Saturday, June 18, 2011
SORORITY GIRL (1957) - a portrait of a sociopath
For a film from 1957 about a “bad girl” (Sabra) manipulating others for her own selfish gain, you might expect a “bad seed”-esque portrait of an evil monster. However, what we have here is a tragedy borne out of what Sabra thinks it means to be human, like a robot feebly attempting to blend in with the human race. Director Roger Corman, utilizing the bluntness of characterization and plot machinations of exploitation films of the time, manages to craft a fairly realistic portrait of a sociopath, even by modern Hollywood standards.
The key to the movie is to simply look at the interactions between Sabra and her mother. Sabra insults her mother by saying she doesn’t care (honestly, as many may deem it), so her mother rips up a check written out to Sabra in retaliation. Mother tells her “you were a brat the day you were born”, and Sabra responds by suggesting that this particular character trait may have been inherited. Dearest mother retorts with “the only thing you’ve inherited is money”, meant to suggest that Sabra is riding the proverbial gravy train, and any personal problems are self created, surely absolving mother of any responsibility in the matter. Quite ironically, she accidentally defines their relationship with that very statement, that money is the extent of her parenting and, therefore, the totality of their relationship.
This mother/daughter dynamic defines Sabra’s relationships. Once Sabra is granted power over a pledge named Ellie, similarly to how her mother held sway over her, she resorts to employing this diseased dynamic. For Sabra, a relationship is essentially an extortion between two people, an attempt to gain from the other, just as she would attempt to pry money out of mother’s cold hands. Sabra attempts to advise Ellie along the way, cruelly insulting her under the guise of “tough love”, just as mother would snarkily point out Sabra’s flaws.
Sabra’s roommate finds out about her forcing Ellie to do things under the banner of “sorority initiation”, making her do situps and wash her stockings, amusingly quaint given the modern hazing that goes on. She threatens to reveal this to the dean, but Sabra blackmails her into keeping quiet. Relationships for Sabra are, after all, not about love, nor sharing, nor compromise, but rather, a means to an end. In this case…self-preservation.
Sabra appears to be conscious of this “diseased dynamic”, as I put it. She intermittently reflects on her situation in a rather realistic way (instead of simply supplying the audience with plot information), wondering why she doesn’t have any friends, despite being pretty and having money and driving a fancy car. In her world, these kind of things determine a person’s worth. At times her voice over reflects her lack of empathy with others, like when she thinks about stealing away Rita’s (Ellie’s roommate) boyfriend Norm, played by Corman regular and regular studmuffin Dick Miller. Sabra does so seemingly not out of maliciousness, but in complete ignorance of Rita’s feelings, viewing Norm as simply an object to be acquired.
Still, other times, Sabra recognizes that there is something wrong with her. Perhaps you’ve experienced something similar, where you’ve realized you have a problem, but continually try to push it into the background or justify It to yourself. Self-psychoanalyzation is a desperate hole, where a naïve soul can bury themselves in logic and reason. Ironically, Sabra goes to her mother for help, as she has no one else to talk to. She pleads to her in a desperate cry for help, and all her mother can say is “there’s nothing wrong with you…there shouldn’t be, you’ve had the best money can buy”. Mother, sadly but predictably, assumes it’s all a ploy to extort money.
This story takes a turn for the tragic when our flawed heroine attempts to redeem herself. She finds out that Rita is pregnant, with only her and Ellie knowing the truth. Sabra vows to help Rita, and hopefully right the previous wrongs against her, and, indeed, all of the wrongs she hath previously wrought. Sadly, her flawed concept of relationships dooms this attempt. I won’t reveal what happens, except to say that this is not a tragedy akin to Hamlet or MacBeth, but rather, a sad character descent fitting of a 19 or 20 year old of the time period. Sabra is left alone on the beach, crying, with all of her peers staring at her in disgust. The human race, in microcosm, has decided that they want no part of her.
P.S. This was written as part of the Roger Corman blogathon over at Forgotten Classics of Yesteryear. Check it out here.
P.P.S. The stills are artwork from the opening credits, and shows that, despite the exploitative title and poster, the movie is aiming for psychological weight.