Sunday, April 10, 2011

Remakes: Redux, Or Ridiculous? -- A Row of Sorority Slashers




One of the last truly watchable slashers from the 1980s is Mark Rosman's THE HOUSE ON SORORITY ROW (1983). Rosman co-wrote the script providing some choice additions that were lacking from any number of similar movies that were still flooding drive in's and video stores at the time. It had both likable and unlikable characters, young and old and had a little more going on as opposed to the typical stalker in the woods motif. The killer is unusually pitiable here reaching an almost FRANKENSTEINian level of tragedy. If there's one element of this well made slasher that barely makes a passing grade, it's the lackluster effects work-- generally considered the bread and butter of this frequently derided, much maligned sub genre. Without plentiful and juicily realistic gore shots, slashers have little else to offer horror sadists. More often than not, the slasher flicks of today have become far worse representations of the older variety only now they're spruced up with uncharacteristically physically fit cast members, shaky cam acrobatics and an overabundance of lifeless CGI gore that has since replaced the artistry of the hand made effects of yesteryear.

SORORITY ROW (2009) is a supremely stupid slasher shit stain that is very much par for the course for horror of this day and age. The characters are yet more conveyor belt roughage of the detestable sort. Virtually all of these vapid vixens are hostile, vile, cruel bitches. And in typical modern horror style, the one (maybe two) characters "designed" for audience sympathy are far less expansive than the cruel company they keep. Incredible. Possibly SOMEONE will figure out one day that by killing off people we feel something for will make for a far more visceral, "rewarding" experience than filling your movie with a bunch of fake, self absorbed individuals whose sole existence is to piss off the viewer and be offed in some kind of elaborate fashion. Some may dig this kind of set up, but I hate it.

This is one of those movies where the scriptwriters (the original films director, Mark Rosman wrote a treatment for the remake) were clueless as to how to make such an enterprise work in a cohesive manner. Both logic and common sense are thrown down into the well where one of the moronic beyond words duplicitous dames has been tossed after she's accidentally snuffed out in one of the most ridiculous story ideas this sub genre has ever embraced. For years the slasher film has been subjected to a hailstorm of unflattering labels, but seldom has one of these movies been this lifeless and unbelievably braindead as SORORITY ROW. In its defense, it does have a few funny lines and a couple of nods to the far superior original movie. As opposed to giving a credit to the new films origins, the credits have this at the beginning--'Based on the screenplay, "Seven Sisters", by Mark Rosman'. Incidentally, the original film had seven conspirators.

The new version features five; odd especially considering movies nowadays are obsessed with overkill--more is better. Not to fear, though, as additional characters not associated with the crime ultimately buy the farm. However, the new movie does pay some homage to the original in a couple of ways such as that films weapon of death putting in a cameo appearance and the Theta Pi house itself is reminiscent of the sorority house in the original.

The plot of both films are vastly different with only minimal similarities. Still, both films do share some minor affiliation with William Castle's I SAW WHAT YOU DID (1965) in some tweaks of plot details. It's curious as to why the makers of the new version even bothered making any connection at all. Outside of the 'sorority prank gone wrong' plot device, there's little else the two pictures share with one another. I assume with the society we live in today where everyone is conditioned to look a certain way, this sort of emotional detachment naturally spills over into the movies. In the world of SORORITY ROW, everyone "looks the same"; like they've just stepped off a modeling gig. Again, par for the horror course these days. I wonder if Rod Serling and his crew realized just how prophetic the old TWILIGHT ZONE episode, 'Number 12 Looks Just Like You' was really going to be?

The makers of the original movie were at least cognizant in their ability to weave a plot that was within the realm of possibility. They also were aware enough to at least make their characters do things and react in a believably logical manner, something that's totally and irrefutably lost on the makers of the newer picture. Slasher films have regularly been cited for major lapses in logic and SORORITY ROW (2009) reinforces this popular notion to the point that it would be a parody if the whole enterprise wasn't taken so seriously. It's one thing to go in the basement alone--something many would never do, but it's an action that's not too difficult to imagine a person doing it. Illogical actions and responses are right at home in cinema, especially the horror genre; it's expected. But SORORITY ROW (2009) and its cast of callous characters bathes in it on several occasions.

The sheer level of irrationality in the 2009 remake wastes no time in smacking the audience square in the face with a big stick of dumbass. The cruel prank that is played out during the opening ten minutes goes so far beyond the realm of common sense, it becomes caricature. These are purportedly civil minded, reasonably intelligent, if undeniably cold-hearted young people. One character, professing to love his supposedly dead girlfriend unequivocally, wastes no time in gruesomely maiming the body. Not only that, but by the end when the killer is finally revealed, this, too, makes absolutely no sense, yet falls neatly in place with all the rampant stupidity that preceded it. If you recall the big reveal in SCREAM (1996), you will have some idea of what happens here.

The single best shot in the entirety of SORORITY ROW (2009)

While Rosman's original is a bit different from the typical slashers of the time period, it still follows the narrative structure indigenous to the sub genre. The beginning of the movie takes place in 1961 before flashing forward some twenty years later. The difference here is that this opening sequence isn't a setup of retribution for a past wrong, at least not in the classical slasher sense. The plot device of a vendetta doesn't come until halfway into the movie. The remake forgoes this altogether and immediately thrusts the audience right into the action, ever how vacuous it may be. We follow the steadicam in and around the Theta Pi house observing the ripped and toned cast and extras mere moments before the vicious prank takes center stage.

The Force wasn't strong with Mrs. Crenshaw. She's felled by a Sith Lord with a modified tire iron.

The house mother, the major driving force in the original movie, takes a backseat in the remake as well as a name change. Carrie (THE BLUES BROTHERS, STAR WARS series) Fisher's Mrs. Crenshaw is mainly there as filler, or as a possible red herring. When she suddenly crops up at the end, she completes this unintentionally comedic wardrobe with unkempt tresses by showcasing this character as either inebriated, or coked out of her mind going through the house blasting away with a shotgun during the conclusion. This was one of relatively few genuinely laugh inducing moments seeing the former Princess Leia either missing her intended target, or simply wasting ammunition by firing at walls, pots and pans while spouting one liners and expletives.

THE HOUSE ON SORORITY ROW (1983) has some noticeable homages to the classic Bob Clark movie BLACK CHRISTMAS (1974) and elements of vintage suspense thrillers in its air of mystery regarding the true identity of the killer. SORORITY ROW (2009) obviously takes its biggest cue from the tiresome SCREAM (1996) movies, but comes off sporting a level of intelligence that's more in line with I KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER (1997). Modern audiences will no doubt have more appreciation for the recent abomination likely because its cast is "hot stuff" and the look and editing of the film has that shaky cam, fast cut, fat stripped away, "cut to the chase" air about it. The photography is good, but has that typical monochrome look of movies these days. The original has better acting, a better, more believable story rife with characters the audience will care about and some fine photographic touches. It might be older, more slowly paced, but I'll take the far classier original over this lifeless, creatively handicapped cacophony any day of the week.

HOUSE ON SORORITY ROW images from the Elite DVD

SORORITY ROW images from the Summit DVD

The Howling (1981) review


Dee Wallace (Karen White), Patrick Macnee (Dr. George Waggner), Christopher Stone (Bill Neill), Belinda Balaski (Terry Fisher), Dennis Dugan (Chris), Kevin McCarthy (Fred Francis), John Carradine (Erle), Slim Pickens (Sam), Elisabeth Brooks (Marsha Quist), Robert Picardo (Eddie Quist), Dick Miller (Walter Paisley), Kenneth Tobey, Roger Corman, Forry Ackerman

Directed by Joe Dante

The Short Version: Absolutely brilliant tale of werewolfery that was groundbreaking in its special effects artistry at the time. The major money shot is a showstopping transformation that still flies in the face of any CGI crapfest of today that passes for "good FX", but Dante's movie has far more going for it than judiciously accomplished effects sequences. Fans howled in approval then, and they still bark at the moon for it today. It remains a shining example of both good filmmaking and the superlative art of prosthetic design and execution.

After being assaulted by a bizarre serial killer, Karen White, a TV news reporter traumatized by the incident, heads off for the country to recover. Once there, Karen and her husband discover that something is seriously wrong with the people living in and around this isolated retreat.

Superb hair-raising horror from the fabulous filmmaking hand of New World ex-patriot, Joe Dante, who, along with his crew, manage to imbue this modest production with a frightfully wicked sense of dread laced with an endearing self aware sense of humor. As opposed to eliciting laughter, the humor here is more akin to bringing a smile to a horror fans face from all the references and cameos from notable genre personalities. Although occasionally eclipsed in conversation when AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON is brought up, it's nigh impossible to discuss one without the other not to mention both films coming out just a few months apart. Aside from one film being an independent and the other from a major, THE HOWLING was the first film of its type in a good number of years.

Dante's movie is essentially an EC comics story extended to 90 minutes and bursting at the seams with all manner of lycanthropic references ranging from actors, directors, cartoons and book authors. This self referential style isn't condescending to genre conventions, but a lovingly packaged gift to fans by fans. Famous Monsters of Filmland Magazine founder, Forrest J. Ackerman has a cameo in a bookstore run by the great Dick Miller as Walter Paisley (the name of the character Miller first played in A BUCKET OF BLOOD and later in HOLLYWOOD BOULEVARD). Ackerman is easily spotted making his way around the bookstore holding two issues of FM behind his back. Roger Corman has a brief walk-on as a man entering a phone booth near the beginning.

Pino Donaggio's masterfully eerie score hits all the right spots featuring mood enhancing cues that are at times forebodingly sinister and romantically erotic. There's also some organ based sounds that lend some suitably creepy support to the orchestral compositions. Donaggio is one of the most successful Italian composers to amass a healthy discography outside of his native Italy. His familiar sound can be heard in such horror/suspense pictures as CARRIE (1976), PIRAHNA (1978), TOURIST TRAP (1979), DRESSED TO KILL (1980) and BODY DOUBLE (1984) to name a few.

The deliciously witty script by John Sayles (and contributions by Terence H. Winkless) based on the Gary Brandner novel provides something else to chew on aside from a plot about rampaging werewolves making meals out of random humans. Patrick Macnee plays Dr. Waggner, a psychologist (a lycanthropic intellectual!) who runs "The Colony", a secluded retreat surrounded by a dense, overpowering forest--the perfect hunting ground for animals of all shapes(shifters) and sizes. This "colony" is basically a sanctuary for those with the tendency to change their form whenever the need arises (a full moon isn't required here). It's a place where they can fit in without bringing attention to themselves in normal society. Up until the end, though, the audience isn't aware that ALL OF THEM are monsters. Interestingly enough, a small contingent of the colony refuse to be 'tamed', desiring to hunt humans as they've always done as opposed to Dr. Waggner's proposal of alternative food sources. Just like in human society, the werewolves have their unhinged, demented members who use their "gifts" to their advantage.

Such is the case with the character of Eddie Quist, the serial killer in the film. The script skirts with the notion that he is either the main monster of the story, or the leader of the proverbial pack. While he's one of the chief proponents of this psycho werewolf circus, Dr. Waggner runs the show, or so he thinks. It's proven by films end that wild things aren't meant to be tamed. The character of Quist also provides one of the most memorable moments in the film and one of the most astonishing special effects "money shots" of all time--a jaw dropping, bone-breakingly intense transformation sequence.

Then 21 year old FX genius, Rob Bottin (who, at the time, looked like a werewolf!) was responsible for the amazingly detailed and ambitiously mounted creature effects made all the more startling in that the budget allotted for effects sequences was very low, much like the budget for the film itself. It's the first picture to showcase its monsters in a far less human guise than normally associated with this sub genre. They look like out-sized wolves, towering over their prey--a far different vision than the nostalgic look of the Chaney days and onward. Bottin of course went on to create the still mesmerizing and unsettling creations in John Carpenter's THE THING (1982).

Elisabeth Brooks as Marsha steams up the screen as the true ringleader of the hairy meat mongers. It's safe to assume her character served as the inspiration for Sybil Danning's 'Stirba, Werewolf Bitch' persona from the barrel scraping sequel, THE HOWLING 2 (1985). While it's not explored a great deal (outside of some dialog exchanges during the finale), there's some obvious societal class warfare going on amongst the wolves--one side prefers to hang on to the old ways while another attempts to introduce change to match the constant modernization of the world around them so that they may survive virtually unnoticed. Dr. Waggner represents this modernist approach whilst the feral Marsha remains dedicated to tradition, a notion shared by several others. This primal calling is evident in the way some of them dress--animal skins and bones hanging from walls, adorning furniture, or the frontispiece of a domicile, even as jewelry.

It's no surprise that Bob Burns, the Production Designer on THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (1974), replicates that look here in Dante's movie, but in a less extravagant fashion. In an additional nod to TCM, 'grandma', one of the moldy corpses in the attic of the Sawyer house, makes a cameo appearance in Walter Paisley's book store. John (GREMLINS, EXPLORERS) Hora's photography adds so many levels to the look and feel of the movie frequently lending the proceedings a dark fairy tale quality what with all the impenetrable back lighting and fog permeating many sequences. The deep blues and vibrant reds that sometimes share the screen together would surely have made Bava proud.

More of a pure horror movie than its bigger budgeted competition from John Landis, Joe Dante's trendsetting, and genre defining endeavor has so much going on above and below the surface, excelling in multiple facets of the production. Eschewing grim shock value and outright comedy of the more recognized AMERICAN WEREWOLF, the jolts of THE HOWLING are more phantasmagorical in nature, taking their cues from the more fanciful tales of Lycanthropy of films past. A wonderfully creepy and sensually baroque little movie, it's not just one of the best horror films of the 1980s, but one of the best horror movies ever made.

This review is representative of the MGM special edition DVD

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