Briana Evigan, Leah Pipes, Rumer Willis, Jamie Chung, Audrina Patridge, Carrie Fisher
(Summit Entertainment; US theatrical: 11 Sep 2009 (General release); UK theatrical: 11 Sep 2009 (General release); 2009)
A slasher film is only as good as its slice and dice. That’s a given. It also needs a compelling killer that instills a sense of monstrous mystery within the narrative and a group of victims that are interchangeable without being totally vacant. Oh, and there must be blood - lots and (c)lots of blood. Find a way to make all these elements work in some sort of plausible proportion and you’ll give an already suspicious fright film audience their basic money’s worth. Earlier this year, My Bloody Valentine 3D and Friday the 13th 2009 brought the aging horror format back from the commercial dead. Both films found a compelling way to sell their systematic slaughter. Now comes another remake, this time of 1983’s House on Sorority Row, and while it remembers to address the basic tenets of terror, the uneven way it gets there eventually undermines its effectiveness.
Senior sisters Cassidy, Chugs, Ellie, Claire, and Jessica are the queen bees of the Theta Pi house. Along with fellow fembot Megan, they reign supreme over their particular plot of the on-campus clique community. One night, during a massive party, the girls decide to pull a prank on Chugs’ unstable brother Garrett. Fast forward a few hours and things have gone horribly wrong, requiring the disposal of a body and a strong arm vow of silence. Eight months later and it’s time to graduate. Just one more blow out shindig and a year of death, decisions, and deception will be forgotten forever - except, there’s a hooded figure roaming sorority row, and it has only one thought on its mind…revenge. That’s right, someone is targeting the gals for their part in the awful events of that long ago night, and they won’t stop until every last one of them has paid…in blood.
As long as you understand what Sorority Row is, as long as you don’t go into it expecting some snarky reimagining or straight forward shocker, you’ll survive. You won’t always enjoy the experience, but the overall effect remains solidly stuck in the ‘80s. Director Stewart Hendler, a clear student of the Greed Decades defining genre subcategory, does his best to inject a kind of snide cynicism into the mix, making his uptight college gals as bitchy and belittling as a TMZ byline. When these proper young ladies deliver an insult, it’s bound to sting - and badly. But he is also considerate of the cinematic shorthand mandated by this kind of movie. We get the typical cat and mouse moments, the false scares and preplanned shocks - and when necessary - the cruel and heartless hacking that gorehounds have come to love.
But don’t get the wrong idea - journeyman efficiency is not the same thing as outright entertainment value. Like a celluloid seesaw, Sorority Row rocks back and forth between fun and forgettable, drawn out moments of catty character interaction dulling the otherwise razor-sharp ripping. In order to maintain the proper victim to red herring ratio, the script by Josh Stolberg and Pete Goldfinger keeps introducing new characters, including a bunch of meatheaded frat boyfriends, a politically ambitious Senator, a sexually perverted psychologist, a suspicious collection of ancillary sisters (one who actually pays for her shower stall eavesdropping), and the arrival of a spectral sibling whose only purpose appears to be out witching the already established campus coven (SNAP!). They provide a diversion, but not the kind that keeps you invested in the mystery.
In fact, a lot of Sorority Row feels superficial, fashioned out of pieces that will trigger thoughts of excitement in the viewer’s head without actually sparking any real enthusiasm. This is especially true for students of the fear format, those long haul horror mavens who’ve championed the style ever since Christmas went Black and Halloween turned even more terrifying. Granted, it’s easy to appreciate the combination of humor and hacking - it’s been a long standing tradition in the slasher film. It’s just too bad then that more attention was paid to the jokes and personal put downs than the means of dispensing death. A retrofitted tire iron, complete with a bowie knife, is a rather limited means of dismembering and while our killer uses a couple other devices to get his (or her) murderous point across, this is not an exercise in unique methods of maiming.
As for the acting, no one is earning their scream queen mythos from this group of good looking ciphers. Only Rumer Willis (daughter of Bruce and Demi) leaves an impression, and that’s mostly because she’s a one note blubbering idiot most of the time. Looking for misplaced emotional outbursts? The former power couple’s kid is ready to weep like a wounded war widow. Elsewhere, The Hills’ Adrina Partridge is typecast - as a personality free corpse - while Margo Harshman turns Chugs into every father’s binge drinking, drug taking, boy screwing, future porn starring nightmare. Only Leah Pipes seems locked into her character’s ripe royal smarm, delivering her cruel criticism with a wicked wink toward the audience. And Greg Evigan’s daughter Briana is deliberately dour as vexed voice of reason Cassidy. For the most part, however, everyone here is interchangeable, the kind of ill-defined mannequins that have you questioning individual and importance time and time again.
Still, for anyone who spent a dateless Saturday night perusing the bevy of b-titles malingering along the bottom shelf of their local Mom and Pop video store (remember those?), Sorority Row will be a pleasant bit of nostalgia. Sure, the girls are far more “fake” in their various forms of undressed physicality and Hendler has a ways to go before he can be called a master of macabre, but for the most part, this film promises little and then delivers. Nothing fancy. Nothing forward thinking. And sadly, nothing very frightening either. Perhaps because of its status as an overused commercial gimmick to get ‘80s adolescents into movie theaters, the slasher film has lost most of its luster. Sorority Row won’t restore it, but it also won’t tarnish it further.