The House on Sorority Row – USA, 1983 – reviews

‘Sorority Sisters… Sisters in Life. Sisters in Death.’

The House on Sorority Row is a 1983 American slasher horror feature film about a group of young women who are stalked and murdered in revenge for a past prank; read on for reviews.

Written and directed by Mark Rosman (The Invader; Evolver; Mutant [uncredited]), with additional dialogue by a Bobby Fine,  the VAE Productions movie stars Kate McNeil, Eileen Davidson, Janis Ward and Robin Meloy.

The orchestral soundtrack score was composed by prolific Richard Band (Puppet Master; Re-Animator; Parasite; et al), Charles Band’s brother.

Review:

The House on Sorority Row is one of the best (and sadly, one of the more underrated) slasher films to be released during the horror boom of the early 1980s.

Yes, I know that the poster above probably makes it look a little generic. And ‘Where nothing is off limits’ sounds more like a tagline for a film about snowboarders than a rather engaging and occasionally even witty suspense film. But no matter! The House on Sorority Row is a minor masterpiece of the genre (avoid the loose 2009 remake, Sorority Row).

Seven sorority sisters are excited about graduating and want to throw a big party.  However, their strict and slightly insane house mother, Mrs Slater (Lois Kelso Hunt), has a strict no party policy.  She also has a strict “everyone out of the house once the semester ends” policy and she’s not very happy when she discovers that the seven girls are planning on staying for the weekend!  She demands that they all leave.  She then proceeds to use her cane to destroy a waterbed while one girl is on it with her boyfriend.  As the hallway floods, the girls wonder what’s wrong with Mrs Slater.

Of course, what they don’t know is that Mrs Slater has a tragic past.  Well, actually, they kind of do know it.  At the very least, they suspect it. They know that Slater does have a reason for always closing the house on the weekend immediately following the end of the semester. They know but they don’t care. Instead, they plan an elaborate prank. That’s right! V for Vengeance!

How does the prank work out?  Well, like most college pranks, it ends up with two laughing girls, five angry and/or worried girls, and one dead house mother floating in the pool. Oh no!  They’ve got to both throw a party and hide a dead body! See, this is why I never joined a sorority. I can throw a party.  And I can hide a dead body. But not both in one night!

At first, things go okay. Nobody discovers the body. The party goes off as planned. Everyone’s having as good a time as you can while trying to cover up a future-ruining felony. But then suddenly, the body disappears. And then the girls start to disappear, one-by-one…

So, let’s just be honest here. Plotwise, The House on Sorority Row is not going to win points for originality. Though the film does include a few clever twists, it’s pretty much your standard slasher film and it has its share of scenes where the girls stupidly split up, drop knives that they really shouldn’t drop, and hide in silly places. I always feel bad for the girl killed in the bathroom stall because seriously, that’s the last place I would want to die. (Add to that, her head later turns up in a toilet. Bleh!)

While the plot may be familiar, The House on Sorority Row is a triumph of style. Director Mark Rosman may have told a familiar story but he told it well, putting more emphasis on suspense than gore. Regardless of how silly the plot may be, you still get caught up in it. Rosman is at his best towards the end of the film when the final survivor has to fight off the murderer while under the influence of a hallucinogenic drug.

Finally, the film is far better acted than your typical slasher film. Though the majority of the characters are definitely familiar types (there’s the bitchy girl, the slightly less bitchy girl, the best friend, the mousy girl, the smart girl, the dumb girl, etc), the actresses who play them are all sympathetic and likeable. You actually care about them.

Yes, you even care about self-centred, immature Vicki, even though she’s the one who came up with the prank in the first place. Vicki is played by Eileen Davidson and she gives one of the best performances in slasher film history. It’s hard not to relate to her exasperation as it turns out to be harder to cover up a murder than she originally assumed.

Lisa Marie Bowman, guest reviewer via Through the Shattered Lens

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Other reviews:

“Some fans might find the 1st half of the film slow, yet I didn’t have a problem with the pace at which it set things up, and though a few of its effects fall short of the mark, The House on Sorority Row remains a very entertaining slasher flick.” Dave Becker, 2,500 Movies Challenge

“The unseen killer stalks in a first-person visual and kills. Sometimes the kills are shown (graphically) and sometimes they are unseen… but in classic horror film style, there is a final scene where all the bodies pop-up and you also get another scary horror clown.” JP Roscoe, Basement Rejects

The House on Sorority Row is a rudimentary and highly conventional slasher film with a few neat twists and enough tension and chills to ensure it won’t disappoint fans of the sub-genre. While not as masterful as Halloween, or as gory as Friday the 13th, it still emerges as one of the better slasher films from the early 80s.” James Gracey, Behind the Couch

“There’s nothing that will surprise seasoned slasher viewers and the gore effects are pretty restrained […] but it is still one of the stronger and more entertaining entries in the slasher genre with some soap opera-ready bitchiness from Davidson…” Eric Cotenas, DVD Beaver

“The hallucination scenes towards the climax are creative horror-imagery at its finest and the operatic score is at times pulse-raising. That final scene, which sees the killer raise from the shadows in creepy clown attire, is as iconic as anything from the life-span of the genre…” Luisito Joaquín González, A Slash Above…

“Rosman’s debut movie was a pretty fair show-reel promising, falsely it seems, more and better to come.” Time Out (London)

“It’s rare to see a slasher film so in touch with its medium that there’s obvious effort in making it look stunning, taking what worked in its ancestors and recycling it to better visual effect. There are flaws but not many…” Hudson Lee, Vegan Voorhees

“Sure, the victims here might skirt on being clichés but you can’t deny the fact that Davidson gives a pleasingly bitchy performance, Hunt shows some staunch authority, and Kathryn McNeil gives a solid turn as our moralistic heroine, Katie. This is balanced quite nicely by a few decent moments of bloodshed including multiple stabbings and a pretty kick-ass scene involving a toilet.” Chris Hartley, The Video Graveyard

Cast and characters:

  • Kate McNeil … Katherine (as Kathryn McNeil)
  • Eileen Davidson … Vicki
  • Janis Ward … Liz (as Janis Zido)
  • Robin Meloy … Jeanie
  • Harley Jane Kozak … Diane (as Harley Kozak)
  • Jodi Draigie … Morgan
  • Ellen Dorsher … Stevie
  • Lois Kelso Hunt … Mrs Slater
  • Christopher Lawrence … Doctor Beck
  • Michael Kuhn … Peter
  • Michael Sergio … Rick
  • Ruth Walsh … Mother
  • Ed Heath … Policeman
  • Jean Schertler … Nurse
  • Larry Singer … Photographer

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Filming locations:

Baltimore, Maryland
Eltonhead Mansion, 26 Hillchase Court, Pikesville, Maryland (sorority house)
College Park, University of Maryland, Maryland, USA (establishing campus shots)

Technical details:

91 minutes
Sound: mono
Aspect Ratio: 1.85: 1

Alternate titles:

House of Evil

Trivia:

  • Script supervisor Rachal Talalay went on to direct The Dorm (2014) and Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare (1991).
  • The band at the party that performs five (!) songs were 4 Out of 5 Doctors.

Related:

Sorority Row – USA, 2009 – reviews

Les Diaboliques aka Diabolique – France, 1955 – overview

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