Kelly has been plagued by disturbing nightmares involving strange men, mirrors and fire, ever since she bonked her head and lost her memory when she was 9-years-old. A local professor who studies dreams at her school offers to try to help her decipher these recurring night terrors, but when she tells her parents about their sessions, they seem oddly opposed to the idea. Kelly ignores their objections and plans to move forward with the studies. But dream’s aren’t her priority right now, because as a new sorority member she and her other new sisters must first pull off the house’s traditional prank on the final day of Hell Week. Their assigned task? To sneak into the department store Kelly’s father owns and “borrow” the security guard’s uniform. Surely, nothing bad could come from this innocent little act of theft?
Oh, and did I mention that there was a breach at the local insane asylum and that several inmates escaped? I’m sure that unrelated incident and the dead nurse that resulted doesn’t factor into this cute little tale of breaking and entering. Nope, not at all.
Perish the thought.
As school starts up again I thought it only fitting to start digging into some of the many, many, many – *deep breath*- MANY school related horror films that are floating around in the miasmatic aether that encompasses the various internet streaming services. Sure you’ve got your more well known films like your Carrie’s, your Screams and your Prom Nights, and you’ve even got your slightly lesser known films like The Faculty and the Urban Legend series to watch through. But I’m not referring to those kinds of films. I’m talking about the more obscure selections, the stuff you have to dig to find that you don’t hear about anymore because it didn’t really do anything new and got overshadowed by other, oftentimes better, films. Enter The Initiation from 1984, a movie about dreams, some seriously messed up family dynamics, and sorority life that sort of feels like an odd combination of Halloween or Friday the 13th crossed with the plot-line of a cheesy soap opera. By all accounts it shouldn’t work, and in fact, several parts of it don’t work, but despite its flaws it still somehow manages to be pretty fun, and in the land of repetitive slasher fare, that’s really all that matters.
When I say that the movie sort of feels like a cheesy soap opera I’m really not exaggerating. The cheesy melodrama starts right at the beginning, as the sound of thunder sporadically plays over the black void of the opening credits, and continues as the camera slowly reveals a little girls room bathed in darkness with a suspiciously large number of headless dolls lining the shelves. During this dream sequence (because everything is too fuzzy NOT to be a dream sequence) the movie doesn’t bother to explain what all the headless dolls are supposed to mean, or why they’re even headless, but regardless of what’s going on you already know within the first 30-seconds of the movie that the film has either revealed a giant Freudian slip regarding either the director or the writer, or someone in that house is guaranteed to turn out to be a serial killer. Cause that’s just how horror movie logic works.
So then the little girl gets up and walks to her parents room through a door that they inexplicably left wide open during their awkward attempt at sexy times, all but guaranteeing that the kid was going to require extensive therapy in the future, regardless of all the creepy headless dolls in her room. Then a guy in a suit shows up, there’s some stabbing involved, blood is spilt, and the little girl watches in slow-mo horror as Suit Guy catches fire after falling into a fireplace that was clearly already untended and blazing out of control, and the dude flails about as he turns into a crispy critter. Then our protagonist Kelly blissfully wakes up to spare us from any more of her surrealist fever dream. Except now she’s surrounded by all her sorority sisters, who are standing around her bed in their skimpy nightwear, holding candles and chanting, and I’m suddenly wondering why anyone would want to participate in anything related to Greek Life, because holy hell waking up to that would be creepy as shit.
Are you sure this isn’t a cult? Cause this suddenly feels like a cult.
Thankfully the creepy coven ritual ends without a blood oath or some sort of animal sacrifice and the world returns to some semblance of normalcy for a time. But the hints of melodrama remain thanks to all the mean-girl sorority cliches and the forced family drama being bandied about. And then about 20-minutes in the movie tries to subtly drop in the fact that not only does Kelly have these strange, recurring dreams about her creepy naked parents and a guy burning to death, but she also has amnesia and can’t remember the first nine years of her life, as if that’s a totally normal thing that no one should be suspicious about at all. I guess her parents didn’t get the memo though, cause they spend ALL of their screen time acting suspicious as hell, even when they don’t conceivably have any reason to. By the time the halfway point hits the film seems to remember, “Oh, yeah, I’m supposed to be a slasher,” and switches its tone to more of a Friday the 13th-esk feel while the gals and some of their guy friends slowly get picked off in the empty department store with a variety of sports and outdoor equipment. But even then the film still finds the time to drop a Soap-Opera-level Twist! at the end and give one of Kelly’s friends an emotional and dark monologue involving her personal childhood trauma that has absolutely nothing to do with the rest of the plot or the themes related to the movie. So while the film does manage to cut back on most of the overdramaticalizations from the first half, it’s still never able to fully pull away from it, so be prepared for some very random head scratching or eye-rolling induced moments.
You’d think with all overwrought emotions being thrown at you that the movie would be a bit of a slog, but you would only be half right. The beginning, especially, takes its damn precious time in setting up the story, introducing the characters, and making said characters pretend that the whole “mystery” surrounding Kelly and her strange dream is some sort of deep and complex puzzle that needs to be solved. It’s not. Anyone with two functioning brain cells will be able to decipher Kelly’s dream before it’s even over. The big, dramatic “twist” you probably won’t pick up on until a bit later in the film, but for the first half the movie staunchly pretends that the viewer has no idea what the easily interpreted dream meant and insists on following the characters around as they try to figure it out. So yeah, the pacing of the first half kinda sucks. The movie tries to liven up this portion of the film with some gratuitous nudity and a few instances of amusingly snarky dialogue, but for the most part the first half ends up being an uninteresting drag. But once the film’s focus moves away from the school and onto the deserted department store, the movie really picks up and becomes a very enjoyable little slasher romp. A bit predictable perhaps, but enjoyable.
In a film filled with cliches and more than its fair share of drama, I think what manages to push the movie to heights a little above the norm is the cast. Occasional moments of forced emotion aside, most everyone here does a pretty stellar job in their roles. True, veteran actors Vera Miles and Clu Gulager, who manage to get top billing despite their very meager roles, sort of feel like they’re wafting through their respective parts, but everyone else comes across as 100% earnest. It also doesn’t hurt that most of the characters are actually pretty down to earth and likable. The closest the film comes to a villain, other than the stab-happy killer of course, is Megan, and her “evil” motivation basically boils down to little more than “let’s scare the crap out of all the new pledges.” Like really, that’s it. I thought for sure all her bitchiness had some kind of darker, ulterior motives behind it, but no, that was it. Though it does make one wonder why they had to go to the trouble of breaking and entering if that’s all she wanted to do. In the realm of horror movies that’s some seriously tame motivation for someone the film spent so much time building up as some big adversary. The department store security guard ended up being more of a threat, and he was already dead before any of the kids even made it inside the store.
The Initiation only has mediocre scores on various review sites, but I still think it manages to be one of the better “school” related slashers to come out of the 80’s. The story thinks it’s more impressive than it is, it’s filled with cliches and the pacing of the first half is completely shot, but the characters are incredibly likable, the visuals are nice, and once the slasher portion of the second half kicks in the movie actually ends up being really fun. Yeah, some of the dialogue and scenarios can feel a bit overwrought and cheesy, but for the most part it’s the good kind of cheesy, not the bad kind. Despite the film’s faults I was genuinely impressed by it. It’s just a shame the first half of the film isn’t tighter, or it might have made a better overall impression with people. So if you’re a fan of slashers and have a bit of patience, feel free to give this one a try.
The Initiation is available on a variety of streaming services.
The Initiation is also available on DVD and Bluray.