I decided to watch The House on Sorority Row (1983) because I confused it with some other better-reviewed slasher movie of the era with a forgettable name (Black Christmas, 1974) that also took place in a sorority house. Welp. Like The Moth Diaries, it alternated between brilliant, dull, and problematic.
The House on Sorority Row (1983) was released five years after Halloween (1978), in the peak of the slasher film boom. Certainly the slasher genre was influenced by suspense novels like Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None**–a large cast in an isolated house gets picked off one by one by a killer–and Hitchcock’s Psycho–a “bad” woman is stabbed to death and those investigating are also stalked and murdered. And probably Black Christmas, since that was 1974 and you know, all sorority house movies are the same, right? :sigh:
A group of sorority sisters tries to punk their uptight house mother and accidentally kills her. At their graduation party, the sisters are stalked and murdered one by one. Bonus: appearance by a Doctor Who Explains Things, also a la Halloween, Rocky Horror, and other horror films of that era.
What the film has going for it: It’s not a bunch of teens getting murdered for having the sex, which is novel. Instead, they’re getting stalked for covering up a murder. The toasts to graduating scene is also pretty excellent. I wish the film had stuck to a “how to get away with murder” theme instead of “sorority sisters get murdered at house party” Which leads me to my next point:
What the film fails at: conflation of disability/disfigurement/deformity with psychopathy. Mrs. Slater’s son was born with some physical deformities (particularly the face) and mental developmental delays…so he busts out of the attic Michael Myers-style (literally in a clown suit too) and murders the people who murdered his mom. Okay.
Further reading: Women with disabilities in horror films are typically beautiful saviors or victims, too pure for this world; men with physical deformities and mental illness are often depicted as monsters and killers. In looking for resources to cite about conflating disability with the monstrous (just as queer and trans identities also are conflated with the monstrous), I stumbled on Angela Smith’s 2012 Hideous Progeny: Disability, Eugenics, and Classic Horror Cinema (reviews here and here) and Melinda Hall’s “Horrible Heroes: Liberating Alternative Visions of Disability in Horror.” Smith’s book deals with classic horror (1930s-40s) and discusses the ability of these films to humanize the monster, as does Hall with the films of Stephen King and Tim Burton. However, The House on Sorority Row doesn’t attempt to challenge the narrative of disability or lend nuance to the monster. Skip it.
Side note: MTV’s Scream Queens has an homage to this film in the first few episodes, which is about as far as I got in that series.
Rated R. Contains gore (so much gore), stabbing, mutilation, conflation of disfigurement/disability with evil, hiding a body, clowns, accidental murder, guns, being sedated against one’s will, traumatic childbirth, beheading, mullets.
*Speaking of WTF-racism moments, the history of that song is just… ugh. Agatha, why.