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Tuesday, October 21, 2014

TV Movie Terror: The Initiation of Sarah (1978) review



Kay Lenz (Sarah Goodwin), Morgan Brittany (Patty Goodwin), Shelley Winters (Ms. Hunter), Morgan Fairchild (Jennifer Lawrence), Tony Bill (Paul Yates), Kathryn Crosby (Mrs. Goodwin), Robert Hays (Scott Rafferty), Tisa Farrow (Mouse)

Directed by Robert Day

The Short Version: It's CARRIE vs. sorority bitches n' witch's in this small screen supernatural thriller with a dorm-full of memorable faces. An all-girl ANIMAL HOUSE with a mild touch of titillation and an accent towards the occult, this TV tale of telekinetic terror is a hard sell for hardened horror hounds. The less demanding will find this harmless INITIATION a decent late night fright flick from the good ol' days of Made For Television horror films.

The shy Sarah Goodwin and her prettier, more popular sister Patty, promising to stick together at college, end up at different sorority's upon their arrival on campus. With her good looks, Patty fits right in with the snooty, socially abrasive girls of Alpha Nu Sigma; while Sarah finds a home with rival house, Pi Epsilon Delta, a sorority with a tragic past. PED's eccentric House mother Ms. Hunter sees something in Sarah, a young lady with telekinetic abilities, and tries to get the troubled girl to use her power to strike down her enemies. 

The director of FIRST MAN INTO SPACE (1959), TARZAN THE MAGNIFICENT (1960), and Hammer's SHE (1965) spent much of his career in television; THE INITIATION OF SARAH (1978) is one of those small screen efforts, and, like Day's TV movie RITUAL OF EVIL (1970), SARAH also deals with the occult when it's not being a CARRIE clone. Comparisons with Brian De Palma's 1976 horror classic are unmistakable, and since the TV format would not allow for R rated antics that theatrical pictures could get away with, the teleplay (the work of three writers) focuses on characterization with a few minor moments of quasi-violence hinting at the climactic doom ahead. Unfortunately, we learn very little outside the peripheral about Sarah's past, or the more sinister past of Ms. Hunter (played in an almost drunken overreacting style by Shelley Winters).

For what she has to work with, Kay Lenz makes a fine small screen Carrie White, although the character of Sarah is layered a bit differently than Spacek's was; totally the opposite in some ways. Sarah is introverted, but has no problem lashing out verbally when she isn't doing so telekinetically. Unlike Carrie, she is the voice of reason to the outcasts of PED; or, as the uppity snobs of ANS refer to them, "Pigs, Elephants, and Dogs". Sarah isn't clumsy around men, and doesn't seem scared of them; nor does she have a demented, domineering mother frenziedly lamenting to her about the wages of sin and "dirty pillows". Comparisons with Spacek's iconic role include a less nasty, but no less despicable prank that sets her revenge in motion. Considering this is television, this revenge is limited in scope, but is satisfying if not all that spectacular.

Genre fans will recall Kay Lenz from both high profile material and the Drive-in sort. These include BREEZY (1973), WHITE LINE FEVER (1975), the TV ratings bonanza of RICH MAN, POOR MAN (1976), RICH MAN, POOR MAN BOOK II (1977), MOVING VIOLATION (1976), PRISONERS OF THE LOST UNIVERSE (1983), HOUSE (1986), and STRIPPED TO KILL (1987).

In her Guest Star billing, Shelley Winters is essentially playing Ma Barker from BLOODY MAMA (1970) all over again, but as a sorority house mother with a penchant for witchcraft and sacrificial daggers instead of Tommy Guns. She saves her delirious, over the top acting style till the finale, settling for a menacingly leering performance much of the time. Winters comes damn close to owning the movie along with the occultism angle attempting to possess the telekinesis thrust of the narrative.

Still, a story revolving around satanism and witchery between two rival sorority's sounds enticing. The teleplay juggles these ideas fairly well within the limitations of a television production. But don't let the small screen pedigree put you off; there's some nice touches here, and a few of them come from the camera of DP, Ric Waite. These include underlit eyes peering through a cracked door in a darkened hallway; and a hound of hell watching over a locked room where apparent satanic mass takes place. Waite graduated to some high profile Hollywood productions in the 1980s like THE LONG RIDERS (1980), 48 HOURS (1982), FOOTLOOSE (1984), RED DAWN (1984), and COBRA (1986).

The highlight is Morgan Fairchild's mega-bitch, Jennifer Lawrence (not to be confused with THE HUNGER GAMES actress) and her array of pretentious mannerisms that speak volumes about her character without her even having to say anything. Fairchild was perfectly cast as the scheming sorority sister with an affinity for beauty, materialism, and cruelly insulting those she feels are beneath her. With all the subtle hints at horror Robert Day's movie dabbles in, Fairchild's Jennifer character is reserved the one instance of gruesome comeuppance.

Watch for a pre-AIRPLANE Robert Hays as Jennifer's sentimental boyfriend; Kathryn Crosby, Princess Parisa from THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD (1958), as Sarah and Patty Goodwin's equally condescending mother; and Tisa Farrow, sister of Mia as Mouse, who could be Sarah's long-lost movie sister as their similar personality's echo a kindred spirit between them. 

Farrow is of special interest considering her association with extreme horror from Italy. She had a short career in movies, but she's notable to genre fans for the Euro-Canada crimer BLAZING MAGNUM (1976), the Canadian schlock SEARCH AND DESTROY (1979), and the likes of ZOMBIE (1979), and her last credits, ANTHROPOPHAGUS (1980) and THE LAST HUNTER (1980).

While not scary at all, there's a small degree of tension derived in director Day's curious mix of psychic abilities and witchcraft. CARRIE fans will most likely be a curious audience, if not to see how some of the familiar cast members fared in a non-big screen effort. In the small, yet devoted cult of TV terror fans, THE INITIATION OF SARAH (1978) holds a special place. It premiered February 6th, 1978. A remake, itself Made for TV, surfaced in 2006.

This review is representative of the Shout! Factory double feature paired with ARE YOU IN THE HOUSE ALONE?!

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