Sorority House Massacre II (1990)

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twohalfstar

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So here I am defending Sorority House Massacre against accusations that it too closely resembles its tangentially-related predecessor The Slumber Party Massacre (although I can’t fully excuse how heavily it borrows from Halloween), when Sorority House Massacre II has to turn around & make me look like a fool. Sorority House Massacre II is such a blatant, subpar ripoff of The Slumber Party Massacre that I had to check the title on the DVD sleeve several times just to make sure I hadn’t watched the wrong sequel by mistake. Completely ditching the vengeful sibling backstory of Sorority House Massacre, this sequel instead shows what I swear is exact footage from the killings in The Slumber Party Massacre. Like, exact. By the time the killer was hiding under a blanket or dangling a large power drill between his legs I felt like a crazy person. To make matters even more muddled, the killer from The Slumber Party Massacre (who most certainly doesn’t belong in this film’s backstory) is given a completely different name & origin than either killer in the two Massacre films that precede this mess. Besides being written & shot over the course of a single week, this discrepancy about which film is being followed up here exactly can be cleared up by recognizing that all three productions were handled by Roger Corman, who was no stranger to cutting corners financially at the expense of his films’ narrative continuity.

As best as I can make clear from the Sorority House Massacre II‘s jumbled mythology, a group of college girls purchase a sorority house for dirt cheap due to a mass murder that had occurred on the property five years prior, only to have the killings (shocker!) repeat themselves over the course of one bloody night. Whether this is supposed to be the bloodstained sorority house from the first Sorority House Massacre or the suburban home from The Slumber Party Massacre or neither house at all is solidly up for debate. No matter. The plot is, duh, a largely inconsequential inconvenience for the film to deliver its main concerns: nudity & gore. What I enjoyed about the first Sorority House Massacre was how surprisingly girly it was for a film that promised a blood-soaked softcore porn in its title. It relied on  bizarre dream imagery instead of lady-stabbing for most of its terror and, although it certainly wasn’t shy on the gratuitous nudity front, its dress-up & make-out montages were far from hyper-masculine masturbation fantasy material. Sorority House Massacre II, on the other hand, delivers loads more slasher genre hedonism on both counts. The film’s power tool murders, which range from the aforementioned drill to kookier instruments like bear traps, are plentiful & plenty bloody. Its nudity is also heavy on the leering, filming girls as the soap up their breasts in the shower, individually dress in skimpy lingerie, and give each other massages in high-waisted thongs. Whether or not the film is narratively in line with the first Sorority House Massacre, it certainly outdoes its predecessor in tastelessness, yet never aproaches its weirdo deja vu-inspired visual ideas (despite a last minute supernatural twist that does little to complicate its straightforward genre trappings).

Besides being in line with The Slumber Party Massacre in terms of narrative backstory & softcore porn salaciousness, Sorority House Massacre II also matches The Slumber Party Massacre‘s intentionally self-aware goofiness in its Ouija board & toilet bowl swirlies tomfoolery, its references to the fictional slasher Strip to Kill Part 7, and in lines like “This place would give Boris Karloff the creeps! […] I love those old horror movies & stuff like that.” I can see how the atrocious acting & dialogue and the shameless blood & tits formula of Sorority House Massacre II could make it more readily enjoyable for the boozy midnight crowd than the first Sorority House film, but I believe that the earnestness & the visual experimentation of the first film makes it the more interesting entry in the franchise. A followup to Sorority House Massacre II, Sorority House Massacre III: The Final Exam, was promised/threatened as recently as the 2000s, but I suspect any third entry in the franchise will skew even further to the winking parody end of the slasher spectrum, which is fine, but not nearly as exciting as the first film’s genuine weirdness. The real question is how a third film would pull together the narrative trainwreck Sorority House Massacre II made of its franchise’s continuity. As a run-of-the-mill genre exercise, Sorority House Massacre II is pretty alright, but not especially worthy of a recommendation. As a sequel meant to hold its series’ narrative throughline together in an A-B progression, it’s a total mess.

-Brandon Ledet

The Slumber Party Massacre (1982)

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three star

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When I stumbled across the surprisingly loopy Halloween knockoff Sorority House Massacre, I discovered the popular opinion that it was an inferior film in comparison with the Roger Corman production The Slumber Party Massacre. It’s easy to see why the two films are closely associated with one another. Besides the shared word in their titles, both are female-directed slashers, which is a rarity in the genre (assuming that Sorority House Massacre‘s mysterious Carol Frank was/is female), that depict groups of nubile teens being picked off one by one by an escaped mass murderer during a sleepover party. That latter, narrative similarity can almost be completely excused by the context of their shared genre, though, as there’s nothing especially unique about their respective set-ups. In fact, although Sorority House Massacre was released four years after The Slumber Party Massacre & is largely considered to be the derivative work, I’d argue that it’s the much more ambitious & experimental of the pair. The Slumber Party Massacre might have a larger fan base due entirely to is heavier reliance on nudity & gore, but none of those cheap thrills compare to the strange deja vu/dream imagery that Sorority House Massacre employs for a cheap, but sincerely unnerving effect.

What might be holding The Slumber Party Massacre back from being particularly remarkable as a genre film is its compromised tone. Written by feminist author Rita Mae Brown to be a parody of the slasher genre, the film was produced by Corman’s New World Pictures imprint to play as a straightforward genre exercise. There are some flashes of satiric brilliance left in Brown’s screenplay straining to make their way to the surface. Lines like “It’s not how big your mouth is. It’s what you put in it that counts,” or gags like a girl motioning to make out with her beau only to knock his decapitated head down from its perch feel like leftovers from the slasher parody The Slumber Party Massacre was intended to be. Then there’s the impossible-to-ignore, loaded imagery of the film’s villain attacking a group of young women with a gigantic power drill that he sometimes dangles between his legs. If the film’s originally intended form had been pushed a little further to the parody end of the spectrum, I might’ve been a little more on board with what it delivers. As is, these comedic moments feel like occasional respites form a pretty run-of-the-mill slasher picture. There’s nothing especially surprising about what transpires in The Slumber Party Massacre. It’s an enjoyable, but entirely predictable gore fest, complete with the eyeroll-worthy jump scare fake-outs instigated by cats, surprise house guests, and (most amusing of all) someone drilling a new peephole in the front door.

It’s hard to tell exactly why The Slumber Party Massacre has gradually earned a cult following as one of the “best” slashers of the 1980s. Which end of the film’s dueling, compromised tones is winning over people’s hearts? I suspect some folks are latching onto the remaining whiffs of feminist-leaning parody leftover from the script’s early stages, but the film’s top two “plot keywords” tagged on IMDb are “girl in bra & panties” and “female rear nudity”, so who knows? The film definitely delivers a lot more that Sorority House Massacre on the shameless nudity & grossout gore end. It’s easy to see how its group showers, severed limbs, lingerie, and power drill slashings would make it play better as a goofy midnight movie group viewing among boozed out friends in comparison with Sorority House Massacre‘s less salacious, dreamlike creep-outs. Still, I think that Sorority House is the superior Massacre, for what it’s worth. In the end, splitting hairs about which tangentially-related, genre-derivative, softcore porn-esque slasher from the VHS era is slightly better than the other probably isn’t a super effective use of my time (nor yours, for that matter), but dammit, this is all I got, so humor me. Sorority House Massacre reigns supreme. The Slumber Party Massacre is . . . pretty okay.

-Brandon Ledet

Sorority House Massacre (1986)

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threehalfstar

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By the time the dirt cheap slasher flick Sorority House Massacre made the journey to DVD it was being marketed as a companion  piece to the similarly-titled Slumber Party Massacre franchise. The two properties aren’t entirely dissimilar. At the very least they’re both female-directed slashers (in this case the sole credit of someone named Carol Frank), which somewhat of a rarity in a genre that relies so heavily on the male gaze to generate its terror. Sorority House Massacre has a much more easily recognizable point of reference with connections that run a little deeper than that titular similarity, though. The film is largely a cheap knockoff of the seminal John Carpenter slasher Halloween, and not only because Halloween pioneered the art form. Sorority House Massacre‘s escaped mental patient killer shares Michael exact backstory, right down tot the sister who escaped the bloody end of his knife. The difference is, of course, that this time his potential meat-bag victim of a sibling is a sorority pledge college student instead of a high school teenybopper.

Yet, there’s a really strange undertone to Sorority House Massacre that elevates it above the lowly dregs of solely functioning as a blatant Halloween ripoff. The film’s title card, which spells “Sorority House” in Greek letters & “Massacre” in corny-even-for-its-time bloodsplatter, promises the same kind of shameless gore fest that opens De Palma’s Blow Out. Indeed, its very limited theater fun positions the film essentially as a straight-to-VHS horror, but I honestly believe it pulls off something much more interesting than what’s typically associated with that pedigree. Sorority House Massacre sets itself apart from its dirt cheap home video peers by playing with the loopy surreality of dream logic & memory, allowing the simple concept of deja vu to tamper with & complicate its visual narrative. The film is bargain basement trash, to be clear, but in the moments where it allows fragments of the past to interrupt its strict genre film present, it somehow manages to approach an art house effect.

If you haven’t guessed yet, the film’s plot follows a young college student who moves into a sorority house that just happens to be the exact childhood home where her estranged brother murdered every member of their family in cold blood. It’s a trauma she doesn’t remember, since she was a young child at the time & her brother has been institutionalized ever since. The film keeps the exact details of this setup clouded as long as it possibly can, but as soon as you can piece together the Halloween mimicry, that obfuscation is a wasted effort. As I said, the most interesting aspect of the film is not the plot itself, but the unnerving way its visual narrative is affected by memory & dream logic. The film opens with the deja vu-inspired back & forth imagery of the sorority house & the mental institution co-mingling. Then the childhood memories creep in: little girls playing on the lawn, a creepy dining room tableau of mannequins at a pristinely set dinner table, blood dripping from the ceiling. Things get even weirder from there as our Prime Victim starts having visions of her brother, a total stranger, attempting to stab her from the other side of a mirror. If this weirdness were entirely isolated to nightmare sequences it’d be one thing, but the way past & memory mixes with the two locations in the waking life present is a much more fascinating push & pull than that.

Of course, that’s not to say that Sorority House Massacre is some lost gem from a short-lived auteur. Carol Frank, whoever she is, constructs a visually interesting slasher here, but it’s still a trashy slasher film nonetheless. As a camp fest, the film delivers on the cheap dream imagery, terrible acting, and cheesy dialogue. Sometimes this aspect cheapens the artier visual experimentation, like in a classroom montage that directly references deja vu, foreshadowing, pop psychology, and mortality or in lines like “The knife is a phallic symbol!” & “Maybe we’re the haunted sorority house after all!” Any hopes of the film being taken seriously are already dashed by the time a cheap John Carpenter knockoff synth score & a first person cam from the killer’s POV confirm the its Halloween ripoff pedigree, though. It also doesn’t help that the film’s stabbing deaths are never brutal or creative enough to be particularly memorable. And that’s not even to mention the scene where the girls are watching TV during a power outage or the one where a boom mic makes a guest appearance on their walk to class.

I think what does make Sorority House Massacre feel special in the context of its genre is its uniquely feminine energy. The title promises the salaciousness of a softcore porno, but the nude breasts that are on display, although copious, are somehow treated less exploitatively than they would normally be in the genre. For instance, the first nude scene features not one, but three topless co-eds, but it’s a hilariously cheesy dress-up montage featuring enough saxophone riffs & rapid outfit changes to make even the  most dedicated Blossom or Teen Witch fans roll their eyes. Just as the booby-leering is oddly diffused, the film also softens the inherently misogynistic nature of the slasher genre’s woman-hunting by culling most of its terror from weird images like bleeding mirrors & photographs instead of the more traditional lady-stabbing horror, which plays here almost like an afterthought.

Given this slightly feminized energy and the strange back & forth of the dream & deja vu imagery, I’m more than willing to forgive Sorority House Massacre‘s glaring similarities to the Halloween franchise. In the long run, what is it that makes a film like this a “ripoff” & films like It Follows or The Final Girls an “homage” except the thirty years that separate their release dates? Sorority House Massacre is not a mindblowing, exceptional forgotten gem of the slasher genre by any means, but it is a lot more visually striking & weirdly energetic than I expected. If nothing else, when I discovered that a Sorority House Massacre II was released in 1990, I found myself surprisingly game,which might be the best possible litmus test for a straight-to-VHS slasher of this caliber.

-Brandon Ledet