.

Well, Sarah actually does attend a class at some point (they make you do this in college for some reason, even if you’re totally hungover). She is asked to write a paper on the “duality of personality” by her studly teacher, potentially inspiring Sarah to explore her secret ability (amongst other potential inspirations). The next scene is practically drawing room comedy. Morgan invites Patty for coffee, dragging her away from her sister, and Tisa asks Sarah if she too wants to go for coffee, and she frustratingly says “the whole world’s drinking coffee! No thanks!” The teacher then pops in and asks her, again, if she wants to dig on some java, and she happily agrees. However, she senses him getting close to her and bails, scared of any potential human connection. Then again, maybe she just really hates coffee. I guess she’s like the opposite of Too Much Coffee Man, that is, "Absolutely No Coffee Under Any Circumstances Woman". Anyway, she does eventually sit down with the teacher and, for the first time, discusses her “power” with someone (first time in the film anyway). This bodes well for Sarah, as she appears to be ashamed of her powers (on top of just regular shame), and she has apparently found someone who can understand her both analytically and as a scared little girl who remains an outcast incapable of connecting with people. Also, he’s, like, bodaciously hot and stuff.

Morgan cruelly makes fun of Tisa and her violin (which is sort of like insulting Tori Amos’ piano), and Sarah knocks her into a nearby fountain with her mind. She then stands up for Tisa, and concurrently herself, laying a speech on Morgan about how she is ugly on the inside and doesn’t care about other people’s feelings. It seems that wallflower Sarah has finally stood up for herself in more direct, human fashion, instead of relying on an ability that is mysterious to others (and even herself really). Her speech seems to actually inspire Morgan to rethink her cunty ways, and she tells Patty that she may just pledge Sarah after all. This sets up the prolonged finale, both wacky and tragic, where Sarah’s previously subtle and believable powers (to the extent that telekinesis is believable) amp up to something else entirely. There’s a possible satanis ex machina (that’s like the hand of god intervening during an ending, but with Satan instead), along with a cameo by the hedge maze from The Shining. It’s called a fucking climax folks.

Of course, the whole thing is a big ass Carrie ripoff, but a highly worthwhile one. Brian DePalma’s film works as an operatic gothic laced with religious satire, while The Initiation of Sarah turns it’s eye squarely on Sarah’s basic human plight, a teenaged outsider unable to fit in, too stricken with shame and esteem issues to develop meaningful relationships. It’s the sort of quaint human story you find in a lot of 70’s made-for-TV movies (and even after school specials), dressed up as a thriller of sorts. Gimmicky touches and psychic powers aside, it works wonderfully well as an emotionally honest portrait of a character many of us can relate to (assuming you’re not a stuck up bitch/douchebag/young Republican). A lot of the credit squarely goes to Kay Lenz in the titular role, a woefully underrated actress. Check out Clint Eastwood’s Breezy for further evidence. It’s one of those May-December romance deals (as opposed to a January-February romance, which is a toddler boinking a newborn), co-starring William Holden. If you doubt her prowess, let me just point out that she played the ugly dork sister despite being super hottie Kay Lenz, and I bought her character every millisecond she was on screen. In Hollywood, they would normally just take some hot actress, wrap her hair up, put glasses on her and call it a day. After all, when a “typical” Hollywood audience is enjoying a piece of entertainment about people who are ugly/fat/emotionally tortured or otherwise “socially defective”, they don’t want to have to identify with people who are unattractive and/or lacking in confidence. No, the audience needs something to fix their eyes on as popcorn is collectively shoveled into a sea of faceless heads.

P.S. This was written as part of Stacie Ponder's Final Girl Film Club. Check out her review here.

P.P.S. This is the first in a series of reviews for sorority/fraternity pledge horror films. I will explain this better soon, and maybe come up with a catchy/not ungainly name for it as well.


  1. nice cross references with other media. Besides,ending anything with Eddie as an up note in my book.

    Lazarus lupin
    art and review

  2. Yes, and that's my favorite Eddie Izzard bit of all time. It always nets a hearty chuckle. Thanks! I'll check out your blog.