Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #475
Number of Views: One
Release Date: December 7, 1984
Sub-Genre: Eighties Slasher
Country of Origin: United States
Running Time: 97 minutes
Director: Larry Stewart
Producers: Jock Gaynor, Bruce Lansbury, Scott Winant
Screenplay: Charles Pratt, Jr.
Special Effects: Jack Bennett
Cinematography: George Tirl
Score: Gabriel Black, Lance Ong
Editing: Ronald LaVine
Studios: Georgian Bay Productions, Initiation Associates
Distributor: New World Pictures
Stars: Daphne Zuniga, James Read, Marilyn Kagan, Hunter Tylo, Vera Miles, Clu Gulager, Robert Dowdell, Patti Heider, Frances Peterson, Paula Knowles, Trey Stroud, Peter Malof, Christopher Bradley, Joy Jones, Mary Davis Duncan
Suggested Audio Candy
Leticia Gore “Slumber Party Massacre”
It is all too easy to lump all eighties slasher into the same category when actually there are many different sub-divisions to be aware of. Take the good old-fashioned “dorm” slasher for example. Here we have three distinctive tiers. First there are the crème de la crème courtesy of Mark Rosman’s The House on Sorority Row, Joseph Zito’s The Prowler, and J. Lee Thompson’s Happy Birthday To Me to name but three. Then, at the opposite end of the spectrum, are the bottom feeders provided by the likes of John Wintergate’s Boardinghouse, Richard W. Haines’ Splatter University, and Robert Deubel’s Girls Nite Out. Sandwiched in-between are mildly entertaining second-string efforts such as Jimmy Huston’s Final Exam, Herb Freed’s Graduation Day, and Ken Hughes’ Night School. Who would have thought that navigating the eighties slasher archives would prove such a mindfield?
Journeyman TV director Larry Stewart’s only full-length feature, The Initiation, exists comfortably within this middle ground. Virtually ignored upon its release in late 1984 and with the slasher trend already showing considerable signs of fatigue, it was swiftly consigned to VHS and forgotten soon after. To be fair, there was precious little about it to elevate it above the masses, but what Stewart’s overlooked rough diamond did have going for it was charm and that is why, thirty years on, it is more than worthy of tracking down. Having said that, best set your expectations realistically.
Perhaps the most memorable thing about The Initiation was its cast. Featuring extended cameos for veteran actors Vera Miles (Psycho, Into The Night) and Clu Gulager (The Return of The Living Dead, Feast), it also introduced us to a certain Daphne Zuniga (The Fly II, The Sure Thing). In truth, this wasn’t her first movie, and Zuniga had appeared in a much smaller capacity in another middling “dorm” slasher, Stephen Carpenter & Jeffrey Obrow’s The Dorm That Dripped Blood, two years previous. However, here she got her chance at taking on final girl duties and, while her turn as Kelly Fairchild was hardly worthy of an Oscar, it did prove that she had more than enough on-screen charisma to convince us into rooting for her.
To Stewart and screenwriter Charles Pratt, Jr.’s credit, she was not alone. The Initiation had plenty of likeable characters as opposed to the usual cannon fodder we had become accustomed to. Let’s not get it twisted, they still lined up like dominoes just aching to be toppled. But every time one of them met their demise it was hard not to feel a slight twinge of sadness. Taking its cues from the likes of Tony Maylam’s The Burning and George Mihalka’s My Bloody Valentine, where you actually cared for the ill-fated teens in question, this proved a canny decision and ensured we remained invested despite any of its numerous shortcomings.
So to the plot, for what it’s worth. Spoiled brat Kelly (Zuniga) and her Delta Ro Kai sorority sisters Marcia (Marilyn Kagan), Alison (Hunter Tylo), and Beth (Paula Knowles) are preparing for Hell Week and the pledges are required to undertake one last ritual in order to gain initiation. Pledge master Megan (Frances Peterson) has a doozy planned and the girls are required to break into Kelly’s father’s department store and pilfer the night watchman’s uniform from under his nose. Of course, this being a sorority prank, Megan has a few cunning tricks up her sleeve and plenty of randy doofuses on-hand to help scare the girls straight out of their panties. With her dogsbodies bearing names such as Andy, Chad, and Ralph, we’re assured they are little more than lambs for the slaughter and, if you’re in any doubt, then here’s one of them in his very best prom attire.
That’s some cock. Ironic huh? Especially considering the boys are little more than walking boners here. You remember lovable dick with ears Ned from Sean S. Cunningham’s Friday The 13th? Well multiply him by trois and you’re in the right ballpark. Between the three stooges they just about possess a single working brain although they won’t be required to use any grey matter whatsoever here as the ladies are the sole focus throughout and any bucks are merely present to make up numbers. Having said that, we can’t help but show them a little pity.
Thankfully the male species receive better representation in the form of dashing postgraduate Peter (James Read) who, along with wonderfully sardonic assistant Heidi (Joy Jones) provides a little Freudian theory to peak our curiosity. He takes a particular interest in young Kelly, firstly because his own boner is almost bursting through his corduroys and, secondly, because she is suffering from recurring nightmares which are precisely what he is basing his thesis on. An opening phantasm, more than vaguely reminiscent of John Carpenter’s Halloween, offers a clue as to Kelly’s childhood trauma and Peter provides plenty of theory surrounding unconscious fears and particularly the ever presence of mirrors in her dreams.
Meanwhile her well-to-do socialite parents Frances (Miles) and Dwight (Gulager) are evidently holding out on their daughter and we just know there’s a link to the sudden spate of vicious murders playing out. Stewart is patient in his build up but knows precisely how to prevent our interest from waning, shoehorning in a shameless shower scene and some mildly inventive kills as we prepare for the bread-and-butter hazing of the title. By midway through the middle act, we arrive at the department store, and it is here that The Initiation enters far more familiar territory.
From hereon in it becomes slasher-by-numbers as our anonymous dispatch artist commences systematically whittling down the pledges and frat boys with everything from hatchet and harpoon gun to bow and arrow. Contrived it may be but the final act is also a great deal of fun, with some good cat-and-mouse shenanigans and as much suspense as Stewart can wring from his flimsy premise. Once anybody superfluous to requirements has been snuffed out, it all becomes about that final reveal and here, The Initiation borrows from one of the more distinguished Canadian offerings of the early eighties which will remain anonymous as I don’t wish to spoil the twist, for what it’s worth (and that’s not a great deal).
Stewart’s film is no classic, let me make that abundantly clear. There are countless better examples of stalk and slash and it does precious little that you won’t have seen done many times before, often with a great deal more panache. Having said that, it gets the basics pretty much bang on the money. It never once outstays its welcome, moves at a brisk pace even though taking its sweet time arriving at the mall, and Zuniga gifts us a plucky heroine far more interesting than the usual mousy-haired hymen hoarders films of its ilk traditionally supply. It is for these reasons that The Initiation just about makes the cut.
Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 6/10
Grue Factor: 3/5
For the Grue-Guzzlers & Pelt-Nuzzlers: The body count is fairly free-handed and there’s decent variation in the dispatches although a little more gushing grue wouldn’t have gone amiss. Jack Bennett does his very best with limited resources and his practical effects are reasonably well implemented for the time. However, there is more emphasis on injury detail than the gag itself and a dash more meanness of spirit could have seen The Initiation graduating with flying colors. The Prowler punched above its weight as a result of some decidedly grisly SFX work although admittedly Tom Savini was involved there. As for a little harmless full-frontal nudity, well a little eighties bush never hurt anyone did it?
Richard Charles Stevens
Keeper of The Crimson Quill
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