‘House’ vs. No House: The Sorority Row Films, Then and Now

Remakes are often relegated to the role of rejects. It’s rare when an update of an already established film outshines or upstages the source. For the most part, these revamps are viewed as pointless cash grabs, studios or rights holders obsessed with turning past profiteering into a more modern moneymaking scheme. Sure, there are examples of success — David Cronenberg’s Fly comes to mind. But for every John Carpenter’s The Thing, there are dozens of Gus Van Sant’s Psychos.

Yes, it does seem like the horror genre captures the majority of the remake flack. It’s a cheap out, a way for a fledgling filmmaker or seasoned video vet to grab some hype and raise awareness. So when it was announced that 2009’s Sorority Row would re-imagine the “classic” slasher film from 1983, The House on Sorority Row, no one could have envisioned the outcome. Not only did the Briana Evigan/Leah Pipes vehicle surpass the original in blood and body count, but in revisiting the recent rerelease of the Reagan Era effort from Liberation Entertainment, one thing is crystal clear. This is one sour source.

The narrative is confusing in its convolutions and contrivances. An aging house mother, Mrs. Dorothy Slater (Lois Kelso Hunt) mandates that every June 17th, the mansion-like Theta Phi residence be closed up for the summer. This places the graduating seniors — Katey, Vicki, Liz, Jeanie, Diane, Morgan, and Stevie — in a predicament. They want to throw a drunken debauched celebration to their college days, and losing the sorority house puts a huge cramp in the alcohol-infused fun. A seemingly deadly prank apparently cures their location issues, but not without consequence. One by one, the lovely ’80s honeys are picked off by an unseen killer, the standard scary movie slice and dice applying with just a touch of nightie and negligee action thrown in for good measure.

In the post-millennial version of the storyline, a group of similarly stressed Greek gals (a couple of whom are actual daughters of celebrities) decided to get revenge on a skeezy boy whose been boning competing coeds. Of course, their plans go wildly askew when the guy decides to “destroy” the evidence of his supposed sex crime. Sure enough, someone with an afterlife axe to grind and the ability to wield weaponry with deadly accuracy starts splattering our Blackberry babes one by one. As with the original trip down Sorority Row, the reveal of who and what strains credibility while suggesting that sex, violence, and potential T&A played a far more important role in the production than actually trying to provide some actual scares.

For many, the original movie, made by then fledgling filmmaker Mark Rosman, has all the earmarks of a creative coattail ride. With Jason Voorhees riding wild, and all manner of new human-monsters doing their by-the-numbers victim stalking, it made perfect sense to explore all avenues and possible locations for a little vicarious vivisection. While it does play around with some slightly insane elements (the whole doctor/Mrs. Slater dynamic is just surreal in its medical oddness), House on Sorority Row wants to be taken seriously. The mostly unknown cast — including a pre-The Young and the Restless Eileen Davidson — do their darnedest to deliver on the slight potential provided by Rosman and co-writer Bobby Fine’s flailing ideas. When they succeed, we see glimmers of horror fandom hope. When they don’t, everything turns exceptionally dull.

At least newcomer Stewart Hendler — who was, believe it or not, five years old when the original was released – knows which side of his bread the bloodbath is buttered on. The latest stealthy stroll down an avenue of privilege and plastic surgery has more than enough of the red stuff to keep gorehounds and the hematolagnians in the audience happy for days. 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. But at least the new Sorority Row tries. The original just delivered some questionable cheesecake and then turned on the proposed terror.

But the real difference between the two is purpose. The new Sorority Row is striving to be little more than a throwback, a Hills laced lament to the days when fright flicks had to be little more than giggle-fests with splatter. There is no attempt at depth or complex characterization, not need to get fancy with narrative or plotting. The original, on the other hand, runs all over the eccentricity map. From the opening childbirth sequence to the illuminated swimming pool just outside of shots, Rosman imagines himself forging something akin to art — trash art, but ingenious kitsch nonetheless. As a result, you can literally see the movie struggle, desperate not to be taken as yet another Friday the Halloween on Elm Street rip-off. But within all of these oddball touches lies the film’s fatal flaw. We want dread and death, not idiosyncrasies and weirdness.

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?), The House on Sorority Row and its 2009 retake will be a pleasant bit of minor 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, these films promises little and then deliver. 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. Neither Sorority Row will restore it, but it also won’t tarnish it further.

RATING 5 / 10