27 July 2014

(1978)

The phenomenal critical and box office success of Brian De Palma's Carrie in 1976 led to a flurried rash of inspired imitations within a few short years.

Theatrically, there was the snake-obsessed Jennifer and the offbeat Australian sleeper Patrick (both 1978), among others.

Not to be outdone, television was ready for the combustible combination of telekinesis and teenage angst, promptly bestowing on us The Spell (1977) and, airing on February 6 the following year, the spunky Initiation of Sarah.

Despite its obvious debt to Carrie, particularly in several key scenes, Sarah is admirably directed by Robert Day and is great fun on its own...mostly due to a terrific cast.

An attractive and hardworking actress Kay Lenz played the lead in a simple and sympathetic manner. The two Morgans of the day (Fairchild and Brittany) were equally good.

Fairchild has a field day as the quintessential sorority bitch with a capital B - the kind of role she became primarily known for during her career.

And then there is the late, great Shelley Winters. Ah, Shelley...she sure knew how to play a blowsy witch better than anyone in the business.

At a get-together on the beach - "the last party of the summer" - Sarah Goodwin (Kay Lenz) expresses apprehension about starting college to her sister Patty (Morgan Brittany).

Although Patty tries to reassure her, Sarah feels a sense of foreboding about her new life and believes they may get separated once there.

A young man (Albert Owens) approaches the women and convinces Patty to go for a swim. But he has other things on his mind. As he tries to kiss Patty, Sarah yells out "stop it!" and the guy falls back into the water.

The semester is beginning and the next day, Sarah and Patty are setting out for their drive to Waltham College. Mrs. Goodwin (Kathryn Grant) is excited...particularly for Patty...and she tells her, "I just want it to be as wonderful for you as it was for me." Their mother doesn't seem connected to Sarah, whom she adopted. Dad has passed away.

As the sisters approach the school, Patty tells Sarah, "You know, I've heard that sororities go a lot by who your mother is...we've got it made." To which Sarah responds, "No...YOU'VE got it made." She worries that the other girls will find out that Mrs. Goodwin is not actually her birth mother.

The first girl they meet is Bobbie Adams (Deborah Ryan), who gives them directions to the freshman dorm. Upon hearing Patty's name, Jennifer Lawrence (Morgan Fairchild) remarks that Patty's "got real possibilities." After all, Mrs. Goodwin is the head of the alumni group.

Inside the dorm...Bobbie tells the incoming students and future pledges that they will be visiting all the sororities on campus - and will meet the girls who are active. After being accepted, the students will be on probation during the first quarter....then comes "hell week" followed by initiation.

Bobbie is a member of Alpha Nu Sigma, the same sorority that Patty's mother belonged to. ANS is the most exclusive club on the campus and during their visit, Sarah and Patty formally meet bitchy Jennifer and her group, which includes Laura (Elizabeth Stack) and Kathy (Jennifer Gay).

Sarah's fear soon comes true as the other girls snub her and Patty is immediately accepted. A heavyset student named Regina (Susan Duvall) sees her predicament and tells her she's in the same boat, adding that this particular sorority is based on "looks and bread."

As Patty and Sarah are leaving, it is sarcastically recommended that they visit Phi Epsilon Delta (PED) which is referred to as "Pigs, Elephants and Dogs." It's a joke clearly made at Sarah's expense. A remark is uttered after they've left that Alpha Nu Sigma has got a winner...and a loser.

The sisters do indeed stop by PED and are met by a menacing canine. Sarah quickly subdues it with a controlling glance and they meet Alberta (Tisa Farrow) known as "Mouse," Barbara (Nora Heflin) and Allison (Talia Balsam).

The house is dreary and not nearly as exciting or glamorous as ANS. However, Sarah leaves her name at the register as the housemother, Mrs. Erica Hunter (Shelley Winters), watches from the staircase.

Patty genuinely feels sorry for Sarah and tries to build up her self-confidence. This act of generosity is overshadowed when Sarah overhears a phone conversation between Patty and their mom. Sarah goes back to her room and the mirror she stares into suddenly cracks.

The results are in and Patty is accepted into three sororities, including Alpha Nu Sigma. Sarah's only acceptance is Phi Epsilon Delta.

The girls of ANS immediately converge on Patty and she is cruelly tested by being forced to utter, "I will not associate with pigs, elephants and dogs anywhere" in front of Sarah. Threatened by Jennifer with being blackballed if she refuses, Patty complies.

Sarah runs off crying and in her anger, she uses her ESP to nearly drop a piano on Patty that's being lifted into a dorm by Scott (Robert Hays) and Freddie (Michael Talbott). She is hurt by what her sister did but Sarah forgives Patty and is befriended by Paul Yates (Tony Bill), a psychology teaching assistant.

Sarah moves into PED and is welcomed by Mrs. Hunter, who is drawn to the new pledge. Regina, the other reject from ANS, is there. Mouse constantly plays the violin to keep from "freaking out" - she has tried to commit suicide in the past. Sarah and Mouse become good friends.

Mrs. Hunter asks to meet with Sarah privately, where she inquires about her real mother. She knew Sarah's father when she herself attended Waltham College...and was once the president of PED during her senior year.

She offers to help Sarah learn how to use her powers and it is suggested that perhaps Mrs. Hunter is Sarah's natural mother. The discussion makes Sarah nervous and she leaves the room.

When Mouse is injured in a car accident, Sarah tries to rally the other girls into being more positive. There is laughter in the house and Mrs. Hunter is determined to give Phi Epsilon Delta the prestige it had in the 1950s.

There will be rituals, complete with hell week...and an initiation ceremony, two things that haven't been done in the sorority for twenty years.

Sarah starts to get closer to Paul and tells him about her power, which she realizes is caused by anger. Although he doesn't know what quite to believe, he seems to think that her problem is more psychological than supernatural.

Meanwhile, Paul does research on Mrs. Hunter and discovers that when she was queen of PED years before, she used the initiation in a "strange way" and a girl died. It was suggested that Mrs. Hunter was directly responsible, an accusation made by Jennifer Lawrence's mother.

Mrs. Hunter disappeared, only to return when a new administration took over and the animosity between the two houses has continued ever since. Paul insists that Sarah leave PED right away.

There is finally a confrontation between Jennifer and Sarah when Jennifer insists on teasing Mouse. Sarah mentally forces her nemesis into a water fountain and tells her off in front of a crowd of onlookers.

Vowing to get even, Jennifer convinces Scott to ask Sarah to a fake birthday party for Paul. Sarah agrees but it is a setup. Looking lovely in an evening dress, Sarah is pelted with tomatoes and garbage by the girls of Alpha Nu Sigma as she steps out to meet Scott.

Screaming and in tears, she is comforted by Mrs. Hunter...who is determined to use Sarah's anger to avenge their sorority. As a test, she encourages Sarah to get back at Jennifer by locking her in a shower with scalding hot water.

Unfortunately, Patty becomes a victim as well. She had gone to Jennifer's room to tell her she's leaving the house because of what they did to her sister. Both girls escape with minor damage.

The following evening, initiation rites are to take place across the campus. Patty will not attend anything, since she doesn't belong to a sorority...and Jennifer feels that she purposefully rigged the shower.

Students at Alpha Nu Sigma hold their essentially harmless ceremony...but Phi Epsilon Delta is another matter altogether. Mrs. Hunter has the girls dress in hooded black gowns for the ceremony - to take place in the garden maze just outside the house. As for Mouse, she is suddenly missing in action.

With Mrs. Hunter encouraging her to use her power to destroy their enemies, Sarah conjures up a windstorm at ANS...and Jennifer is disfigured into a burnt old hag.

Sarah snaps out of Mrs. Hunter's spell when she spots Mouse under a table. Her friend is about to be sacrificed during the satanic ritual, just as a girl had been killed two decades earlier. Sarah focuses her attention on Mrs. Hunter and causes the maze to go up in flames, consuming them both.

Soon after, Patty is invited by Mouse to live at PED as she packs to move into one of the dorms. Sensing that it would be a nice tribute to her sister, Patty says yes.

Director Robert Day was no stranger to television, amassing a huge body of work that includes The House on Greenapple Road and Ritual of Evil (both 1970), Death Stalk (1975), as well as episodes of The Sixth Sense and Ghost Story.

The year after The Initiation of Sarah, Day went on to direct the excellent mystery Murder By Natural Causes starring Hal Holbrook and Katharine Ross.

Kay Lenz (married to David Cassidy at the time she filmed Sarah) also remained mostly in television. Although excellent on the big screen in Breezy (1973), Moving Violation (1976) and later, House (1986), she won two Emmy Awards and several more nominations for TV roles.

It should come as no surprise that Sarah still resonates today - not only with viewers who were lucky enough to catch it upon first airing back in 1978...but new initiates as well who stumble upon it over three decades later.

Like Carrie, one of the primary strengths of this film is its ability to effectively draw completely fleshed sketches of timeless archetypes: the outrageous sorority bitch 'Jennifer' simply begging for her comeuppance, the pretty (yet sensitive) young 'Patty' who can have it all, the can't-put-your-finger-on-it weirdness of 'Mrs. Hunter' the housemother, and most importantly, the shy and introverted charm of outsider 'Sarah.'

Indeed, the enduring appeal of The Initiation of Sarah is clearly its effortless talent at plugging its own character list into any modern one - and finding the translation nearly seamless.

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