Director : Stewart Hendler
Screenplay : Josh Stolberg & Peter Goldfinger (based on the Seven Sisters by Mark Rosman)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2009
Stars : Briana Evigan (Cassidy), Leah Pipes (Jessica), Rumer Willis (Ellie), Jamie Chung (Claire), Margo Harshman (Chugs), Audrina Patridge (Megan), Caroline D’Amore (Maggie), Matt O’Leary (Garrett), Carrie Fisher (Mrs. Crenshaw)
What to say about a horror movie in which murderous antics of a bladed-carjack-wielding psychopath are infinitely less scary than the vicious infighting among a bunch of catty college seniors? Is true pain better inflicted by a sharp instrument or barbed jokes about bulimia, breast implants, and slutty behavior?
That is the central dilemma in Sorority Row, the latest music-video-slick horror remake, this time of an underappreciated and largely forgotten low-budget effort from 1983 called House on Sorority Row, which was written and directed by Mark Rosman, a former assistant of Brian De Palma’s. The original’s slightly crude, but stylish approach to the stalk-and-slash formula is significantly better than the remake’s shallow and vapid wallowing in aesthetic overkill at every turn. There is enough campy ridiculousness to suggest that first-time director Stewart Hendler and screenwriters Josh Stolberg (Good Luck Chuck) and Peter Goldfinger are in on the joke, but at the same time they pull up far too short of the film’s true comedic potential to outweigh the overriding sense that the film is really little more than an unconscious projection of their simultaneous desire for and deep fear of grotesquely overprivileged and snarky girls gone wild.
Like the original, Sorority Row takes place at a fictional northeastern university and features members of the Theta Pi sorority pulling off a prank that goes terribly wrong. In this case, the prank involves leading a cheating boyfriend to believe that his girlfriend has died as a result of the roofy he gave her (hilarious--I know) at a pajama party at the sorority house, which is staged and shot like a soft-core Playboy video. The sorority sisters maintain the ruse long enough for them to drag the “dead” body out to a deserted mineshaft, at which point the panicked boyfriend decides to take matters into his own hands by burying the sharp end of a carjack into the still living girl’s chest, thinking that he will take the air out of her lungs so she doesn’t float to the surface (the fact that they’re going to drop her into an abandoned mine shaft, not a well, is never really addressed). So, at that point everyone has blood on his or her hands, so they decide to dump the body and pretend like nothing ever happened, a plan that has never worked in the history of the horror genre, from Edgar Allen Poe to Kevin Williamson.
We then flash forward eight months to graduation, where the drunken festivities are interrupted by text messages showing a gloved hand holding a bloody carjack (oh, what did thrillers do prior to the age of cell phones?). Apparently, someone knows what they did last fall, and that someone appears hellbent on killing everyone who has any knowledge of it. Thus, Sorority Row hinges to some extent on mystery, as we are invited to guess who the vengeful killer might be: One of the sorority sisters initially involved in the prank? The boyfriend who was tricked into killing her? The sorority’s understandably grumpy housemother (Carrie Fisher, looking genuinely miserable to be there)? Or perhaps it’s the dead girl’s strange little sister who suddenly materializes halfway through the movie declaring that she will be joining the sorority next year? Maybe even the dead girl herself, back from the dead? Never fear, there is a clear-cut answer to the mystery, but when it is revealed it so patently ridiculous and genuinely nonsensical that it can only be thought of as an elaborate joke, a reading to which the film’s preposterously fiery climax clearly attests.
Like the climax, everything in the film reeks of wild exaggeration and general ugliness, from the ridiculous manner in which the killer dispatches his victims (a bottle of wine jammed down a girl’s throat, a guy speared through a wall while hanging upside down in a dumbwaiter), to the depraved male-fantasy lasciviousness of the sorority parties, to the absurdly composed manner in which the group’s deliciously and unapologetically nasty queen bee Jessica (Leah Pipes) responds to the escalating situation. The filmmakers throw us a few potentially sympathetic characters, including Cassidy (Briana Evigan), the lone voice of reason and the group’s representative conscience, and Ellie (Rumer Willis), a bespectacled nerd who is always on hand to provide random trivia and prove that sororities have at least a little room for nice girls. Outside of those two, however, the girls in Sorority Row are so cartoonishly catty and cruel that you don’t know whether to laugh at them or loathe them. Regardless, they make for completely unsympathetic victims, and it also drains the film of any interpersonal tension since they all dislike each other so much to begin with that there isn’t any sting when they turn on each other under duress.
Copyright ©2009 James Kendrick
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