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.


  1. I have to say...this article was certainly worth the wait! I'm glad that you were finally able to get it posted!

    I couldn't find this video anywhere! I so desperately wanted to watch it before the blogathon commenced! But...alas...googling "Sorority Girl" doesn't exactly give you the most...ahem...HELPFUL results...

    And now I want to see it even MORE! It seems like this was one of Corman's most introverted films, focusing on the human monster instead know...literal ones. I'm curious to see how he handled it.

    I want to personally thank you for participating in this blogathon! I know that you were worried about getting it in late...but trust me...I'm just glad that you were able to get it in. It was a great read on a difficult film.

    Also, don't forget to vote for the Readers' Choice Award on Monday and to vote for the topic of our next blogathon by voting at the poll on my site's home page.

  2. Thomas,
    This was beautifully written...I know, guys hate feminine descriptions so let me also say that it kicks ass!
    I had never heard of this film before signing on for the Blogathon and I'm glad you chose it to review.

    The one thing I'm learning about Corman is his completely confusing but insanely good range in scripts. This looks more Tim Burton and reads like an alien took over Corman's body for two hours.
    I hope I get the opportunity to see this one. Your fantastic review is a nice addition to the Blogathon and makes me want to drive two hours to hug my mother.
    Nice to meet you,

  3. Thomas, you are one interesting guy. I have to admit I was a little put off by the "official" Blogger content warning -- I came over last evening thinking your post was up, and I looked around a bit. So I was leery of what kind of article you would do for a Corman movie, most of which lend themselves easily to -- let's say -- warning-worthy writing!

    You have presented a beautifully-written and thoughtful review of Sorority Girls. This is one I haven't seen. From your description, although you mention it does have exploitation qualities, it obviously has more depth than a typical Corman movie. Your description of the character of Sabra and her mother, the way you assess Sabra's deepest problems -- "self-psychoanalyation is a desperate hole" -- "diseased dynamic" -- all are very insightful.

    Excellent job of reviewing, Thomas. You are a real surprise!

  4. Oh, I forgot something important -- did you do the artwork for this article? It's marvelous.

    I hope you come on over and see my Corman contribution when I post tomorrow. Love to have you!

  5. @ClassicBecky

    Thanks! That warning is appropriate for a lot of the reviews, but occasionally I'll employ a more somber, serious approach if the movie calls for it. The more obvious approach would be "it's oh so campy and quaint", but it simply doesn't strike me that way (well, the hazing stuff was pretty quaint). I wanted to highlight one of his best movies (IMO) as director, and I've already done the smartass "Corman uses stock footage" rant in another review.

    The poster shows her with the paddle, and the paddle scene is the most "exploitation" thing about the movie. My mentioning of "exploitation" was just that there are some vague B-movie approaches, like the forceful plot twists, direct dialogue, and compact runtime, but this is used to tell a non-exploitation story, if that makes sense.

    I will check it out!

    He he! The artwork is all from the opening credits. My drawing skills mostly consist of stick figures and bad comic book stuff.

  6. @Nathanael & Page
    Thank you! You know what, I can try uploading it to Youtube. There's a chance it'll be blocked, but it's worth a shot. It was released on VHS a long time ago, but hasn't surfaced otherwise since (as far as I know). I'll be checking out everything with the blogathon.

  7. Thomas, I just had to respond to your response to my comment -- does that make sense? LOL! I'm glad you took the tack you did for the movie. It really interests me now, where before I would have figured "campy schlock", and I'd like to try to find it.

    Not having seen the movie, I had no idea those were opening credits. You are very honest to tell me that it isn't your work -- I would have gone on thinking you were Salvador Dali reincarnated!

  8. Sorority Girl is perhaps the best of Corman's early films. As you say it aims for psychological weight, and actually achieves it. I love the way it lures viewers in with the promise of spanking (and yes there really is a spanking scene) and then gives them a serious thoughtful and rather moving film.

    I'm surprised it seems to be difficult to find. It's readily available on DVD here in Australia. If you have a region-free DVD player the Region 4 DVD is the way to go.

  9. @Becky
    I added a note saying the paintings are from the opening credits. I WAS reincarnated, but from a silly gorilla. Not everyone can be reincarnated from someone famous. :P

    Thanks! I didn't know it was out on DVD anywhere. So, follow Doom's advice and pick this bad boy up. It retails for $10 AUS, which is pretty cheap. Here's a link:

    P.S. I'll skip on uploading it to Youtube in light of that it was released on DVD somewhere. You'll need a region free player is seems if your not in Australia, but you can get one nowadays for like $30-40.

  10. This is one of the few Corman vehicles I've yet to see, and now I want to see it all the more. (I may have to dig into the couch cushions to see if I can raise the scratch for the Region 4 disc.) Really first-rate review, Thomas.

  11. @Ivan
    Thanks! It's little seen, unfortunately.

    It's been awhile since I've ordered something from Australia, but it looks like the US dollar has since plummeted. According to google currency converter, the Aus dollar is now worth a little more than the US dollar, when I thought $10 AUS was like $7-8 US five years ago or so. So, it's not as cheap as I thought it was, but it's still pretty cheap I guess.

  12. Wow, Thomas, I think yours is the only blogathon entry I've seen thus far that looks at the film as a character study. Since I like character studies, that ups your review several points in my view. I think those opening credit pictures are beautiful and haunting (Now if they started giving out Oscars for Best Opening Credits, maybe I would start watching them again--I love good credits sequences). Thanks for giving us this intriguing look at one of the more interesting Corman films.

  13. @Rachel
    Thanks you! Yeah, it's a really striking way to open the movie. I guess there aren't many Saul Bass' around anymore.

  14. Terrific post, really. (Also great blog -- I keep meaning to tell you that I always get a smile on my face when I see Suzy from Terrorvision hanging around!)

    This was a film I wasn't even aware of until the blogathon, and your write up really makes me want to see this ASAP. Thanks for this review.

  15. @Stacia
    Thank! Good old Suzy always brings a smile to my face. She's the official mascot around these parts.

    Love your blog too, but I think I've said that before but, if not...there you go.

  16. The name of the artist who did those beautiful opening animated credits for the majority of Corman's films was a guy by the name of Paul Julian. (A personal favorite is Attack of the Crab Monsters.)

    Solid write up of an offbeat film. I almost picked Teenage Doll to review, another of Corman's bait and switch flicks that aims a little higher than what the poster depicts but loses steam as it goes and completely falls apart in an I'm okay, your okay cop out ending.

  17. @WB Kelso

    Thanks for the info! I was curious about that.

    I'm not sure if I've seen TEENAGE DOLL or not. I'll have to check out the trailer...and...thanks!

  18. Dang! Great review--you've really hooked me; I gotta get in touch with my "gray market" allies and get ahold of this one toot sweet! (And your post made me realize just how often Corman had interesting and visually engaging credit sequences: something worthy of a post all its own.)

  19. @Ivan
    Thank you! I'm glad Ivanlandia can have gray market allies in this post-cold war world. The crumbling of the Berlin wall was NOT all for naught.

  20. YOWZA! Just managed to watch this--wow...
    Iago in a chic black one-piece swimsuit; I really dug the flick's super-nihilistic post-adolescent melodrama. It's a personal apocalypse right up there with Leigh's Naked and Buscemi's Trees Lounge. Thanks for pointing me in the right direction!

  21. @Ivan
    You know, I've yet to see Trees Lounge. I will work on that.