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Film Review: The Initiation of Sarah (1978)

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SYNOPSIS:

Sarah, an orphan with telekinetic powers is accepted to a prestigious university along with her perfectly normal stepsister, Patty. The two girls attempt to join the most renowned sorority on campus, but only Patty is accepted. Sarah joins a rival sorority overseen by the eccentric Mrs. Hunter, who takes an unhealthy interest in Sarah’s psychic abilities. The two rival sorority houses go to war- a conflict that forces Sarah to unleash her pent up psychic powers.

REVIEW:

THE INITIATION OF SARAH is a prime example of the awkward relationship between 1970’s Television’s Movies of the Week (MOWs) and the horror genre. Horror MOW’s like Dan Curtis’ The Night Stalker (1972) routinely scored great Neilson ratings but in the same breath they also drew heat from powerful family values groups. But, taking a cue from 1930s road show producers like Dwain Esper (Marihuana 1936, Sex Madness 1938) savvy MOW producers discovered they could sneak drug use, violence and sex onto the boob tube, as long as it was presented under the veil of education.

As a result, 1970s MOW’s prospered by offering a family friendly take on adult themed cinema. So, while Grindhouses packed them in with “women in prison” epics like Caged Heat (1974) television countered with the Linda Blair vehicle Born Innocent (1974), exposing the injustice of juvenile detention centers with a side order of group showers and broomstick rape. MOWs even tackled hot button issues like teenage prostitution in Little Ladies of the Night (1977) claiming it was a warning to adolescent viewers about the perils awaiting teenage runaways. But it also offered producers a golden opportunity to showcase hot pants clad teenyboppers. Dwain Esper would have been proud.

But the horror genre was more challenging because producers couldn’t mask their inherent shock value behind a social message. So, while social issue MOWs steadily grew more daring MOW horror films went in the opposite direction. If you compare 1978’s The Initiation of Sarah to earlier ABC genre films like Satan’s School for Girls (1973) you’ll see how gun-shy producers had grown about onscreen violence or occult symbols. As silly as Satan’s School for Girls was, it still featured murder, suicide and overt references to witchcraft and Satanism- things missing from The Initiation of Sarah. This newfound self-censorship was due in part to the mid seventies “Satanic Panic” when evangelical groups claimed there was an occult underground hell bent on luring America’s youth into Satanism. I tried to join, but I guess my application was lost in the mail.

The Initiation of Sarah was directly inspired by the box office success of Carrie (1976), despite lagging a solid two years behind De Palma’s classic. The result was a defanged version of its R-rated inspiration. This tale of beautiful sorority girls, telekinetic powers and witchcraft disguised as sorority rituals censors all the things we love about both sorority house and witchcraft movies. So, don’t expect group showering, lingerie pillow fights, gory murders or Satanic Black Masses. It’s kind of like being handed a glutton free, carob-sweetened desert, when you really wanted to binge on a 900 calorie, artery clogging chocolate chip cookie.

Initiation tells the tale of Sarah (Kay Lenz), an orphan who we quickly discover possesses telekinetic powers.  Sarah and her stepsister Patty (Morgan Brittany) are accepted to their mother’s Alma Mata. At mom’s behest, they both try to join the prestigious Alpha Nu Sigma sorority, but sorority president Jennifer (Morgan Fairchild) takes an instant dislike to Sarah. The elitist Alpha girl’s embrace Patty, but reject poor Sarah. Remarkably Patty accepts Alpha’s offer while Sarah is forced to join the lesser Phi Epsilon Delta (PED) house— disdainfully referred to as “Pigs, Elephants and Dogs” by the Alpha girls. At the lesser sorority house Sarah meets Mrs. Hunter, the PED den mother played by the amazing Shelly Winters. She also befriends a withdrawn student nicknamed Mouse, played by future spaghetti movie favorite Tisa Farrow (Zombi 2, The Last Hunter).

Mrs. Hunter encourages Sarah to use her burgeoning psychic powers against the rival Alpha girls. As the movie progresses Patty continuously apologizes for abandoning her sister, Sarah has a semi romance with a handsome teaching assistant, Mouse plays the violin and sulks a lot, and Mrs. Hunter plans to stage a sorority initiation ceremony that hasn’t been practiced for twenty years. Apparently, there were a few unexplained deaths during the last initiation.

It sounds like fun, but unfortunately the producer’s desire to avoid mentioning witchcraft, the supernatural or making vengeance look appealing hamstrings the whole affair. In lieu of anything occult we’re handed about nineteen unresolved subplots. It’s even eluded that Mrs. Hunter could be Sarah’s long-lost mother, only to have the concept forgotten after two commercial breaks. The endless script compromises result in a movie that’s unsatisfying and dull.

But despite all its problems there’s some genuine talent on display. Kay Lenz is an award-winning actress who the producers of Initiation desperately tried to make look dowdy; an impossible task considering she was one of the most beautiful actresses of that era. Just watch Clint Eastwood’s underrated Breezy (1973) to see how stunning and talented she was. Lenz is still acting and winning critical accolades.

A young Morgan Fairchild vamps it up perfectly as the wicked sorority president. This was before she became the big haired vixen of prime-time soaps like Flamingo Road (1980-1982). But don’t mistake Fairchild for just another 1980s glamour girl- she’s an outspoken advocate of a woman’s right to choose, AIDS research, climate change, animal rights and she even traveled to Bosnia during the peak of its genocidal war. Her knowledge of international affairs dazzled seasoned political reporters at the Washington Correspondent’s Ball. So, there’s a brilliant mind under that mane of glowing blonde hair.

But the real star here is Hollywood icon Shelly Winters, who enters every scene like a SWAT team raiding a meth lab. Winters was no stranger to B-movies, having already played the title role in Corman’s Bloody Momma (1970) and chewed up the scenery as the villainess in Cleopatra Jones (1973). Winters treated every role like it was a Broadway opening and brought her A-game to every movie regardless of the budget. In Initiation, she lights up every frame she’s in without upstaging her younger costars— that’s being a pro.

And last, but not least Initiation of Sarah is one of the first writing credits for the great Tom Holland, who went on to create Fright Night (1985) and Child’s Play (1988). He’s credited as “story by,” so we can assume any classic Tom Holland horror touches were chopped out during numerous rewrites.

It’s a shame that, despite all that talent, The Initiation of Sarah turned out to be a dud. You’d be better off pledging to The House on Sorority Row (1983) or even The Sorority House Massacre (1986) when you want some Greek society inspired shocks.

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