Soon-to-be-soap-opera-babes graduate with a bang in the 1980s slasher classic THE HOUSE ON SORORITY ROW, making its third digital bow in Scorpion Releasing’s definitive two-disc special edition.
After years as a housemother, Mrs. Slater (Lois Kelso Hunt) has decided to close up her house. Rather than loving her charges like a surrogate family, she has come to loathe them (probably something to do with her difficult and tragic pregnancy in the 1961 black and white prologue). Unfortunately for her, the seven graduating girls of the Pi Theta sorority have decided to stay on to have one last fling. When Mrs. Slater catches alpha female Vicki (Eileen Davidson, TV’s THE YOUNG AND THE RESTLESS) and her boyfriend in the act and slashes her waterbed, Vicki decides that the end of the semester requires one more great prank before their passage into adulthood. Vicki borrows a gun loaded with blanks (and a real one to make things convincing), but apparently she miscounted because a bullet winds up in the housemother’s body and the body ends up in the swimming pool. Although sweet girl Katherine (Kathryn McNeil, SUDDEN DEATH) wants to call the police, Vicki convinces the other girls to hide the body since their party is only hours away. They submerge the corpse in the algae-filled pool and get on with the festivities, but the body won’t stay down, or dead apparently because someone is stalking the girls one by one and creatively wielding Mrs. Slater’s cane as a weapon.
Writer/director Mark Rosman had grown up in Beverly Hills making 8mm shorts, including a Ray Bradbury adaptation that was well-received by the author himself, but did not get into UCLA’s film school his junior year. This prompted him to transfer to NYU, where he wound up working on the crew of Brian De Palma’s HOME MOVIES – made after his theatrical hit CARRIE but crewed with students, mostly from his alma mater Sarah Lawrence College – as first assistant director. Not a fan of horror movies, Rosman set out to make a Hitchcockian thriller under the guise of a slasher film; however, other than a less-than-comic treatment of the hiding the body that turns up in inconvenient places aspect, THE HOUSE ON SORORITY ROW is a slasher film, although the emphasis on stalking rather than slashing with much of the murders taking place off-screen or with restrained (and only intermittently effective) use of make-up effects (although one victim’s head is discovered in a toilet in a bit somewhat reminiscent of the fate of one of the victims in the Canadian slasher CURTAINS). That said, it is an enjoyably derivative slasher with a dash of DIABOLIQUE (the source novel of which had its film rights secured by director Henri-Georges Clouzot only hours before Hitchcock attempted to contact the authors). McNeil makes a fetching and sympathetic final girl, although she is easily talked out of all of her attempts to do the right thing. McNeil had already been on the soap opera AS THE WORLD TURNS and in the teen comedy BEACH HOUSE. Her career following the film consisted mainly of television roles – from guest bits on DESIGNING WOMEN, SIMON & SIMON, THE X-FILES, and the like to a recurring role on NORTH & SOUTH, PART II – and a few feature roles including Clint Eastwood’s SPACE COWBOYS, George Romero’s MONKEY SHINES, and the horrid-looking (I refuse to watch it) Mariah Carey vanity project GLITTER. In recent years, she has been working in special education after earning a degree from CSU Northridge. Davidson’s Vicki overshadows her with some soap opera-ready bitchiness (of the seven sorority sisters, only Katherine and Vicki are clearly characterized). Although she doffs her top early on, the killer has better reasons to go after her than loose morals, and Rosman has her scream to Mrs. Slater “I’ll get back at you if it’s the last thing that I do!” Davidson also went on to a career in soap operas with stints on SANTA BARBARA and THE BOLD AND THE BEAUTIFUL and lengthier stays on DAYS OF OUR LIVES and THE YOUNG AND THE RESTLESS. She married actor Vincent Van Patten (HELL NIGHT) in 2003 – with whom she has a child – and has written four mystery novels. Co-star Harley Jane Kozak (ARACHNOPHOBIA) also went from HOUSE ON SORORITY ROW into soap operas, starting with TEXAS and followed by stints on SANTA BARBARA and GUIDING LIGHT (more on her career below). Also like Davidson, she has gone onto a second career as a mystery novelist. Lois Kelso Hunt’s performance is difficult to assess since she was redubbed, but visually she conveys both a sense of loss and bitterness nicely (although it is a fault of the script that we really have no idea how different her behavior during the film proper from the previous four years with the girls). Hunt was a Washington D.C. stage actress, and has the D.C.-shot Chris Rock comedy HEAD OF STATE as her only other feature credit. Janis Zido’s post-HOUSE career has been in television guest roles as late as 2005 under the name Janis Ward.
The film was shot on location in Baltimore, Maryland and just as a Pittsburgh-shot film of the time was bound to have a few George Romero alums and a Michigan film might have a few Sam Raimi crew members, THE HOUSE ON SORORITY ROW features a couple John Waters regulars behind the camera (Waters also reportedly visited the set). Production designer Vince Peranio has been a John Waters fixture since PINK FLAMINGOS, while production manager Robert Maier did sound work on some of Waters’ early films, as well as Ulli Lommel’s COCAINE COWBOYS, and had been the production manager the year prior on Jack Sholder’s slasher ALONE IN THE DARK. In front of the camera was Baltimore band 4 Out of 5 Doctors performing five of their songs during the party scenes (although they did not appear onscreen, two of the band’s songs were also heard in Ulli Lommel’s THE BOOGEYMAN). Rachael Talalay, director of FREDDY’S DEAD: THE FINAL NIGHTMARE and GHOST IN THE MACHINE (produced by this film’s assistant director Paul Schiff), served as script supervisor and apprentice editor. Supervising sound editor Sandy Berman has gone on to a prolific sound designer career, but whose early CV included additional music on the opening sequence of SCREAMERS (the New World Pictures re-edit of Sergio Martino’s ISLAND OF THE FISH MEN), and sound work on Philip Yordan’s cataclysmically bad CATACLYSM (which was later edited into the patchwork horror anthology NIGHT TRAIN TO TERROR), Larry Cohen’s Q, and the slashers SWEET 16 and FATAL GAMES. A handful of people with the surname Rosman get special thanks in the end credits, which makes sense since Rosman cops to borrowing $7500 from his orthodontist uncle. The film was picked up by Edward L. Montoro’s Film Ventures and released by its sister company Artists Releasing Corporation. Montoro provided the production with $125,000 of finishing funds, which included inserts (shot inside Rosman’s parents’ home), added gore effects (by Rob Holland [MADMAN] and Kenny Myers [RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD] who also played a party-guest-cum-victim because they already had a cast of his head), the sound mix, and the film’s most impressive element: the orchestral score of Richard H. Band – brother of Empire Pictures/Full Moon producer Charles Band – as performed by The London Philharmonic Orchestra. Taking off from Rosman’s temp track score of Pino Donaggio and Bernard Herrmann cues, Band composed a rich, lyrical main title theme well-suited to Rosman’s Hitchcockian thriller ambitions. Band also provided a music box melody, variations of which are heard throughout the score, eventually weaving its way into the end credits version of the main theme. The score was released on CD in 1993 by Intrada paired with Band’s elegant score for Charles Band’s THE ALCHEMIST.
The film first arrived on VHS in the United States courtesy of Vestron Video in a slipcover edition that preserved Montoro’s misleading poster design (a videocassette release from Duravision titled HOUSE OF EVIL featuring the credits for this film actually contained Gus Trikonis’ 1978 film THE EVIL). The first DVD release was during the glory days of Elite Entertainment in 2000 in an anamorphic transfer with the memorable theatrical trailer as the only extra. Ten years later, Liberation Entertainment put out a twenty-fifth anniversary edition with a 5.1 remix and special features; however, that edition went out of print very quickly for reasons unknown. Scorpion Releasing’s new two-disc special edition carries over the extras (minus the remix) and has produced several of their own. The Scorpion transfer boasts of a brand new HD-mastered transfer from the original internegative, and it is quite a lovely image. The Dolby Digital 2.0 mono audio is also very clean. Carried over from the Liberation disc is an audio commentary track featuring actresses Kate McNeil and Eileen Davidson, as well as director Mark Rosman. The entertaining track has the three reminiscing about the shoot, poking good-natured fun at themselves, their co-stars, and the film. Rosman recalls that the pair of squatters in the house location ended up working the video assist, that their crane was a cherry picker (thus only its downward movements were smooth), and the in-camera effects during Katherine’s hallucinations (the surreal shot of the head in the toilet opening its eyes was actually an outtake of the actress resting between takes that Rosman decided to throw in). In between the banter, he works in a lot of details about the shooting and post-production (he wanted the opening prologue to be noirish black-and-white, but the distributors had it tinted because they feared that the audience would walk out if they thought it was a monochrome film, and the title was changed from SEVEN SISTERS so the audience would not think it was a film about nuns).
Since the film was shot in the summer, the daytime scenes actually commenced shooting at four in the evening. A SAG actress was originally cast in the role of Katherine, and she agreed to use a fake name in the credits, but eventually bowed out because she was afraid of getting caught. Most of the earlier killings were originally meant to be entirely off-screen, but Rosman and company realized late into the production that it would need some grue to be commercial. Davidson and McNeil not only have their own anecdotes, but they also contribute to the film’s technical discussion. Davidson steers Rosman into a discussion of one of the more technically ambitious shots: a single-take pan during the party sequence which picked out each of the sorority girls’ guilty demeanors, which leads Rosman to pointing out the distinction that these soon-to-be victims are more culpable than the usual slasher fodder. The two actress poke fun at the features they both did prior to HOUSE (McNeil did the teen sex comedy BEACH HOUSE, while Davidson did the more suggestively-titled GOIN’ ALL THE WAY). McNeil also mentions that she auditioned for Ron Howard’s PARENTHOOD, which featured Kozak (although it is not mentioned if they tried out for the same role). Of the alternate ending, Rosman says that he was tired of the final girl always surviving (even if the ending was ambiguous as to whether the killer was really dead). None of the commentators know what became of Michael Kuhn (who plays Katherine’s party date), HOUSE was his only acting credit, but I sincerely doubt IMDb’s claim that he is the same Michael Kuhn who was CEO of PolyGram Filmed Entertainment. Davidson mentions that she vaguely remembers Michael Sergio, the actor who played her boyfriend, being arrested for jumping off a building with a parachute; and the actor apparently did parachute into Shea Stadium during Game 6 of the 1986 World Series (he later became an award winning TV director). Also carried over is a short featurette on the film’s alternate ending (0:39), which only survives in the form of production stills and extended beyond the theatrical version’s final shot to a more original denouement. A storyboard-to-film featurette (4:37) has also been ported over, as has a still gallery, and the theatrical trailer (2:57). I’m not sure how the theatrical trailer looked on the previous discs, but the trailer on Scorpion’s disc looks almost as good as the new transfer of the feature.
Scorpion has produced a new audio commentary track with director Rosman, moderated by Katarina Leigh Waters (who does her usual optionally-playable hostess segments, as well as participating in some of the other new extras). As expected, there is quite a lot of overlap between the two tracks, but the new track is the less entertaining one without the presences of McNeil and Davidson. On the other hand, it is a more focused and organized track, with Rosman responding to Waters’ prompting whenever he slows down. Anecdotes and details that arose randomly in the previous track usually correspond to the onscreen action here; however, I would recommend giving the McNeil/Davidson/Rosman track the first listen. In addition to the aforementioned trailer, Scorpion has also added three thirty-second TV spots and one ten-second spot for the film. The first disc also features a lengthy new interview with actress Harley Jane Kozak (41:35), in which the actress reminisces on her first acting job, the uncomfortable conditions (including the decrepit campground mentioned by Davidson and McNeil) as well as being submerged in the pool for the “discovery of the bodies” scene. They were paid $50 per shooting day, but the actresses often went to the set for the free food. She saw the film theatrically in a skuzzy neighborhood theater, and noticed that noticed that Hunt’s entire performance had been redubbed (uncredited dubber Barbara Harris went on to be a prolific career of ADR voice work and voice casting). She also tells us that co-star Robin Meloy – whose only credit is HOUSE – is a pianist and author. When asked to comment on the remake, she remarks on the “Swine Flu-inducing” handheld camerawork and the lack of likable characters, particularly the males in the film (Kovak was asked to pen an essay on the film and remake for the book BUTCHER KNIVES AND BODY COUNTS, which came out from Dark Scribe Press in August 2011). The first twenty-odd minutes are devoted specifically to the film, with the remainder focusing on her film and TV career (including the extremely unrewarding experience of working on Sidney J. Furie’s THE TAKING OF BEVERLY HILLS, as well as THE FAVOR with then-unknown Brad Pitt) as well as her more recent work as a novelist.
Kate McNeil and Eileen Davidson are back in this set for on-camera interviews conducted by Waters. McNeil (14:22) discusses some of the same topics as in the commentary track (the campground where they stayed, the night shoots, the alternate ending), but she also describes her experience working with George Romero on MONKEY SHINES, and how her casting was contingent on how much weight she could lose after having had her first child. She also mentions that her husband was first assistant director on THE YOUNG AND THE RESTLESS when Davidson was on the show. McNeil received a degree in special education and has been working with children. Davidson (7:12) – in contrast to her character – describes being somewhat intimidated as the only Los Angeles actress in a cast of mostly New York-trained actresses, addresses Kozak’s charge that she absconded the film with a pair of borrowed gym shorts, and discusses her subsequent soap opera career. She also discusses her writing career and her upcoming film HELL AND MR. FUDGE. McNeil and Davidson both attended the premiere for the remake. McNeil disliked the excessive violence, while Davidson simply described it as “HOUSE ON SORORITY ROW on steroids.” Waters also interviews director Rosman on camera (22:21) and there quite a bit of overlap with the commentary track (including the Brian De Palma/HOME MOVIES anecdotes and his subsequent more family friendly film fare like the “William & Kate” TV movie). He also does not hold back in his distaste for the advertising campaign, the tagline of which suggests that it is a rape-revenge film. As with the new commentary, the on-screen interviews with these three could be seen as intending (semi-successfully) to fill perceived gaps in the extras from the Liberation edition.
Two more interviews are included – without moderation from Waters – with composer Richard Band (45:14) and post-production supervisor Igo Kantor (10:10). Band was selected by Kantor because he had already scored John “Bud” Cardos’ THE DAY TIME ENDED. He discusses in-depth his conception of the individual themes he conceived for the film and how they interacted with one another. He describes his working methods, including coming up with hundreds of pages of music editing notes in conjunction with the director before going off on his own. Interestingly, he notes THE ALCHEMIST as the only other score he wrote that was similar in feel (which I’m guessing is why they were paired for the CD release). Band mentions that Rosman was the initial director of Film Ventures’ MUTANT, his next scoring assignment (which was finished by Cardos). He also mentions the alternate ending, but that he never saw it. He also relays some of the rumors he heard about Montoro’s disappearance. About half-way through he interview, he moves on to discussing his experiences in Europe with his producer father Albert Band as a kid, and touring with rock bands before attending music school in the states. He got into the production end of filmmaking before getting into film scoring. Then he discusses his other scoring assignments, including DR. HECKYL AND MR. HYPE, PARASITE, TIME WALKER (“I just remember the mummy on skates!”), METALSTORM for Universal (which he had to compose and record in eleven days with a full orchestra and five synthesizers), before discussing his Empire Pictures credits starting with GHOULIES (with Shirley Walker). Like the Kozak interview on disc 1, the running time of the Band interview may seem daunting, but it’s actually rewarding experience for those curious about the film and Band’s Empire Pictures days. Kantor was an in-house producer, post production supervisor, and music editor for Film Ventures. Montoro’s confidence in Kantor was such that he simply gave Kantor money and told him to go to South Africa and shoot a sequel to their successful pick-up KILL OR BE KILLED. It was Kantor’s idea to take Band to England to conduct the film’s score with the London Philharmonic, which he apparently did for other Film Ventures composers like John Williams, Dominic Frontiere and Stu Phillips. Of the film’s editing, Kantor claims to have only tightened up some bits during the climax. Kantor also adds that he believes Montoro – who disappeared after Film Ventures went bankrupt – is in Mexico. Trailers for FINAL EXAM, DOUBLE EXPOSURE, THE INCUBUS, TERROR and HUMONGOUS round out the extras on disc 2. Scorpion’s 2-disc special edition of THE HOUSE ON SORORITY ROW is likely going to be the definitive edition short of the “college reunion” jokingly proposed by the actresses on the commentary track. (Eric Cotenas)
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