Sometimes the party band is emblematic of an entire film. The Prowler (1981) features a band that shamelessly rips off Fly By Night-era Rush, and, appropriately, is stylishly constructed, but rooted in grit and elbow grease. The House on Sorority Row, on the other hand, features a band that rips off Signals-era Rush, and, unsurprisingly, the film is slick and meticulous, separating itself from the low grade pulp of its contemporaries. Each respective group of Rush pilferers perfectly suits the tones of their respective films.
On the surface, to the aesthetically unsophisticated, these two bands are exactly the same, and the movies themselves are interchangeable. However, just as a Rush connoisseur would consider Signals and Fly by Night different musical genres altogether, we can make tonal distinctions between those two films. As they are generally similar big picture wise, they are defined by their details, and therefore. are completely unique. It’s like the difference between two snowflakes and two snowmen (chew on that for awhile).
A hazy blue prologue informs us of a birth gone awry, which is teenie hack speak for “a mongoloid killer hath been birthed”. The credits roll over a montage showing the sorority girls doing stuff on the last day of school. Immediately, we are taken aback by the romantic lushiness of the score, and by the pastel color palette. It is indeed quite interesting that a slasher from 1983 shot entirely in pastel colors seems to scream out look at me! I’m full of class!
The director hammers home this parade of flourish, what with the unbroken takes, steadicam shots, crosscutting, etc. Unsurprisingly, we learn that, before becoming Hilary Duff's pet auteur, director Mark Rosman was an assistant to Brian De Palma, and is squarely of the De Palma school (minus the occasional Mario Bava rip-off). He also rips off some plot machinations from the French film Diabolique, thereby earning the film a modicum of street cred along the Champs Elysses.
Conversely, The Prowler is aesthetically gritty, hazy, dark, grainy and foggy, and the murders are brutal instead of stylish. Director Joseph Zito was also responsible for Friday the 13th – The Final Chapter, which employed a similar aesthetic, albeit to a lesser degree. I might peg Friday the 13th – Final Chapter and The Prowler as the best meat-and-potatoes American slashers of the 80’s, due to a combination of the gritty atmosphere coupled with Zito’s ability to inject and maintain suspense-filled dread. It’s not hard to equate a “meat and potatoes” slasher aesthetic with “meat and potatoes” rock n’ roll, like Fly By Night, for example (sort of); the guitar distortion, the reckless thrill, the punch in the gut (well, for a trio of Canadian nerds). Signals is clearly an album by the same band, yet it most definitely cannot be called a rock n’ roll record (I guess it’s more synth prog or something). Not that it isn’t awesome, of course, but it’s not the kind of album that you can throw on the old 8 track player in your Camaro and hope to get laid. God knows I’ve tried.
Well, enough about Rush. These sorority girls despise their house mother Slater, she of the loathsome hag routine. The last straw comes when trouble maker Vicki gets busy on a waterbed, and Slater finds this slutily uncouth, and slashes the bed with her cane. They decide to get revenge by pretending to shoot her, but accidentally shoot her for real, which causes the ancient bitch to keel over. They brilliantly hide the body in a swimming pool so dirty you can’t even see dead white ladies floating in it.
The final girl Katie wants to call the police, as she believes that killing people, no matter how old and stodgy they may be, is not becoming of a sorority sister. However, a sorority is a democracy in microcosm, and the other girls don’t give a shit about such moralizing hokum. None of this helps a 30-year-old college drunk, who wanders off and gets a spear through the neck, or the girl that wanders off to check the fuse box and gets her shadow impaled (which looks really cool BTW, and is similarly used in Friday the 13th – The Final Chapter).
Things start to get a bit nerve wracking when a naked fat guy jumps in the pool, yelling out “I am a sea pig!”. Someone turns the pool light on, not only to inspect the area for an imminent flood event, but to check whether or not he is, indeed, a pig of the sea. Luckily for the girls, the body is no longer there, although there now appears to be a crusty old zombie lady running around, possibly in cahoots with her freakish son.
Well, later on, her lifeless body does show up at a different location. I guess Slater started her zombie white lady rampage and got sleepy and took a nap. The girls stuff her body in a dumpster, which leads to a nice suspense scene, what with the girls hauling the dumpster across campus, only to crash it into a police car. Luckily, they’re only campus police, who are really just mall cops assigned to fraternities.
So, the killer stalks and kills the sorority girls, with the best bit being the bathroom decapitation, where the killer cunningly turns on all the showers before hand, creating a mass of steam (sort of a rudimentary fog machine). After an expertly constructed culmination, our final girl ends up battling wits with the son, who wears a clown suit, all the while battling for her sanity. You’d think she’d be able to protect herself considering she is carrying a gun, but for some reason she repeatedly misses at point blank range. So either…
1. She’s the worst shot of all time.
2. Clown boy is invincible.
3. The gun is filled with blanks, which would be oh so convenient. When you need blanks, you accidentally fill someone with lead, and when you think you’re using real bullets to protect yourself, they’re really blanks. Oh well.
In all seriousness, House on Sorority Row is one of the best slashers out there. Where as many slashers aspire to art accidentally by not aspiring to anything, this one aspires to art by purposefully applying artiness unsophisticatedly. I think it’s another one of those zen fortune cookie things, like that snowman deal I mentioned earlier.