Sunday, September 13, 2009

‘Sorority Row’: I Know What You Did Last Semester

Let’s get past the inevitable groans first: SORORITY ROW is a remake. It’s loosely based on THE HOUSE ON SORORITY ROW (1983) and the screenplay “Seven Sisters” by Mark Rossman (credited here as an Executive Producer as well). It follows on the heels of a spate of remakes, reimaginings, and reboots of 70’s and 80’s slasher fare of varying quality, including HALLOWEEN, FRIDAY THE 13TH, THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, PROM NIGHT, MY BLOODY VALENTINE, BLACK CHRISTMAS, TOOLBOX MURDERS, THE HITCHER, APRIL FOOL’S DAY, LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, and HALLOWEEN II.

There. Now that’s out of our systems.

In both films, we’ve got sorority sisters and a prank gone wrong. In the original, a tyrannical housemother is accidentally shot on the day after graduation; in this case, it’s a fellow coed who is accidentally killed during pledge week with a tire iron. In both films, there is a pact. In the original, the girls decide to dump the body in a swimming pool until they can figure out what to do; in the remake, the girls decide to dump the body down an abandoned mineshaft and move on with their lives. Two films – two different takes on the bonds of sorority sisterhoods and the ill-effects that conspiracies of silence can bring. But in both cases, the end result is death by unseen slasher.

But this rebooted Theta Pi is nothing like your mother’s early 80’s garden variety sorority. No, these are some seriously bad girls gone wild of the trash-talking, raucous partying, 90210-on-steroids variety. The action begins during pledge week when a vindictive prank against a two-timing frat boy involving a feigned roofie overdose leads to a coed’s grisly death. In a scene lifted right out of I KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER, the sorority sisters briefly weigh existential matters of the conscience against the practicality of ruined young lives. Despite the protestations of good girls Cassidy (Briana Evigan) and Ellie (Rumer Willis), the scales tip in favor of saving their own asses – largely due to the persuasive reasoning of future politician’s wife and ringleader Jessica (Leah Pipes) – and poor Megan (Audrina Patridge) finds her dead self being dragged toward the mineshaft in one of the most tragic wastes of good Victoria’s Secret lingerie ever.

Flash forward eight months later and the Theta Pi sisters are graduating. Nothing much has changed, but the emotional effects of their pact are evident on some of the girls. Chugs (Margo Harshman) is drinking and pill-popping her way toward VALLEY OF THE DOLLS territory; Ellie’s general mousiness and fragility are even more pronounced; and Cassidy has distanced herself from her sisters, more content to be in the arms of boyfriend Andy (Julian Morris) and making plans to steal away together after one more obligatory appearance at the Theta Pi graduation night farewell extravaganza. Only Jessica remains true to form, plotting, conniving, and bitching her way through graduation week festivities, including lunch with boyfriend Kyle (Matt Lanter, 90210’s Liam) and his senatorial father (Rick Applegate) who issues a stern warning that there’d better not be any skeletons in her closet that might jeopardize his White House aspirations. If he only knew.

Before you can ask “What’s Ryan Phillippe up to these days?”, cell phones are ringing and the girls begin getting text messages from the presumed dead Megan. And when the bloodied coat that they wrapped her body in resurfaces in the basement of the sorority house, it isn’t long before a hooded figure begins dispatching with the coeds – and anyone unlucky enough to be sharing their company – with a seriously pimped-out tire iron, version 2.0. The red herrings are plenty — from Megan’s creepy sister Maggie (Caroline D’Amore) and Chug’s brother Garrett (Matt O’Leary), the emotionally frazzled frat boy from the earlier prank, to housemother Mrs. Crenshaw (STAR WARS’ Princess Leia herself, Carrie Fisher).

Script work by Josh Stolberg and Pete Goldfinger (working with Rossman’s “Seven Sisters”) is mostly tight, with solid characterizations established (only the bland Claire character seems without discernible personality traits), a plausible set-up with the deadly prank and its aftermath, and just enough plot twists and turns to keep the audience guessing at the identity of the killer. Disappointingly, their solid work throughout most of the film falls apart in the third act, with the killer’s unmasking (or disrobing in this case) a real letdown that has little emotional resonance.

Director Stewart Handler (a relative newcomer whose main previous directorial credit is 2007’s THE WHISPER with LOST’S Josh Holloway) shows respectable acumen for the slasher formula, playing up all the usual tropes (characters going off alone at the most illogical moments, copious female nudity, teenagers engaging in sex, drugs, and rock and roll) while keeping the post-SCREAM self-references and witty banter down to a dull roar. And while, no, there are no cool cameos by any of the original SORORITY sisters, there is a respectful nod to the first film by way of a bird-tipped walking stick.

Production values are high, offering a slick presentation that may take getting used to by the over-40 set who equate slasher films with a more grainy 35-millimeter, low-budget aesthetic. Although the opening party scenes are punctuated by that over-stylized frenetic camera work and rapid-fire editing that seem a staple now in anything directed for the MTV generation, the jittery camerawork eventually subsides at least somewhat.

Acting is surprisingly strong, with props to Leah Pipes, who is superb in the role of über-bitch Jessica. No actress in recent memory has raised snark and snarling to an art form this well since Heather Locklear. Note to the CW: Cast this young lady on the MELROSE PLACE reboot, stat! Fisher brings the camp element en masse, delivering some of the best lines in the film as only an actress of her stature and age can. Her gun-toting scenes in the kitchen are worth the price of admission alone. The biggest surprise came from my lack of familiarity with the “offspring” girls – Rumer Willis (daughter of Demi Moore and Bruce Willis) and Briana Evigan (daughter of MY TWO DADS and BJ & THE BEAR alum Greg Evigan). Watching the film, I easily mistook Evigan for Willis, with her uncanny resemblance to Demi — right down to the smoky rasp of her voice. Theories of the two being switched at birth aside, both actresses show considerable acting chops, especially Evigan who shines in the early scenes during the aftermath of the girls’ prank.

It’ll be interesting to see how this new SORORITY ROW ages over time. Unlike the original, there are cultural references aplenty, from nods to social networking sites like Facebook to the characters’ reliance on technology like text messaging and cell phones. Amusingly, lost cell phone signals have now become the clichéd plot device du jour, replacing the old “Someone’s cut the phone lines!”convention. Where the hell are that Verizon guy and his entourage when you need them?

Competent while breaking no new ground, SORORITY ROW is a faithful addition to the slasher canon, with blood, boobies, and a body count — like chicken soup for the slasher enthusiast’s soul.


Jeff Allard said...

Great review, Vince! It seems like the consensus from slasher fans is that SR gets a pass, despite some lackluster plot elements and a disappointing wrap-up. When it's running on all cylinders, it's plenty of fun.

kindertrauma said...

Brother from another mother, I could not agree more. S.R. did a better job then most juggling the different characters and I really enjoyed the casting (Rumer, Briana and Leah esp.). The ending dropped the ball indeed but it does provide a needed slasher fix over all. (poor Chugs!)

Pax Romano said...

Guess I know what I'll be seeing this coming weekend.