Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Final Girl Film Club - The Initiation of Sarah (1978)

Cody is endeavoring to write about all of the Final Girl Film Club entries he missed over the years. The movies will be covered in the original Film Club order in most cases, while some of the articles will be posted to coincide with certain dates.

A horror offering from the good old days of TV movies.

The Initiation of Sarah was featured much later in the actual Film Club schedule, so much so that it should've been one of the last movies discussed in this Catch-Up project. While it's noted in the intro that some of these will be done out of order, this movie is not one that I had in mind when I made that note. I've had to bump it up because it was one of many titles on my Netflix Instant queue that expired from the streaming service today. Apparently some big contracts between a  few studios and Netflix did not get renewed. As disconcerting as it was to find, with one week's warning, that around 250 titles would be disappearing from my queue, it is sort of appropriate that this is the one that I had to write about now, since bitchy, popularity-mad sorority girls have been big in the news recently. The Initiation of Sarah features some such characters, although with it being a TV movie those characters are much less foul-mouthed than the one whose ranting e-mail leaked out and drew so much attention that it even got a dramatic reading by Michael Shannon.

The Sarah of the title is Sarah Goodwin, who was adopted into the Goodwin family when she was a baby. Nothing is known about her biological parents. The Goodwins had a daughter the same age as Sarah, and as the film begins the girls are headed off to college together. They are as close as they are different - Patty Goodwin is played by the stunningly gorgeous Morgan Brittany, while Sarah is sort of the "ugly duckling" of the two of them, despite the fact that she's played by Kay Lenz, who was attractive enough herself to land a marriage with one of the biggest teen heart-throbs of the 1970s, David Cassidy.

Sarah is quiet and introverted, and Lenz does do a great job of playing up her character's awkwardness and dowdiness. She's the kind of girl who the recent letter writer would rage at for standing in corners at parties and being a weird shit who does weird shit, maybe even call her "a goddamn boner". Patty, on the other hand, has been groomed her whole life to be a sorority girl at the popular Alpha Nu Sigma by her mother, who was in ANS when she went to college and is now head of the alumni committee. As Mrs. Goodwin says, once Patty gets into ANS, she'll be friends with "all the kids who count".

Patty does quickly get in good with ANS and the head of the sorority, Morgan Fairchild playing a nightmare of a person named Jennifer Lawrence. Sarah, the ANS girls don't like so much. She actually manages to find acceptance at a sorority that ANS looks down their noses at, the laidback and intellectual Phi Epsilon Delta - "Pigs, Elephants, and Dogs", as Alpha Nu Sigma calls them. One of the first things Jennifer does after accepting Patty as a pledge is order her not to associate with any PED girls, including her sister, under any circumstances, threatening to blackball her from all sororities if she does. Patty doesn't need to be around her sister, Jennifer says, the ANS girls are her sisters now.

Sarah and Patty reluctantly agree to go their separate ways for a while, and Sarah settles in at PED, making friends with a suicidal violin enthusiast who'd rather go by the nickname Mouse than her real name, Alberta. Mouse is played by Tisa Farrow, younger sister of Rosemary's Baby/The Haunting of Julia's Mia, best known for going on to appear in the Italian horror movies Zombie and Anthropophagus before leaving the acting profession. Things are sort of strange at PED. There is a secret, locked room in the sorority house that only the house mother, Shelley Winters as Erica Hunter, has a key to. Mrs. Hunter is known to be into magic, spells, and witchcraft. Unlike the other sororities, there are no hurdles for a pledge to go through to become a sister, no hell week, no initiation. Once you're in, you're just in. There hasn't been a proper initiation at PED in almost twenty years, not since the last one left a girl dead someway or another.

The dark secrets don't end with Phi Epsilon Delta. There's something strange about Sarah, something that's first demonstrated when she saves Patty from being raped on the beach and becomes more and more apparent as Jennifer and Alpha Nu Sigma heap more abuse on her. When Sarah gets angry, bad things happen to other people. She has telekinetic abilities.

Yes, this TV movie, which aired about fifteen months after Brian De Palma's Carrie hit theatres, was very much inspired by that Stephen King adaptation. Jennifer even organizes a humiliating prank to pull on Sarah, with the aid of her jock boyfriend (Airplane!'s Robert Hays), that's somewhat reminiscent of the pig blood prom. Sarah does get some light payback when she knocks Jennifer into a fountain and delivers a great verbal smackdown, but it doesn't stop the situations from escalating.

The more Sarah's emotions are manipulated, the more her power is displayed, the more it becomes clear to Mrs. Hunter that she is a very special girl, one worth holding an initiation for in the center of the hedge maze in the back yard. An initiation that seems more like some sort of black mass...

I was a bit apprehensive about checking this movie out, a TV movie Carrie retread full of sorority girls being awful to each other was not a big draw for me, but I ended up enjoying it much more than I expected to due to the characters and the performances of the lead actresses. I didn't think it was anything special, it didn't really bring anything to the table that Carrie hadn't already done before and done bigger, but Lenz, Brittany, and Farrow kept me interested and involved. It was a fine way to spend an hour and a half.

One writer credited for coming up with the story is Tom Holland, who had been working as an actor for 14 years previous to this. The Initiation of Sarah was his first writing credit, he would go on to write several films including Psycho II and become most well known for directing Fright Night and Child's Play.

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