The year is 2009. The music charts are dominated by Lady Gaga, The Black Eyed Peas and La Roux. The second generation of Skins was airing on UK TV and The Twilight Saga: New Moon is out in cinemas this year.
However, there was another film out that year, a film that has completely faded into obscurity and for why I cannot fathom. A slasher film that was swiftly discredited by, well, everyone. But that’s okay, ten years later I am here to offer it redemption and tell you all why you were wrong. I’m here to tell you all that Sorority Row is an excellent film, one deserving of cult status.
Sorority Row is far from original in terms of its formatting or basic premise. The slasher movie was indeed already a genre as was horror comedy thanks to franchises such as Scream and Final Destination. Even the plot is based on a film from the early 80’s called The House on Sorority Row in which we see practically the same set of circumstances play themselves out; the sorority sisters play a prank on an ex boyfriend, only for the plan to go awry ending in the death of one of their sisters, after which time the remaining sisters are stalked by an unknown serial killer. Originality however, is not why this film deserves recognition.
Whilst Scream laid the framework upon which this film undoubtedly lays its foundations, as well as essentially resetting the slasher genre by revelling in the absurd, subverting common horror movie tropes and actively encouraging the characters to engage with these well established devices, Sorority Row goes one step further.
Instead of inhabiting the role of vapid, ditsy and overgeneralised ‘female’, each character here has a distinct – albeit slightly caricatured – voice. All six sisters aren’t painted with the same one-dimensional beige brush, but rather are fleshed out into a multitude of colour. A nod is needed here to the most magnificent character in the form of Jessica (Leah Pipes) who delivers her delightfully sharp and biting lines with such a droll manner that it’s difficult to dislike her despite her incessant flippancy for anyone’s feelings besides her own. For example, upon seeing one of her ‘friends’ dangling upside down having recently been murdered, she remarks “It’s Mickey, I’d know those ugly ass shoes anywhere” and later, dripping with sarcasm she tells a girl who has been cavorting with her boyfriend to not “go out there” as said girl runs directly out into the killer’s domain.
Sure, there’s some stereotyping going on. There’s the ‘slutty’ one called Chugs, a crass but refreshingly honest character with a I-don’t-give-a-fuck attitude to boot, there’s the more sensitive ‘nerdy’ one, Ellie, whose only purpose seems to be to become hysterical at the drop of a hat, a ‘multicultural’ one, Claire, who does seem to be there purely for some diversity in this film – it’s potentially the whitest cast I’ve seen in, well, a decade – as Jessica so honestly points out “Claire I like being your friend because it makes me look multicultural without having to do anything”. And finally there’s the sister who got out, Cassidy, who was so deeply affected by the death of her sister and the subsequent cover up that she fled the bonds of sisterhood.
An honorary mention here also for the late great Carrie Fisher who plays the weary but take-no-shit and fiercely loyal House Mother Mrs. Crenshaw, overseeing the girls antics with an exasperated air. Her part may be small, but nonetheless she’s awarded two of the best lines in the film, one whilst wielding a shotgun. Chasing down the killer, she yells “Please don’t think I’m afraid of you, I run a house with fifty crazy bitches!” and upon being startled by the main Sorority sisters, Mrs. Crenshaw proceeds to whallop Jessica in the face with the shotgun. Her response? “You’ve had that coming for four years.”
Aside from the very on brand remarks from Fisher, her role as Mrs. Crenshaw could’ve been made one of complete tokenism, a bid to put an older cast member in amongst the younger generation. Instead she steals every scene she’s in, highlighting the farcical and absurd actions of the girls. Not only this, her moments of violence supersede the stereotype of Mother as nurturing and all caring, without losing the protective circle of female solidarity.
As a film it never takes itself too seriously. Even these cookie-cutter frames for the characters are warped and twisted, either playing up to or actively dismantling the expectations of the viewer. Every scene on screen is performed with such gusto and self-awareness that the outcome is charming. It’s hard to actively dislike this film.
Living in an age of Scream Queens, any Ryan Murphy production and Happy Death Day’s that toe the line between ‘serious’ horror and comedy or parody, it’s easy to take for granted the searing black humour and oftentimes-inappropriate quips that grace our screens every day. It’s crucial to remember that Sorority Row did all of these things and it came out ten years ago. Sorority Row did Scream Queens ten years prior. The Theta Pi Sorority is essentially the Chanel’s, there’s just more of them.
For me, that seems to be the crux of its failure as a film upon its initial release. It seems to have fallen into the same vortex as Jennifer’s Body: the ‘ahead-of-its-time’ vortex. I lay part of the blame at the feet of the marketing team here. If you watch the trailer for Sorority Row it comes across as a far more classic horror. Additionally, the opening thirty seconds of the trailer which is essentially an assault of half naked, stereotypically attractive teens getting drunk and heavy petting in various scenarios is so eye-roll inducing it’s difficult to look past particularly as a female viewer. This voyeuristic clip just leaves a bad taste in your mouth and only brings upon itself negative connotations. 2009 also saw several remakes and reboots like The Uninvited, Last House on the Left and Friday the 13th, so perhaps this marketing mishap was more of a skewed attempt to re-brand as a new concept instead of a modern revamping of an older source material.
What’s surprising is that this film hasn’t had the same resurgence or garnered the same cult following that Jennifer’s Body seems to. With its snappy one-liners, camaraderie and bonds of sisterhood between the women as well as a dry irony, there’s no reason it shouldn’t find its audience even if it is ten years overdue.
Sisterhood or not, I’m far from claiming that Sorority Row is the most feminist slasher out there. At times it’s disappointingly the opposite, with gratuitous, lingering, male gaze driven shots of women scantily clad or undressed entirely. The redemption of this film truly does lie in the characterisation of the leading women that goes beyond ‘Pretty Girl #1, #2, #3. Refreshingly, it’s actually the male characters that are bland and oversimplified; merely preppy, arrogant and over privileged douchebags, for want of a better word.
Go forth and rifle through your Twilight t-shirt collection, dig past your MP3 players adorned with stickers until you find Sorority Row. 2019 will be its year of redemption, Theta Pi: Sisters for life.
by Rachel Chandler
Rachel Chandler is an English Literature with Creative Writing graduate from the University of Birmingham. Born and bred in about as middle England as you can get – The Midlands are real and she will fight you on it – she spends her time slinging pints for the masses by day and obsessively watching films by night. Her favourite film is staunchly Donnie Darko despite its edge-lord following, any French or Australian cinema as well as anything that’s gay even if it’s pure trash. She has previously written for RADICL Mag reviewing music, mainly of the indie persuasion. You can scope out her many ramblings at @RShanaynayChand or @RachelC978 on Twitter as well as getting in touch via her film blog recrecs.wordpress.com
Categories: Anything and Everything