Scream Factory delves into the MGM vaults for these two memorable Charles Fries TV genre productions: THE INITIATION OF SARAH and ARE YOU IN THE HOUSE ALONE?
Dowdy – well, Hollywood dowdy – orphan Sarah (Kay Lenz, MOVING VIOLATION) is ignored in favor of her prettier sister Patty (Morgan Brittany, TV's DALLAS), even by their mother (Kathryn Grant, ANATOMY OF A MURDER) who is excited about the likelihood of biological daughter getting into Waltham College's elite Alpha Sigma Nu. The two freshman coeds tour the sorority houses and Patty is handpicked by Alpha Sigma Nu president Jennifer (Morgan Fairchild, THE SEDUCTION), who also indirectly suggests Sarah should pledge rival house PED ("Pigs, Elephants, and Dogs"). Sarah does indeed find herself mysteriously drawn to the Pie Epsilon Delta – whose housemother Mrs. Hunter (Shelley Winters, WHAT'S THE MATTER WITH HELEN?) also teaches courses in magic practices of primitive peoples – who do not participate in pledging or initiations and tell Sarah to leave her name if she wants to join. ANS of course is one of a number of houses that ask Patty to pledge while PED is the only one that asks Sarah. Jennifer starts driving a wedge in between Sarah and Patty by forbidding the pledge's association with "pigs, elephants, and dogs", but Mrs. Hunter not only offers insight into Sarah's past but also offers a means of controlling her powers which create CARRIE-esque telekinetic mayhem whenever she is angered. Although teaching assistant Paul (Tony Bill, CASTLE KEEP) doesn't believe in Sarah's powers, he is suspicious of Mrs. Hunter whose rivalry with Alpha Sigma Nu dates back twenty years to the death of a pledge during her presidency (which involved a special twist on the traditional initiation ritual). As Sarah tries to band her unpopular sisters – including ZOMBIE's Tisa Farrow and CRAWLSPACE's Talia Balsam – together in solidarity, she becomes more self-confident. When she publicly calls Jennifer out on her bullying behavior (combined with a psychic shove into the fountain), Sarah becomes the prime target of ANS' beef with PED; unfortunately for them, Mrs. Hunter is teaching Sarah how to focus her powers towards vengeful ends and her special initiation requires a sacrifice.
Although THE INIATION OF SARAH could perhaps be likened to producer Charles Fries (FLOWERS IN THE ATTIC) variation on rival TV producer Aaron Spelling's SATAN'S SCHOOL FOR GIRLS, it – along with Fries' THE SPELL – is far more indebted to Brian De Palma's film adaptation of CARRIE from a cruel prank that unleashes Sarah's telekinetic fury to the successive jump cut tilted close-ups of Lenz that prefigure her attacks. Although it makes some interesting parallels between sororities and cults – including the climactic intercutting of the two sororities equally sinister rituals (both of which require a show of blind faith by the pledges even though only one group is blindfolded) – however it seems as though large chunks of the narrative are missing; either never scripted (by episodic TV scribes Don Ingalls and Carol Saraceno from a story by FRIGHT NIGHT's Tom Holland) and mentioned in passing, or cut down for a workable running time for a two hour slot (at ninety-seven minutes, it's already about twenty minutes longer than most of Spelling's equivalent 1970s horror entries which were destined for ninety-minute slots). The unknown identity of Sarah's mother seems of some importance to the story but is dropped, the story seems to jump forward by large bounds at a time with characters remarking more on the changes in Sarah's character than is shown, and we never learn much about the basis of the rivalry between the sororities and the ritual-gone-wrong (making it seem like a case of mean girls with a long-held grudge). Composer Johnny Harris (FRAGMENT OF FEAR) would follow this assignment up with Gus Trikonis' THE EVIL. None of the scares are actually chilling but the film maintains its dramatic tension and has an okay atmosphere. The cast is a bit long-in-the-tooth for college students (at least for the demographic that pledges sororities and fraternities), but Lenz does her best with a script full of holes, Fairchild is appropriately bitchy, and Brittany suitably conflicted (Winters is the only one that seems to be phoning it in). AIRPLANE's Robert Hays plays Fairchild's boyfriend while CARRIE's Michael Talbott appears briefly as another frat brother. The film was remade for ABC TV for Halloween 2006 with DAWSON'S CREEK's Mika Boorem and TERMINATOR: THE SARAH CONNOR CHRONICLES' Summer Glau as the sisters, and (yawn) BRIDE OF CHUCKY's Jennifer Tilly replacing Winters.
While the Fries-produced (and MGM-owned) THE SPELL (1977) would have made a better double bill with THE INITIATION OF SARAH, ARE YOU IN THE HOUSE ALONE? is the second title on the disc. Just as high school student Gail (Kathleen Beller, THE SWORD AND THE SORCERER) feels that she is falling in love for the first time – with working-class straight A student Steve (CADDYSHACK's Scott Colomby), she becomes the subject of obscene phone calls and threatening notes in her locker. Her stalker can even reach her at her babysitting job, and she stars to become paranoid about every male around her, including jealous ex-boyfriend E.K. (Randy Stumpf, SILENT NIGHT DEADLY NIGHT), photography teacher Mr. Elden (Alan Fudge, BRAINSTORM), Phil Lawver (Dennis Quaid, DREAMSCAPE) – the surprisingly prudish yet boorish rich kid beau of her best friend Allison (Robin Mattson, TV's GENERAL HOSPITAL) – and even her father Neil (Tony Bill again) who she learns was laid off from his job as an architect a month ago (despite still apparently traveling to San Francisco for business meetings). The school principal (Ellen Travolta, GREASE) proves unhelpful (suggesting that her stalker must be someone she lead on, even inadvertently), her mother Anne (Blythe Danner, FUTUREWORLD) is too busy with her new job to provide much emotional support, while Steve thinks her stalker is just trying to frighten her and probably picked her at random. When her stalker does indeed turn out to be someone she knows and rapes her, Gail at first pretends to not know her assailant because she does not think anyone will believe her. She turns out to be right, and it looks like his family connections will keep him from even being charged due to lack of evidence (and the fact that Gail wasn't a virgin before the assault). Gail returns to school, persisting with the rape case and determined to endure the whisperings of her classmates; however, when she sees that her assailant has started his pattern of stalking with another girl, she takes it upon herself to get evidence against him.
Based on the novel by Richard Peck (whose "The Ghost Belonged to Me" was made into the Disney TV movie CHILD OF GLASS), ARE YOU IN THE HOUSE ALONE? is a more of a "movie-of-the-week" drama in the guise of a thriller. A remake would surely give more screentime to the blame-the-victim aspect as well as a campaign of bullying from the attacker's cronies; but the bulk of the running time is devoted to Gail's growing unease – including some discussions of the difference between love and sex (involving Lord Byron's poetry and THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR) – with the aftermath of the rape and her decision to go after her attacker taking up the twenty-odd minutes of the ninety-six minute running time. Rather than a police interrogation and court hearings, we get a smattering of awkward interaction between Gail and her classmates (including one that blames her for the attack), and more of her supportive parents – well-played by Danner, Bill, and Beller – a scene in which lawyer neighbor (Tricia O'Neil, PIRANHA II) reminds us of what's wrong with the justice system when it comes to rape cases, and some empowering words from an otherwise cheesily-conceived character: quirky Russian English teacher Mrs. Malevich (Magda Harout, TRANSYLVANIA TWIST). Charles Bernstein (A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET) contributes an elegant score, and TV cameraman Jack Swain creates a tense atmosphere with a number of handheld shots POV shots (as well as some non-POV shots that still stalk Beller as she rushes around locking doors and windows); but for better "Kathleen Beller" in peril TV movies, check out NO PLACE TO HIDE (1981) and DEADLY MESSAGES (1985).
ARE YOU IN THE HOUSE ALONE? and THE INITIATION OF SARAH hit home video in the 1980s via WorldVision Home Video, but it is through MGM's acquisition of the Fries library that Scream Factory has brought these two to DVD. Both fullscreen (original aspect ratio) films are presented on Shout! Factory's dual-layer Scream Factory DVD in interlaced albeit colorful transfers (very well-preserved if these are the old tape masters). The Dolby Digital 2.0 mono tracks are in okay condition with a layer of hiss evident in silent passages. There are no extras for either of the films. (Eric Cotenas)
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