Daphne Zuniga - Kelly Fairchild
Vera Miles - Frances Fairchild
Clu Gulager - Dwight Fairchild
James Read - Peter
Hunter Tylo - Alison
Marilyn Kagan - Marcia
Robert Dowdell - Jason Randall
Paula Knowles - Beth
Trey Stroud - Ralph
Peter Malof - Andy
Christopher Bradley - Chad
Genre - Horror/Mystery/Slasher
Running Time - 96 Minutes
***This review is part of Forgotten Films' 1984-a-thon. After you read this fine review, go over to Forgotten Films and check out the other entries covering the great year that was 1984. Now put on that vinyl of Madonna's "Like A Virgin" you got sitting there and enjoy the review!***
Ever since 1974's holiday horror classic, BLACK CHRISTMAS, murder and fraternity/sorority houses have been a match made in Heaven. It seems people out there [i.e. crazy killers who use weapons as their phallic symbol] just don't believe in letting certain students finish their Higher Education. But how can you deny this success? Films like THE HOUSE ON SORORITY ROW, GIRLS NITE OUT, and HELL NIGHT prove that the college setting is ideal for slasher mayhem. Let's add another film into the mix, 1984's slasher THE INITIATION - a rare slasher film from the 1980's that I have never seen until now. How this film has escaped me, considering the future soap opera credentials it has, I'll never know. And while it's not a great slasher, like A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET from the same year, there's still a lot to like here. So let's take that pledge and see what this movie is all about.
Kelly Fairchild (Daphne Zuniga) has been tormented by constant nightmares since childhood where she witnesses her parents having sex prior to a man being set on fire in self-defense. Not knowing where this nightmare stems from, Kelly decides to focus on dream studies in order to decipher it. She brings it up with her psychology professor (James Read), who attempts to give her tests in order to solve Kelly's issue. However, this upsets her parents (Vera Miles and Clu Gulager), who wish Kelly could just get over it for some reason. Kelly is also dealing with pledging for her local sorority, Delta Rho, where she's having issues with certain girls over a boy (Peter Malof). As all this goes on, someone has escaped an insane asylum, focused on heading towards the sorority with the thought of murder - especially when it comes to anyone who is in Kelly's orbit.
Like I mentioned above, this was my first time watching THE INITIATION. It's a slasher that not many people talk about, probably due to the fact that the slasher film craze was waning by this point and was overshadowed by others within the same year, like A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET and FRIDAY THE 13TH: THE FINAL CHAPTER. It also doesn't help that the film is pretty flawed and generic for most of the run-time. Still, it's an interesting slasher film due to its mystery and conclusion.
It's hard to really dive into a review for THE INITIATION without spoiling things. So I won't get too deep when it comes to the narrative. This is a film where you're better off knowing as less as possible about it, so that the finale will surprise you. I will say that it plays pretty standard in terms of how majority of slashers at the time told their stories. But THE INITIATION has that mystery going for it, where you start to think that you know what's going on, until a twist happens where you question yourself all over again. In that sense, THE INITIATION is more of an American giallo film where the mystery and the characters are what steer the film, rather than the set up for the death scenes. I will say that I was tricked by this film on several occasions, making me think I knew the truth, but surprising the hell out of me once it's all revealed. I did think the conclusion was kind of hokey, but at least it caught me off guard. So there's that. I think if you like to figure things out while watching film, THE INITIATION is right up your alley.
I will say that the characters aren't all that deep though, besides Kelly of course. But all of them do have layers to them that make them recognizable archetypes. The Fairchild parents act all bits of shady throughout the film, strengthening the mystery with their secret they're dying to keep hidden. Peter is their antagonist, only because he wants to find out what's going on with Kelly. He's the stereotypical love interest character - good looking, smart, charming, and breaking all sorts of rules when it comes to teacher-student relations. The sorority pledges are all different. Marcia is the frumpy one who many believe is a virgin, but shares a deep secret by the end of the film that deepens her arc quite a bit. Alison is the typical pretty, flirty girl who loves fashion and boys. And the guys are all typical frat guys, except for Ralph who uses humor to mask his insecurities. And then there's Kelly, who struggles with the same nightmare for years. Her parents don't give her answers. She gets frustrated when Peter can't decipher her dream. We take a journey with Kelly as she tries to figure out her nightmare while she attempts to lead a normal college life. She's a fairly strong Final Girl type with many layers to her that connect to the film's mystery. Compared to many slashers of the time, these characters at least have personality and things going for them positively. So you gotta give the film that.
The dialogue and storytelling in general is pretty good as well. The characters do feel like real people whenever they speak to each other, which is a major plus. The mystery is interesting, especially when it leads to a crazy ending that I had never guessed once during the film. I do feel that THE INITIATION does take its sweet time getting to the point of the matter, however. I like slow builds and all, but I do feel certain scenes play out a bit too long to get to the punchline. The frat party is a cool scene to build college atmosphere, but it doesn't really add all that much to the film other than that. Certain moments in the mall are there for fluff, but only some. If you're expecting a lot of slashing, especially within the first hour of the film, you'll be disappointed. But if you enjoy setting up the narrative, then I think you'll be fine.
Speaking of the slashing, there are some decent moments. We get a burning. Several people get killed by a small garden fork. We get a stabbing death scene involving a character screaming into a microphone within the final location of the mall, which was pretty fun. It's a decent enough body count for sure, even if most of it happens within the last thirty minutes. Nothing really gory or anything, but pretty violent stuff that will quench the thirst of those blood-hungry ghouls.
The direction by Larry Stewart isn't anything special really. Stewart does know how to create atmosphere and mood, as the film seems to feel gloomy even when the sun is out. I thought the film moved a bit too slow in its first half, but was well paced during the third act. The on-screen kills were neat. I thought the way the twist was presented was interesting. There are first person point-of-view shots for the killer, similar to BLACK CHRISTMAS and HALLOWEEN. THE INITIATION was Stewart's only feature length film, which unfortunately resembles more of an 80s TV-movie-of-the-week rather than a big budgeted theatrical flick [Stewart was a TV director prior to this]. But it's competent and you won't have trouble seeing what's going on. I'm sort of surprised Stewart never directed another theatrical film since it's not that bad. But the visual presentation won't wow anyone either.
The acting is pretty damn good, I thought. Daphne Zuniga, in her first major role, is very good as Kelly. Best known for playing Princess Vespa in 1987's SPACEBALLS and Jo on TV's Melrose Place, Zuniga adds a layer of torment, confusion, and frustration in her role. Plus, she's a beautiful woman so that helps. PSYCHO's Vera Miles doesn't get much to do as Kelly's mother, but she brings a sense of mystery to her role. Same goes to Clu Gulager, a veteran genre actor, as Kelly's father. He's not in the film a whole lot, but his character becomes quite interesting before his exit. We also get the acting debut of Deborah Morehart, best known to soap opera fans as Hunter Tylo from The Bold and the Beautiful. I honestly didn't recognize her, due to certain work she's done on herself. She was pretty okay as Alison, the pretty girl of the group. But we get to see some full frontal from her, which was a pleasant surprise. James Read, best known as the dad on Charmed and currently on Days of Our Lives, is pretty typical as Peter. He's fine in the role as the caring love interest. The other actors are decent, but won't win any awards or anything. Considering THE INITIATION was written by Charles Pratt, Jr. - who would later help create Melrose Place - the actors fit right in within this soap opera of a movie.
THINGS I'VE LEARNED WHILE GOING TO THAT FRAT COSTUME PARTY AS BOY GEORGE
- Some lady inside a mental institution constantly vomits inside of a trash can. No wonder Oscar is a grouch.
- A nurse was attacked in her car while escaped mental patients watched, danced, and sang. I had no idea this film took place at Smith's Grove.
- Marcia wants to do her Psych paper on the "Psychological Effects of the Soap Opera". She should wait another nine to ten years when Kelly moves to Melrose Place.
- Kelly freaked out during her brainwave scan while she dreamed. Considering she doesn't have a white streak in her hair, nor pull out a dude's hat from her nightmare, I say that Kelly just wants attention.
- Ralph went to the costume party dressed as a penis. I'm sure Kelly respected the SPACEBALLS that took.
- Alison stole clothes and roller skates from a mall mannequin. Kim Catrall was not pleased.
- Someone got murdered by a hatchet near Christmas decorations. PUNISH!
- Another character was shot through the heart. They must've gave love a bad name.
THE FINAL HOWL
THE INITIATION is an above average slasher film that entertained me for the most part. I liked the mystery vibe the film had going for it. The mood and atmosphere is quite strong. I thought some of the characters had a nice bit of depth. The kills were pretty decent. And I thought the performances by Daphne Zuniga, Vera Miles, and Clu Gulager carried the film well. I think better, and more memorable, slashers were released around the same time. But THE INITIATION is worth at least a watch if you enjoy future soap opera actors starring in a giallo-like slasher with a hokey twist at the end.