23 October 2014

(1983)

The House On Sorority Row was director/writer Mark Rosman's first feature. He had been an assistant to Brian De Palma and obviously learned something from his mentor about how important visual style, a good story and an effective score are to a horror film. The influence is evident throughout the picture.

Shot in Baltimore, Maryland, House ranks just behind Black Christmas, in our opinion, as one of the better works in the genre with a sorority setting.

Soap fans will recognize Young and the Restless and Days of Our Lives veteran Eileen Davidson, as well as Harley Kozak, who had roles on both The Guiding Light and Santa Barbara. Lead Kathryn McNeil played Karen Haines on As The World Turns for three seasons.

It's June 19, 1961 and a storm is raging on this particular evening. Pregnant Dorothy Slater (Lois Kelso Hunt) has gone into labor in her house. Her nurse calls Dr. Nelson Beck (Christopher Lawrence) and he arrives as fast as he can. The woman's life is in danger and the doctor performs a cesarean to save the lives of both the mother and her baby.

However, something goes wrong. When Dorothy wakes up, she asks to see the infant but it appears to have not survived the procedure.

In the present, Mrs. Slater is the house mother at Theta Pi. The girls are planning to leave the school after having graduated. On the last day, Katy Rose (Kathryn McNeil) is packing her things with the help of her mother (played by Ruth Walsh), who wants her to move back home.

Mrs. Rose takes note of the dirty swimming pool outside her daughter's window and makes a comment about how typical it is of Mrs. Slater to leave it in that condition.

Katy says she has a lot to think about. Their conversation is interrupted by Vicki (Eileen Davidson), who tells her sorority sister to stop packing. In private, she implores her to stay until the end of the week to help her and a few of the other girls set up for one final party. Vicki also informs Katy that she's fixed her up on a date.

Meanwhile, Mrs. Slater (who now walks with the aid of a cane) arrives at a clinic for an appointment with Dr. Beck. Reflecting on the traumatic delivery two decades before, she pauses outside when she catches a glimpse of a child playing with a ball.

The doctor tries to talk her into staying at the hospital because her health is worsening. Mrs. Slater refuses, saying she will have the entire sorority house to herself for the next three months.

Told to forget about what happened in the past, she warns Dr. Beck, "If you try to stop me from living as I please, I'll see that what you did is remembered!" The physician gives her a medical alert tag in case of an emergency - and Mrs. Slater heads back to the campus.

Vicki takes her boyfriend Rick (Michael Sergio) to an abandoned barn, where he teaches her to fire a gun. To his surprise, she's a quick learner.

That evening, the remaining girls at Theta Pi enjoy some champagne in one of the rooms. Katy is joined by Diane (Harley Kozak), Jeanie (Robin Meloy), Morgan (Jodi Draigie), Liz (Janis Zido) and Stevie (Ellen Dorsher) - as they toast their success.

Mrs. Slater hears the commotion and rushes inside. As Morgan goes to the bathroom to throw up, she bumps right into her. "What are you girls doing here?" the elder woman demands to know. After all, the house is supposed to be closed. Diane tells her they had to move the party from a place called the Silver Bear due to "insufficient funds."

When Mrs. Slater is told that it was all Vicki's idea, she says she'll deal with her later. "How could you even think of having a drunken spree in my house?" she asks the girls. She tells them she wants them all out by the next day.

Jeanie wonders if they can be kicked out and Diane tells her the bylaws say they can stay. Stevie is upset and asks, "Why does she always close the house on June 19th? Every other house stays open through the weekend." Jeanie tells the group that Mrs. Slater is retiring anyway.

Katy remembers when Slater used to bring tradition into the house, adding that she's become weird in recent years. Diane proposes a final toast "to Mrs. Slater, the house mother to end all house mothers."

Mrs. Slater is resting in her room and gets out of bed to look at the framed pictures that adorn her wall. They're photographs of all the graduating classes through the years. With her mind deteriorating, she rips the photos up and throws them into the fireplace.

Vicki and Rick arrive back when almost everyone has gone to bed. Everyone, that is, except for Mrs. Slater...who goes into the attic which is filled with children's toys. Among them are a rubber ball and a music box with a clown inside that plays a haunting melody. She seems to find comfort with these things as she sits in a rocking chair by the window.

Vicki goes to her bedroom to prepare for a little night action and Rick finds her waiting on her waterbed. Their lovemaking gets the attention of the house mother, who enters the room and slashes the bed with the end of her cane. "You filth...trash like you doesn't belong in my house!" she yells...as water spills all over the floor.

Vicki is furious and chases down the hall after Mrs. Slater, threatening to kill her and calling her a bitch. She says she's going to get back at her and the shouting awakens everyone in the house.

The next morning, the girls are all sitting by the pool. Vicki claims that Mrs. Slater tried to kill her when she ripped the bed. She convinces the others to go along with a prank and comes up with an idea.

Everyone is for it except for Katy, who thinks the whole thing is immature. Their plan is to do the trick on Friday, before the party starts. Katy is outnumbered and while looking up at the attic, she thinks she sees a flickering light.

In his office, Dr. Beck examines Mrs. Slater's most recent X-rays. Speaking into a recorder, he attributes her condition to the traumatic delivery she suffered twenty years before. He believes there has been a slow progression towards a psychotic break - and her advanced age is aggravating the situation.

He feels the only remedy is for Mrs. Slater to spend the next three months under complete clinical supervision. Otherwise, any traumatic episode could act as "a stimulus for the patient's latent violence."

Friday arrives and the girls prepare their prank. Vicki produces a gun that Rick lent her that she claims is unloaded. Katy is still apprehensive about the whole thing.

Mrs. Slater comes downstairs and tells the girls to leave at once as they're setting up for the festivities. Vicki points out to her that she's missing something and Mrs. Slater demands to know where her cane is. She's told to "go check out by the pool."

The cane is on top of a tire floating in the middle of the swimming pool. As the girls watch, Vicki says, "Go ahead, take a swim. You like getting people wet, right?" When Mrs. Slater walks towards her, Vicki pulls out the gun. "If that gun is real, you are all in serious trouble," Slater tells her.

Vicki fires the gun at a lamp post. Liz tells her it isn't funny anymore and as she tries to get the gun, Vicki "shoots" her in the leg. (The others were unaware of this part of the joke.)

Mrs. Slater slumps down into the pool and Vicki fires three shots to frighten her. Liz leaps up and she and Vicki enjoy a laugh, while their sorority sisters are relieved that no one was actually hurt.

Suddenly, Mrs. Slater lunges out of the water and strikes Vicki with the cane. Vicki shoots her...sending the house mother hurling back into the pool.

Katy and Stevie pull her back out but there's no sign of life. Katy tells Stevie and Liz to call an ambulance as panic sets in. The band arrives and Morgan is sent to go distract them.

Vicki reasons that since Mrs. Slater doesn't have any relatives, they can just hide her body. Katy is intent getting help but Vicki stops her and says it's "over for them" if anyone finds out. The rest of the girls agree.

Vicki takes charge and sends some of them to get towels and rope so they can weigh the body down into the pool. No one will find her and they can retrieve the body the next morning. They dump Slater into the water and continue preparing for the party.

By the evening, the band (4 Out of 5 Doctors) is performing and everything is in full swing. A drunken reveler (Ken Myers) wanders off and is impaled by someone with Mrs. Slater's cane. Katy's blind date Peter (Michael Kuhn) arrives and finds her visibly upset in one of the bedrooms. He gives her a corsage and they join the others.

Their date is awkward, since Katy is preoccupied and doesn't want to drink or dance. Most everyone is having a good time...except for the girls of Theta Pi, who are nervous about the submerged corpse.

A scream is heard coming from outside and they rush to find two guys about to throw a girl into the pool.

Diane stops them by saying there's a wet t-shirt contest going on and ends up being pushed into the water herself. The others help her out but Stevie wonders about the pool lights. "What if somebody turns them on"? she asks.

To make sure that doesn't happen, Stevie goes down into the basement to remove the fuse. A rubber ball is rolled towards her. When she attempts to see where it came from, she's stabbed repeatedly in the chest and face with the sharp end of the cane.

The lead singer in the band asks the "graduating ladies" to come forward for a round of applause and someone in the crowd notices that Stevie is missing.

Vicki dances with Rick and he asks her about his gun and whether the prank went well. She seems reluctant to talk about it. The other five remaining girls dance with their dates.

It's impossible to keep people out of the pool. Three guys try to go for a swim and one of them actually ends up in the water. The pool lights are turned on - and the Theta Pi girls rush to see if Mrs. Slater's body is still at the bottom.

They discover that the corpse is missing and discuss what to do next in the kitchen. Katy believes Mrs. Slater is still alive. Vicki accuses Katy and Stevie of mistakenly believing that the house mother was dead in the first place. Diane says they should find her before anyone else does. "How do we know she is still alive?" asks Morgan.

Vicki reasons that if Mrs. Slater wasn't dead, she would have gone to the police. Katy angrily leaves the kitchen and Vicki tells the group they have to find the body.

Morgan starts packing and while clearing out the closet, the hatch to the attic above her opens and Mrs. Slater falls out. Morgan passes out and the others help her regain consciousness. They wonder how the body (which is still wrapped in towels) got up into the attic in the first place and notice that her cane is missing.

Again, they have to hide the corpse somewhere and Vicki suggests taking her to Parkview Cemetery. Morgan looks at the body and screams. She runs off to have a drink and Vicki tells Katy not to pamper her. Just as Vicki is saying that they're "all in this together," Katy smacks her.

Morgan takes a swig and changes into her nightgown. On the patio outside her room, someone leaves the music box for her to find. She picks it up and it plays the lullaby as the clown twirls around. The killer comes up from behind and stabs her with the cane.

Katy searches throughout the house for Morgan as the party continues. There's no sign of her in the bedroom but she finds the music box on the ground. She then goes up into the attic, where she lights a candle to get a better look. Katy sees the toys and also finds a birthday card which is signed, "To Eric...love, Mother."

Behind a curtain, Katy comes across a clown costume that resembles the figure in the music box. Peter appears and is amused by what he sees. Katy tells him to go back downstairs and have another drink. Before he does, he points out a birdcage with a dead bird inside.

Mrs. Slater's body is taken out of the house through a back exit. Vicki tells Diane to drive Liz's van and meet them at one of the garages. She then hides the corpse in a dumpster, with the help of Liz and Jeanie.

While waiting in the van for the other three, Diane looks up at the sunroof and sees someone. Before she can react, the killer stabs her hand with the cane and then jabs her in the face.

Vicki, Liz and Jeanie bump right into a campus police officer's patrol car as they push the dumspter and cause a fender bender. Jeanie dashes back to the house as the cop (Ed Heath) calls the station to report the accident.

Vicki tells him, "We always take the trash out at night," dismissing the fact that it's nearly 2:00 in the morning. The officer is distracted by an emergency and the two girls continue on their way.

Next to a gate outside the sorority, Jeanie narrowly avoids being struck by the killer, who drops Mrs. Slater's medical tag. She escapes and makes it to the house, where she finds Katy. Bruised and shocked from the attack, she can barely describe what happened. Katy leaves her in the kitchen to go get help.

The guests are all starting to leave. Jeanie grabs a butcher knife for protection as the killer enters the house by breaking a window. She rushes upstairs to a bathroom and throws up in one of the stalls.

The killer follows her and turns on all the showers. Jeanie crouches on a toilet, hoping she won't be detected. As the psycho opens all the stall doors, she makes an effort to escape...only to end up being stabbed in the neck.

Katy doesn't find Jeanie in the kitchen. She tells Peter that several of her friends are missing and tries to phone the sheriff. She realizes she shouldn't call the authorities and hangs up. "They must have just left the party," she tells Peter...before asking him to leave.

Katy finds Mrs. Slater's tag and it has a phone number printed on it. She calls it and gets Dr. Beck on the other end. Katy tells him she found it near the spot where Jeanie was attacked and that three of the girls have disappeared. When he asks where Mrs. Slater is, Katy is evasive. The doctor tells her he's on his way.

Liz and Vicki finally make it to the garage but Diane isn't in the van. They decide to drive the body to the cemetery themselves and find an open grave. The two of them dig the hole deeper and as Liz attempts to pull the van around, the killer slashes her neck.

Vicki calls out for her but gets no answer. She sees Liz sitting in the front seat and when she opens the door, her friend's body falls out. She turns around to see the killer holding the cane and is struck several times with it.

Peter is sitting in his car (too intoxicated to drive home) as Dr. Beck arrives at the house. Katy takes him up to the attic, where she shows him the toys and the dead bird.

She asks the doctor why Mrs. Slater wore the tag and is told that the house mother came to him to try and conceive a child after hearing about his fertility experiments. Dr. Beck says she's been in a world of her own ever since the delivery.

Katy asks about the name "Eric" on the card and the doctor tells her that Mrs. Slater celebrates a birthday every June 19th "as if she had a normal, loving son." As Katy is asking if it's possible that Mrs. Slater could have attacked Jeanie, she notices something in the swimming pool.

She turns the pool lights on and sees Diane's body floating in the water. In tears, Katy falls into the doctor's arms. Dr. Beck calls the police and Katy tells him that Mrs. Slater could have followed Vicki and Liz to the cemetery.

They head out to Parkview and along the way, Katy explains the story. She says that she and the other girls thought they had killed Mrs. Slater and the corpse they found at the party must have been Stevie's.

When they get to the cemetery, Katy walks up to the open grave and finds Vicki and Liz sprawled out at the bottom of the ditch. Dr. Beck unwraps the towels around the body in Liz's van and they see that it is indeed Mrs. Slater. "He's alive," Dr. Beck says...referring to her son.

He takes Katy back to the house and tells her that the police aren't coming. He then injects her with a mild sedative and sits her down in a sofa chair, where he reveals that Eric was born with "certain abnormalities." Dr. Beck informs Katy he must find the son and uses her as bait...since she's the only one left alive.

The drug starts to take effect and Katy begins hallucinating. She sees images of her dead friends, including Jeanie's head in the toilet. Peter comes in through the patio doors and Dr. Beck shoots him with a tranquilizer. When the doctor isn't looking, Katy runs upstairs into one of the bedrooms. She grabs Rick's gun but Eric himself kills the doctor with the cane.

Katy finds Mrs. Slater's son (played by Charles Serio) standing over the body and tries to shoot...but fires blanks and goes to hide in the bathroom. She sees Jeanie's head in the toilet of one of the stalls.

Still feeling the effects of the drug, Katy tries to find a way out of the house through a patio on the second floor. With no other options, she climbs up a latter to the attic instead.

Hoping to lure Eric so she can shoot him, she winds the music box and waits. In the film's most frightening moment, we see that the killer has slipped into the clown outfit and is standing right next to her.

He strikes at Katy with the cane but she moves away just in time. After firing several blanks, Katy knocks a couple of toys to the ground to distract Eric. She picks up a doll and removes the head, revealing a small knife. She then stabs him several times until he finally falls down the open hatch to the lower floor.

Katy lays on the ground, believing her nightmarish ordeal is over. She's unaware that her attacker has opened his eyes below her...

The House On Sorority Row was a solid first effort from Mark Rosman. Only twenty-four at the time of production, the film remains impressive on many levels. A strong entry in the standard slasher genre of horror, the murders are well-executed and the storyline is engaging without being too complex.

Worth mentioning are some definite directorial "touches" here that prove there was thought behind the camera i.e flourishes of the killer hiding behind slats in the basement, the recurring image of the bird on Slater's cane, etc.

The cast is attractive in a realistic way. The basic plot (group kills someone by accident and it comes back to haunt them) seems fresh and invigorated, no small feat considering what a cliche that had become.

Richard Band composed the fine, haunting score - and it was recorded by the London Philharmonic Orchestra.

The House On Sorority Row is by far a superior film to the better known Slumber Party Masscare and Sorority House Massacre series.

Mark Rosman has had contiuned success in the industry, scoring back-to-back box office hits with A Cinderella Story (2004) and The Perfect Man (2005). In addition, he's also directed for television, including episodes of the updated Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Ghost Whisperer.

copyright 1998-present | The Terror Trap; www.terrortrap.com | all rights reserved