Monday, December 16, 2013


Initiation of Sarah, The (1978) d. Robert Day (USA)

It's easy to see why this this late-'70s TV-movie has been historically categorized as a low-fi rip-off of Brian De Palma's stellar screen version of Carrie, released two years prior to much critical and commercial acclaim. Both feature ugly duckling female teen protagonists with pyschic abilities, both have snotty popular cliques tormenting our hapless heroine, both have "beautiful swan" moments that end in humiliation, and both conclude with fiery climaxes of death and destruction. It's probably not too much of a stretch to say that the walking orders for screenwriters Don Ingalls, Kenette Gfeller, and Carol Saraceno (who wrote the original screen story with genre veteran-to-be Tom Holland) were to "crank out something along the lines of Stephen King's novel while making enough changes to avoid any legal proceedings." That said, The Initiation of Sarah still manages to be a fairly entertaining slice of mainstream fright fare.

Sarah (Kay Lenz), a plain Jane wallflower-type, and Patty (Morgan Brittany), her attractive and popular stepsister, have just graduated from high school and are heading off to college together. Patty's social-climber mother (7th Voyage of Sinbad's Kathryn Grant) pushes her daughter to pledge her old sorority house, Alpha Neu Sigma, in order to curry favor with the next generation of social climbers, while dismissing Sarah as "not ANS material." In fact, of all the sororities pledged, only the brainiacs and misfits of Phi Epsilon Delta accept Sarah as one of their own.

Separated for the first time, the wedge is further driven between the two sisters by the catty ANS ringleader, Jennifer (a perfectly plastic Morgan Fairchild, making her TV-movie debut), and PED's mysteriously malevolent house mother, Miss Hunter (Shelley Winters, in prime hag-horror mode). Tensions escalate between the two houses during the prolonged hazing period, with Miss Hunter's dark occult past bringing out the worst in Sarah's growing telekinetic tendencies.

Within the limitations of its presumably miniscule budget, Brit director Robert Day (who possesses some worthy early genre credits, including 1956's The Green Man, The Haunted Strangler, Corridors of Blood and Hammer's She with Ursula Andress) wrings a worthy amount of suspense and character from his likable cast.

Sarah's psychic bursts are preceded by varying Dutch-angled zooming freeze frames, allowing for a cheesy but enjoyably so moment of "oh, boy, here it comes" even if the results aren't nearly as flashy (a piano load-bearing rope snaps, a bitchy sorority girl flipping backward into a pool, a mirror shattering). Speaking of flashing, there is a rather racy (for TV) sequence with Fairchild and Brittany trapped in a scalding shower stall that titillates even as it raises titters.

The performances are all capable enough, with Lenz a relatable and sympathetic lead - not nearly as pathetic and sheltered as Sissy Spacek's Carrie White, Lenz's Sarah is a pleasant if shy oddball who blossoms under the mutual companionship of others within her less-popular station. Brittany is engaging and sweet, a victim of her own attractive demeanor, and it's nice that the screenwriters never feel obliged to turn her into a monster. She's just a confused young lady learning to navigate the social waters.

Winters is absolutely terrific in her slow bubbling descent into madness, seeing Lenz as the vehicle to do her dark master's bidding. Fairchild, for all her stereotypical mean girl antics, does a fine job as an immature monster - one gets the sense that she's still learning the full measure of her powers, much like Lenz. Robert Hays, who would star in Airplane! two years later, seems miscast as Fairchild's stud boyfriend with a delayed conscience, but veteran character actor-turned-director Tony Bill does solid work as a student teacher who catches Sarah's eye. Genre fans should also keep an eye out for Tisa Farrow (Lucio Fulci's Zombie) and Talia Balsam (David Schmoeller's Crawlspace) as Lenz's housemates.

In a bizarre programming twist, Shout! Factory has paired The Initiation of Sarah with that same year's Are You in the House Alone?) for their bare-bones double-feature disc, TV Terrors. For aficionados of small screen screams, it's an unfortunate choice since the latter is not a horror film at all but rather an examination of high school rape in a small town, notable primarily for showcasing a young Dennis Quaid. Considering the wealth of worthwhile made-for-TV '70s fright flicks, Shout! Factory's decision is a puzzling and/or lazy one - I'd be curious to hear their rationale for the team-up. (Unless, perhaps, someone was crying out for a 1978 Tony Bill two-fer?)

Nevertheless, Sarah is worth your time (as is House, for that matter, as long as you know what you're in for) and for this viewer's money, even preferable to the recent big-budget Hollywood Carrie redux.

To order TV Terrors, visit the Shout! Factory website.

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