If you watch one too many 80s slashers in a row, it’s easy to convince yourself that you know exactly what to expect from every entry in the genre. For every weirdo outlier like Tourist Trap or Slumber Party Massacre II, there’s a thousand generic, by-the-books slashers waiting to lull you into a false sense of complacency. That over-confidence of being a know-it-all audience is exactly what allowed me to be surprised & delighted by the weird twists & turns of the off-kilter slasher The House on Sorority Row. On the surface, the film seems like it’s poised to play exactly like any sorority house slasher you can name, from Sorority House Massacre to the genre spoof in the opening scene of De Palma’s Blow Out. Pulling a third act turn reminiscent of the one in last year’s surprise delight The Boy, however, The House on Sorority Row winds up proudly boasting a more inventive, proudly anarchic spirit than it initially lets on.
A group of sorority sisters throw themselves an unsanctioned graduation party, despite the protests of their head mistress. To get back at the old lady for raining on their drunken parade, the girls stage an elaborate prank that gets out of hand and results in an accidental murder. As there’s only minutes to spare before guests arrive at their planned graduation party, the girls hastily decide to hide the dead body in their algae-covered swimming pool. Long story short, the body disappears from the pool and the girls start dropping off one by one in standard slasher fashion while blissfully unaware partygoers rage around them. The plot you’d expect from this kind of sorority-set slasher winds down about a half hour prior to the end credits, when our final girl finds herself faced with an entirely new, almost otherworldly challenge. Drugged, hallucinating, and used to bait the film’s mysterious killer, her distorted POV affords the film a surreal, over the top conclusion that has nothing to do with the sorority slasher premise, but definitely leaves a memorable impression on the audience.
The memorability of The House on Sorority Row’s horrors is twofold. In its earlier, standard slasher moments, the novelty of an (almost) entirely female cast and the unique murder weapon of a sharp-handled walking cane are enough to set it apart from its closest genre peers. In its much weirder concluding half hour, green screen hallucinations of dissected bodies, spinning objects, creepy clown dolls, and old world gynecology make it out to be even more of an outlier than initially expected. Even without its third act weirdness, though, The House on Sorority Row is an artfully made, carefully considered slasher. Moments like an opening credits dress-up montage or the camera searching for the seven guilty girls’ worried faces at their out of control party or a scene transition from a fired gun to a popped champagne cork all suggest a heightened kind of carefully-considered filmmaking craft that at least hints that there might be something interesting coming down the line for those patient enough to wait for it.
Unfortunately, there is one essential slasher film element lacking here: kills. One of the first post-prank kills is a vicious throat slitting that sets a very chilling tone the film never really lives up to. If it had remained consistent in the brutality & variety of its kills in that way, I have no doubt The House on Sorority Row would be remembered as one of the all-time greats. It’s still memorably distinct as is, though, well worth seeking out for anyone who feels like they’ve already seen all of the worthwhile slashers out there and need to watch something that explores memorably distinct territory within the genre’s often too-strict borders.