Timeless wisdom from the world of 1978 made-for-TV ...
"I wonder why they didn't want us to wear any clothes beneath this?"

I stumbled upon "The Initiation of Sarah" whilst trawling netflix in hopes that I could either bore or laugh myself to sleep.  Mission accomplished on both counts.  BUT!  Before I closed my laptop to pass out, I discovered that this Carrie cash-in was not a complete waste of time (after all, I folded laundry and did my nails while I watched it).  

You could say I was lured in by Shelley Winters' ceremonial initiation garb - out of curiosity as to why she signed on for this made-for-TV creation ($?).  You could also say I was baffled by the Dallas side-character count here.  Morgan Fairchild, most likely freshly kicked off Southfork by Pamela and looking for some sorority action.  Also, Morgan Brittany plays Sarah's sister.  Ironically, Fairchild also appears in the remake of this film, made in 2006, the year Winters died.  So, yeah, you could say I was intrigued by the cast list.  You could also say I had just polished off half a bottle of Guenoc after work and lacked the motor skills and drive to move on to something that is not a shining example of the 70's in all of its retarded glory. 

That being said, let us look on the bright side!  This film is a shining example of the 70's in all of its retarded glory!  An excellent specimen in slapstick piano-dropping, poo-slinging horror with all of the graceful tact of a tampon commercial.  It is the story of two sisters - one of them being an easily-manipulated social butterfly - the other, an anti-social (also easily-manipulated) slightly disturbed telekinetic.  A match made on ABC Family.

Our two lovely sisters make their way to Waltham College, where they will be pledging various sororities in hopes of not living in the dorms and gaining social status through effectively buying their friends.  This movie was filmed way back when sororities and frats still thought they were cool.  Sarah and Patty check out the string of sororities in hopes of getting into their mother's sorority as "legacies", but Jennifer Lawrence does not like Sarah as a potential pledge, and wishes to separate Patty from her sister as a kind of power play. 

I can't help it that Morgan Fairchild reminds me for some reason of every female gym teacher I have ever had: all she needs is a bright neon track suit made out of that swishy stuff.  Her voice even sounds like my gym teachers (except for the one who had a tracheotomy).  I realized about halfway through the movie that I was waiting in anticipation for a speech on why being able to do 75 sit-ups and the mile-run is important.  Needless to say, I do not find spray-on hair and constantly thick make-up particularly attractive - in fact, it was kind of the scariest part of this movie watching Fairchild come out of the water looking like her face was re-touched again underwater.  It's like her face has been spray-painted on in every television episode, movie, or picture I have ever seen of her.  In this sense, however, she makes an awesome sorority super-villian.  This is definitely her best role.  

So poor Sarah gets blackballed by Jennifer Lawrence and crew, and she's stuck pledging Pi Epsilon Delta.  PED is lauded as "Pigs, Elephants, and Dogs!" by Jennifer and friends at Alpha Nu Sigma - a sorority that needs an Upsilon stuck in there somewhere (har har).  Sarah makes many fun friends at PED - a sorority that would've actually been fun with a bong in its living room, but had to settle instead for the illusory Mrs. Hunter (Shelley Winters) - not too bad a trade if only Hunter wasn't a crazed occultist.  And so, with the two sisters pulled apart and divided against each other, the unspoken rivalry between ANS and PED reignites.  Sarah becomes the target of Jennifer's bullying, and Sarah unwittingly fights back by using her 'gift' of telekinesis, which the PED house mother quickly enlists as a weapon to win the age-old sorority war of who gets to host the lamest tailgate parties.  

Sandwiched between the kitschy exterior and the dark evil poo-slinging heart of this piece is the heartfelt anti-bullying message, a bit of fluffy PSA: "Don't bully the weird girl or you'll end up telekinetically cut to pieces."  In some ways, this is the only really disturbing part of the movie, the only actual horror - that this kind of bullying actually really actually for real happens to real people in the real world by people as actually stupid as the character Fairchild plays.  Actually.  I don't think there is anyone I know who went to high school or college and did not experience some level of idiot human cruelty, poking fun at people who are different and the like.  Nowadays we have kids bullying each other and being asswipes online (a la Jessie Slaughter), and the occasional suicide with facebook or myspace 'friends' bullying others.  While this movie predates the technological aspect of bullying, it's not hard to imagine what it looked like before you could write some horrific message troll-style on someone's fb page.  Sarah is first separated from her sister by birth and then separated from her sister by popularity contest.  If everyone in this movie didn't look like they were over 30 and the dialog was not so fabulously trite, I'd have felt bad for these "kids" too.

But it was also a tad hard to relate...I grew up in a different time and place, where college kids in sororities and fraternities were for the most part looked down upon as the desperate sort of people who needed to be associated with a letter in order to score friends, an outdated and asinine form of name-dropping.  There were still lots of them, don't get me wrong, but it wasn't the majority anymore, and the decision not to pledge was not met with scorn or early retirement to the chess club (chess rocks anyway).  So I didn't really relate to the girls' initial need to pledge, but I was kind of happy that this movie (though dumb as a bag o' hammers dialog/plot/character-depth-wise) was at least smart enough to make that statement as early as 1978 that this sort of nonsense was nonsense.

I will also say that if you have trudged through the first hour of this, you might as well stay for the chuckles of the actual initiation scenes - priceless.  I'm not sure who wrote Shelley Winters' particular dialog in these scenes, but I plan on using them to break up a wedding at some point.  She is about as profane as Shake from Aqua Teen Hunger Force, and equally as dark and mysterious in her den mother from hell act.  

If anything, call it an amusing 96 minutes of semi-drunken social commentary and obligatory shower-scalding, a jolly peek into the world of dumb American collegiates, pursuing higher education and learning nothing.   

WTF= 15
W= 6
T= 5
F= 4

The first scenes with music anyone would want to drown to...

(beats the SHIT out of Barbie)



to Final Girl film club:



I don't think there is a better example of disturbing fiction than Iain Bank's creepy debut masterpiece The Wasp Factory.  I figured, being me, I would be an expert in insanity.  Turns out I was wrong.  Once I learned "the truth about Frank" and his family, I realized that I am relatively not very insane (aw shucks), and that any oddness of my own American suburban childhood life was a birthday party compared to the raw abomination experienced by an isolated adolescent in Scotland.  

The total nerds (aka me/my husband) reading this may be used to seeing Iain Banks as Iain M. Banks.  Wow.  Total transformation taking away that M. in the middle.  Just like Clark Kent removing his glasses and suit in a phone booth.  Banks simply removes his middle initial and he can go seamlessly from writing sci-fi books about boundless super-computer-starships and sentient space anomalies to writing about the isolated sociopaths, explosives, burning dogs, and the joy of various chemical enhancements and surgeries in the comfort of one's own cozy home.  

The first time I read this book, I was more or less incredulous and hooked the entire time which ended with me sitting shocked over a breakfast of cold eggs visualizing Banks' appetizing descriptions in certain parts.  Note to reader: avoid eating & reading, unless you're trying to diet and want to go the way of the bulimic, in which case, engorge yourself right before the latter half of the book.  The second time I read, I was even more disturbed by it, because I had half-forgotten the plot (I only remembered that I was extremely creeped out in my first reading of it) and I did not fully realize during the first read just how exquisitely-written every part of the story is.

Frank is living on his own private island stocked with oodles of little animals for him to kill and more oodles of explosives when the local little Scottish seaside village policeman stops by for a spot of whiskey with Frank's dad and to tell him the news that his older brother, Eric, has conveniently broken out of the mental asylum.  From there on, Frank has to secretly negotiate Eric's gradual return home from the asylum, along with his own desire to know exactly what his "old hippy" father is hiding in the dark corners of the foul family home.  It's not just Frank's sordid inner monologue that grabbed me by the throat and kept me up, eyes peeled, wanting to know more about the unclear home life and history of this maniacal child.  I should note that a lot of Banks' novels, though awesome in their breadth, are a bit long-winded.  Not so in the case of The Wasp Factory.  

Banks is more than a writer in this book, he's a magician with words.  While Frank uses the parts of creatures he kills for his own unhinged forms of divination, Banks ropes you in for the journey all the way through, releasing each shuddersome revelation of Franks reality piece by piece.  I remembered how in my angst-ridden days of high school, I used to listen to Nine Inch Nails every now and then (in between Black Sabbath, Iron Maiden, Stone Temple Pilots, and Liz Phair - back when Liz Phair did not compose songs only for radio play).  All of Reznor's attempts at being industrially twisted and angry and demented seem cheap by comparison to the exchanges between Frank and his family members.  Perhaps comparing writing to music is unfair, but art is art, and sentiment is sentiment and that's the way I felt.  I did not really care to get into Reznor's head when I listened to Pretty Hate Machine - partly because at the time I was too wrapped up in those high school days of being my own pretty hate machine (you honestly could not blame me if you went to my high school with its student parking lot filled with Beamers and Lexus trucks bought by parents who had no business splurging that level of money on kids who didn't know any better) - but going through Frank's tale I felt that I had to know what experiences Banks had collected in his days as ammunition to write such a story.    

 You will be plunged headfirst into the altered logic of Frank, and oddly enough, you will sympathize.  The child has no actual identity, no passports or social security (whatever the UK equivalent is), no documents to tie him to the real world.  The setting of the isolated island attached by one suspension bridge to the isolated town sustains Frank's singular nature, his "wars", his shrines, his devices, and his ways of creating his own personal landscape to ward off what would probably be unbearable boredom to everyone else.  The good thing about this book to me is, sordid and depressing as it is in some ways, it's not one of those kill-yourself stories like "Requiem For A Dream" where you want to drown yourself in a bucket of gasoline or something because you are so depressed after watching people messing up their lives.  Frank's life is plain messed up from the beginning, so there isn't that whole descent into darkness thing going.  You don't feel like you are so inextricably stuck in the spiraling headfucks of the characters that there is no way out, and I suppose that is because Frank's story is in its own way so exotic and unparalleled that you just can't compare anything to it.  That exclusive oddness is what drew me in here - not so much the evil, but the making of something evil.  What more can I say except: read this book. 

WTF = 25/30
W = 9
T = 8
F = 8 

A brief clip of Banks...



Somebody needs to set the record straight about Lake Mungo, because if you can't understand and appreciate this movie, you can't really understand or appreciate what is behind horror.  I have read many reviews blasting this albeit oddly-titled film, and I find the reviews as vapid and predictable as the horror movies many of the reviewers identify as unrivaled.  I get it, I get it, I'M THE ONE who said that one gem is another person's garbage, but I have to draw the line somewhere, and here it is.  Here is my line in the sand:

Total Score = 25/30
W = 9
T = 8
F = 8 

It is fair to say that different things scare different people, and so I'm not going to be too judgmental about what has been written about this film...other than conceding that most of what has been written about this film is crap.  The misconception lies in the assumption that horror is solely about gore or sticking to some overplayed subject matter deemed 'cult' or otherwise.  If you don't run out of the packed theater screaming, it can still be horror.  If you don't see sawed-off limbs, projectile blood vomit, or zombies, it can still be horror!  It it's not directed by Romero, Craven, Cronenberg, or Fulci, (STARTLE!) it can still be horror!!

I found this movie leagues more terrifying and disturbing than culty films like Dawn of the Dead or Halloween because real horror is not so much about zombies in shopping malls or the guy with the knife in the closet than it is about losing the ones we love.  The former images are flights of fancy, of imagination games we play with ourselves because the real world gets boring.  The latter is the terrifying reality that we all must face at several points in our lives.  The bright side of zombie shopping malls and masked-slasher sequences is that they are so uncommon (or unreal), that movie tickets will fly to people who want to see something out of the ordinary.  The bright side of playing up the horror that we experience in the real world is that if it's done right (or almost right in this case - note that it does not have a perfect score), it leaves you with an altered perspective on life and death.  If watched from the perspective of giving the film a grain of salt for its imperfections, this is a beautiful vignette of family, death, superstition, and playing upon the greatest fears of anyone who has ever loved anyone else.

This Australian movie is filmed in the style of a shoddily-made documentary - something a relatively local film crew would create for public access TV or a low-budget indie film (which is kind of what the movie is at times).  The style of filming is almost uncomfortable, as if the crew is still putting the pieces together while the story unravels.  The plot traces the stories of the family members and friends surrounding the sudden and unexplained drowning of a 16 year old girl named Alice Palmer at Lake Mungo.  The family delivers the account with a shaky matter-of-fact composure, not icy, but giving the impression of intending to stay calm in front of television cameras.  It's difficult (especially being an American) watching this film, because we are so used to watching people spill their proverbial and occasionally literal guts on television.  The rules of normal TV and everything we've (errrrrrrrr) seen on Oprah lead us to expect the mother to break down into hysterical sobs when she describes how she couldn't get out of the car to see the waterlogged body of her child.  That the parents and the sibling of Alice Palmer hold it together for the interviews is in some ways more sad than if they had been blowing snot into tissues.

The family's story unravels into a deceiving tale of haunting events and images versus doubts of said events and images.  Little things start happening like hallucinations and nightmares, strange bruises, fuzzy images on photographs - that give way to more twisted sides of the story.   Many of the characters seem more shaken by Alice's unexplained death and the clandestine activities of her short life than they are convinced that anything supernatural happened.  Alice's death reminded me of Jeff Buckley, who's eerie drowning in the Wolf River was supposedly 'predicted' by the musician himself.  Alice's fears and her family, in recounting the momentary lapse between Alice being there and gone and all of the subsequent tragedies, are the primary foci of the film.  

Now you have to trust me here: I'm not so cruel as to set you up for some movie where you're going to sit there for 2 hours and nothing at all scary happens except a glass falls off a table and some weird ominous music plays.  I'm not that twisted or boring and that is definitely not the point of this review.  The point is that some of the most terrifying horror moments lie not in what is seen but in the essential tenet of what you don't see.  In this movie, you don't see a murderous girl crawl out of a television with hair over her face.  You don't see a dude with a paper bag over his head cut his mother to pieces.  You don't see a man with pins in his skull expostulate on the realms of hell.  In this movie, hell is an empty bedroom.  

But it had to be addressed (forewarned, if you will - to the special viewer who expects gore thrills chills and kills at every turn in every horror film) that the story is centered on the living more than it is on the dead, though that margin is not so wide as you fear it might be in this flick.  Through the family's characters, there is a disquieting sense of isolation and abandonment, and the incredibly deep sadness that comes when each viewer of the film identifies this story with some aspect of their own lives and pieces of loneliness that everyone shares but cannot share together.  Anyone who has ever spent any amount of time reflecting upon a relative being in the morgue understands this feeling.   

I think that if there is any message to this film it is that people, though inherently flawed and capable of despicable acts, are ultimately just creatures in search of love and company.  Next to the family's shock and emptiness, the notion that this search for connection to our loved ones persists even after death is what shook me hard.  Each of the characters is desperate for the comfort they cannot find in knowing that death puts a wall between us through which only a few shadowy  and blurred impressions manage to escape.  Every child's fear.  Every parent's fear.  Every sibling's fear.  Every lover's fear.  This is REAL horror, people. 

One good reviewer that I read described this movie as something that creeps up on you, and I think that this is the most accurate statement I've read about this film so far including anything I've written about it.  By the end of the film, I was lonely and scared and disturbed in a way that zombies on a roof with guns a-blazin' or witches committing sex rituals or the dark underlord rising up through a mason jar just somehow doesn't seem to grab me.  Ultimately, the watcher has to decide whether they buy into what is happening in this family's home and in their community, or to see the whole story as a hopeful embellishment to disguise grief with attention seeking. 

The movie does have its kinks.  At times, it is almost too deliberately under-acted - the hidden emotion is subtle in most places but dull in others.  Some of the plot devices are a bit hokey as well - there are places and events that don't quite flow with the rest of the story, and also little side stories that seem like an additional waste of five unnecessary minutes of the film, blurring the focus of the actual story.  I linked the first title of this story to the film's wikipedia page, which describes the film as starring some random actress named Talia Zucker.  I thought it was sad that it was a one sentence opener that was more focused on the weakest actor rather than the film itself.  Ironically, Zucker (Alice) delivers the most unconvincing role of the lot; it's the family's grief and machinations that steal the show, not the lame-ish delivery of a teen girl's fears by Alice herself.  

The supernatural components of the film are divided between the dark death of Alice Palmer, her reappearance in images and other respects around her house and to her relatives, and her predictions of her untimely end.  I think that between these three blurred places, this movie takes the leap from just a plain psychological thriller to a supernatural horror/psychological thriller.  The order of the film may seem chaotic in places, and this is definitely true of some parts where you question why the director even included five minutes of grandma-ranting or co-worker observations - BUT, next to other attempts at 'realistic' supernatural horror (aka Blair Witch, Paranormal Activity), this piece is carefully and lovingly put together, leading up to a final few moments that I had trouble forgetting.

Needless to say after all this, it's a  movie that is definitely worth seeing, if only for the emotional rollercoaster that it takes the thoughtful watcher on.  It is not your drunken laugh-at-the-fake-blood movie any more than Trainspotting is a lighthearted romantic comedy.  For many people I can see that this might be a movie that hits too close to home in one way or another, and I suppose that this is what the movie was designed to do.  So there you have it - line drawn - one possible face of horror that does not involve pea soup hurling, vengeful CGI mummies, or the end of the world.  Instead, it is a movie about a family processing grief and coming to terms with the unfair, the unpredictable, and the unexplainable.  In many respects, all other horrors pale in comparison to looking for the answers to those questions and finding none.