Now in theaters
Directed by Stewart Hendler
The original House on Sorority Row (1983) was a minor, but enjoyable, slasher film that brought a little style to its familiar storyline (and garbed its killer in a memorably macabre harlequin costume). This loose remake, written by Josh Stolberg and Peter Goldfinger and directed by Stewart Hendler (and executive produced by the original’s director, Mark Rosman), is in most every way bigger, better â€“ and definitely bitchier â€“ than its predecessor. The only disappointment in comparison to the original is that the harlequin costume does not make an appearance (but as there was a specific reason for that costume in the original that doesn’t apply here, its absence is forgivable). However, eagle-eyed viewers will spot a brief cameo by the distinctive cane that belonged to House‘s tyrannical housemother, Mrs. Slater (Lois Kelso Hunt). Talk about literally giving props to the original!
As in the old-school House, the tight-knit sisters of Theta Pi accidentally commit a murder (a potentially arduous set-up that’s handled with a nice sense of economy by Stolberg and Goldfinger â€“ there’s no drawn-out first act here) and before the body is cold, a cover-up to save their promising futures is agreed on â€“ a decision spurred on by the sorority’s ruthless leader Jessica (Leah Pipes). Whereas in the original, the events of the film took place over the course of a single night, in the remake, it’s eight months after their crime that the sisters begin to be stalked by an unknown assailant who (wait for it) knows what they did. While the new storyline is a clear riff on I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997), originality isn’t the beat that Sorority Row is working. Just as the original film was trying to be a formula slasher picture with some more smarts than its competition, this remake is a catalog of slasher movie conventions delivered with enough panache that fans should find it to be a nearly fault-free example of the genre.
The main innovation of Sorority Row is in turning the bitch factor up. Stolberg and Goldfinger unleash a constant volley of catty, venomous dialogue, making it clear that the Theta Pi sisters are not what virtuous final girls are made of. Pipes takes the crown here as Jessica, the self-interested, power-hungry (her boyfriend’s Senator father is rumored to be a future Vice Presidential pick) leader of the sisters. Her unflinching nastiness is entertaining in and of itself. As one character tells her admiringly, “you turn being a bitch into an art form.” And that sums up Stolberg and Goldfinger’s approach to these characters overall. These are not nice girls â€“ save for Briana Evigan as Cassidy, the would-be conscience of the group, and Rumer Willis as the emotionally fragile Ellie â€“ but funny trumps nice and these girls are consistently funny in their unsparing attitude. While some might say that it takes away some of the scare factor to see characters with so few sympathetic qualities in danger, in Sorority Row‘s case it’s enjoyable to see these character’s well-honed â€˜killer’ instincts put to the test by a real killer.
As for depicting that killer’s bloody handiwork, Hendler shows himself to be an expert and enthusiastic hand (abetted by FX artist Gino Crognale). The set-ups, the kills â€“ Hendler stages these scenes effectively wherein the jumps work and the payoffs are grisly and surprising (no CGI splatter was spotted by this reviewer, by the way â€“ just practical FX, with one gag being a tip of the pimped-out tire iron to Argento’s 1987 Opera). And while some would think that being able to direct a proper slasher movie kill takes no special talent to pull off, it does. If making slasher films were easy, we’d never see total botch jobs like Valentine (2001). Hendler’s previous full-length feature was 2007′s supernatural thriller Whisper, starring Lost‘s Josh Holloway. That ended up being dumped onto DVD but after seeing Sorority Row I’m curious to check it out as Hendler shows a clear-eyed instinct for the genre. I would compare his work here to that of Rob Schmidt in Wrong Turn (2003). It’s a case where no one’s going to hail him as a visionary (even though he pulls off some nice visuals, like the ambitious opening tracking shot which seems to be a deliberate call-back to the De Palma influences of the original) but he understands how to make a no-nonsense horror film and that’s a skill that always needs to be put to use.
Where Sorority Row stumbles is where most slasher movies stumble â€“ in the reveal of its killer. When we discover who’s been annihilating everyone, it’s no shocker (it doesn’t exactly take a detective license to figure these things out) and the explanation as to why this person has been doing this stretches credibility â€“ even for a slasher film. But while it may not be a satisfying reveal, it also isn’t enough to undo the goodwill the film has generated up until then. On subsequent viewings, I expect Sorority Row‘s climax will play better once removed from the expectations that it might have more of a punch.
Although Sorority Row will likely be regarded as being too familiar to matter (while fans will appreciate that it shows the same adherence to the traditions and conventions of the slasher genre as dutifully as the makers of a Western might) but it isn’t without its own amusing quirks. After all, this is the only slasher film where â€“ even in the frenetic final reels â€“ the affront of having one’s hair insulted by a younger, prettier rival warrants a bigger reaction than a murderer’s wrath. It’s not the idea of being marked for death that offends the sisters of Theta Pi â€“ that’s just an inconvenience (as Jessica says impatiently at one dire moment “which idiot set fire to the house?”) â€“ what they can’t live with is losing their social advantage. Sorority Row isn’t a game changer but it proves that slasher movies â€“ and bitches â€“ work best when they have no illusions or embarrassments about themselves.