Sorority sisters have been staples of the horror genre for almost half a century. Between Black Christmas in 1974 and 2020’s Sorority Secrets, we have enjoyed countless peculiar pledges, salacious secrets, and scores of gorgeous girls meeting gruesome ends. In 1978, we received The Initiation of Sarah: sorority horror by way of Stephen King’s Carrie. Indeed, this made-for-TV affair lifts narrative beats and imagery directly from both the novel and Brian De Palma’s iconic adaptation. The Initiation of Sarah was directed by Robert Day (She, Corridors of Blood) and, perhaps more excitingly, benefits from the first screenplay by Tom Holland, who went on to write and direct Fright Night, Child’s Play, and Psycho II, among others – including a couple of legitimate Stephen King adaptations. Arrow Films’ upcoming special edition release not only lovingly restores the film but also offers a slew of exciting extras.
Adoptive sisters Patty and Sarah Goodwin (Morgan Brittany and Kay Lenz, respectively) head off to college with one aim: to be accepted into the prestigious Alpha Nu Sigma sorority. Their mother is an alumnus, and she has been grooming Patty for the position since she was born. Sarah, meanwhile, cares less about sororities, and more about sticking close to her sister. Predictably, Patty is a perfect fit for ANS, while Sarah finds herself embraced by Phi Epsilon Delta, a rival sorority overseen by the mysterious Mrs. Hunter (Shelley Winters, devouring the scenery). Amid hazing, pledging, and trying to figure out why exactly these two sororities hate each other, the previously timid Sarah hones and harnesses a telekinetic talent.
The film’s exploration of sorority life – the rivalries, the classism, and elitism – is undeniably its strongest aspect. The girls of ANS recall the titular Stepford Wives: cool, elegant, and perfectly coifed. At their core is Morgan Fairchild, who steals every scene as the queen WASP, Jennifer. She is at once the most hateful, fabulous, and conniving woman who has ever lived. Fairchild clearly relishes every line, every glance, every manipulation, from a coquettish reveal of a reddened shoulder to a compelling performance of feigned contrition. The ANS girls denigrate the PED girls (“Pigs, Elephants, and Dogs,” they sneer) for being less conventional: academic, bookish, “dumpy.” Patty’s initiation requires her refusal to interact with PED, but of course, that now includes her sister, Sarah.
Unfortunately, it is Sarah herself who causes the film to falter. Kay Lenz does well with what she has, especially when Tom Holland’s screenplay is allowed to explore further afield. However, as mentioned, The Initiation of Sarah exists to cash in on the success of Stephen King’s debut novel and, more specifically, the 1976 adaptation. To that end, and especially in the film’s final act, the screenplay hews painfully close to Carrie, hitting almost every narrative beat along the way. We settle into Sarah’s story – the lovely relationship with her sister, the burgeoning friendship with a girl at PED, the mysterious room at the top of the stairs – before being yanked out by a reminder of her, frankly unnecessary, supernatural power. In Carrie, the power is huge and terrifying, and it crescendos into righteous retribution. Here, it feels tacked on: extant only to recall another film.
When not mimicking De Palma’s film, The Initiation of Sarah thrives. Aside from its study of sorority sisters’ schemes and machinations, it invites a queer reading of one particular relationship. Upon first visiting PED, Sarah meets an equally timid girl aptly nicknamed Mouse (a wide-eyed Tisa Farrow). Their mutual attraction is obvious, replete with held gazes, secret smiles, and intimate conversations. This relationship not only makes for a sweet alternative to the implications of Sarah’s interactions with a male teaching assistant, but it also offers another reason why, perhaps, the ANS girls look down on PED. The subtext is further explored in Welcome to Hell Week, a new appreciation featured in this release. Tom Holland was clearly aware of the implications, and he would go on to explore similar themes in other works. For example, he has in the past discussed the deliberate queer subtext of his classic vampire film, Fright Night.
Despite some intriguing ideas – we would be remiss not to mention, too, the enigmatic Mrs. Hunter, and what she has in store for her girls – the film suffers elsewhere. Visually, it lacks any real imagination, lifting its most inventive camera tricks and effects from De Palma’s Carrie (in both films, a mirror shatters in response to the protagonist’s heightened emotions). Otherwise, the film struggles to balance moments of supernatural terror with the necessity to be TV-friendly. As such, no injuries are too severe, and no twists are too shocking. Implications abound, but any step taken towards originality is followed by two steps back down the path Carrie walked first. We await with trepidation, then, a version of the pigs’ blood sequence that features neither pigs nor blood, and lament that the filmmakers had no choice but to copy Carrie.
Stretches of The Initiation of Sarah are undeniably compelling. Conceived in response to Carrie’s success, it should have been allowed space to grow into something fresher. There are flashes of brilliance here, in great part due to Holland’s screenplay, and several excellent performances. The film could have either become a hidden gem in the sorority horror genre or, had it leaned more heavily into performances like Shelley Winters’, a camp classic in its own right. As it stands, it flounders in between. Happily, there is enough diamond in this rough to recommend this Arrow Films release, which comes with an excellent range of special features.
- Brand new 2K restoration from the original camera negative
- HD Blu-ray presentation
- Original audio
- Optional English subtitles
- A brand new commentary by Amanda Reyes
- Welcome to Hell Week: a new appreciation by Stacie Ponder and Queer Horror programmer Anthony Hudson, co-hosts of the Gaylords of Darkness podcast
- Cracks in the Sisterhood: a brand new visual essay by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas
- The Intimations of Sarah: a brand new interview with Samantha McLaren
- The Initiation of Tom: a brand new interview with Tom Holland
- Image gallery
- Reversible sleeve featuring artwork by Luke Insect
- Fully illustrated collector’s booklet (FIRST PRESSING ONLY)
The Initiation of Sarah releases June 20th and is now available to pre-order directly from Arrow Films. Grimoire of Horror thanks Arrow for providing a copy of the film in exchange for an honest review.
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Isabelle is a writer from the UK who enjoys alternative manga and horror films. When not writing, you can probably find Isabelle buying books or obsessing over Martin and Lewis.