TV TERRORS: The Initiation of Sarah / Are You in the House Alone? DVD Review
The Initiation of Sarah
Directed by Robert Day
Written by Don Ingalls, Carl Saraceno, Tom Holland
1978, Region 1, 97 minutes, Not Rated
DVD released on December 10th, 2013
Kay Lenz as Sarah Goodwin
Shelley Winters as Mrs. Erica Hunter
Kathryn Grant as Mrs. Goodwin
Tony Bill as Paul Yates
Morgan Brittany as Patty Goodwin
Morgan Fairchild as Jennifer Lawrence
Robert Hays as Scott Rafferty
Tisa Farrow as“Mouse”
Nora Heflin as Barbara
There was a time when made-for-TV movies were a viable alternative for cinema goers. Not all of the selections were winners, but for every preachy family clunker they endured, genre fans were occasionally rewarded with titles like The Night Stalker (1972), Don't Be Afraid of the Dark (1973) and Dark Night of the Scarecrow (1981). Scream Factory expands its retro-horror library with the debut of the TV Terrors collection, featuring a double bill from 1978: The Initiation of Sarah and Are You in the House Alone?
The Initiation of Sarah tells the story of Patty Goodwin and her adopted sister Sarah; college freshmen hoping to pledge a sorority. Their mother attended the prestigious Alpha Nu Sigma (ANS), an exclusive top-rated house, and the girls are almost guaranteed admission as legacies. Patty seems to have an easy go at things, while the socially awkward Sarah struggles to keep up. This is evident when the only sorority on campus interested in Sarah is Phi Epsilon Delta (PED), the house of misfits mockingly known as “Pigs, Elephants and Dogs”. The members are nice and Sarah joins eagerly, but finds their house mother, Mrs. Hunter, a bit strange. The woman takes an immediate interest in her new pledge, as she is not the only one with a secret.
Patty pledges rival sorority ANS and is immediately forbidden to speak to anyone from PED, including her sister. The popular kids are led by the beautifully bitchy Jennifer Lawrence, who decides to make Sarah's life a living hell simply because she can. Our heroine does her best to keep her head down and not make waves, but her efforts are rewarded with public humiliation. Mrs. Hunter confides a dark secret to Sarah and encourages the girl to get revenge on those responsible in a unique manner. The plot takes a detour into Stephen King territory and spirals into a wild climax featuring supernatural elements of the occult. Not everything works, but it offers an interesting take on the “bullied kid gets revenge” subgenre.
Directed by Robert Day (Corridors of Blood), the film moves at a fairly nice pace before hitting the over-the-top finale. Tom Holland, director of '80s favorites Fright Night and Child's Play, had a hand in writing the script, and while the story follows the formula of countless titles that came before, it is still an entertaining movie. The Initiation of Sarah has a few hurdles to clear, the first being its similarity to Stephen King's Carrie, released two years earlier. While the central plot twist (spoiler) revolves around Sarah's telekinetic powers, there is ultimately something darker going on, but it is never fully developed and feels like an afterthought.
The cast does a fine job, particularly the “ugly” Kay Lenz (Stripped to Kill) as Sarah. She shares the homely traits of the awkward girl archetype in romantic comedies of the 1990s, cursed with glasses and a ponytail only to be revealed as a beautiful swan once both are removed in the final scene. Lenz is dressed down for the majority of the picture, but remains quite attractive throughout and would not likely be teased by the “hot” girls on campus. Morgan Brittany (Sundown: The Vampire in Retreat) gives a strong performance as weak-willed Patty, who loves her sister, but maybe loves being popular more. Shelly Winters (The Poseidon Adventure) is fun to watch as the mysterious Mrs. Hunter, but by casting an actress of her caliber in the role, viewers will probably guess she has something to do with what is going on long before the reveal.
Morgan Fairchild (Pee Wee's Big Adventure) plays the super-bitch Jennifer Lawrence (not the girl from The Hunger Games) so perfectly that it is easy to see how she made a career on this type of character. Rounding out the central cast are Kathryn Grant (Anatomy of a Murder) as Mrs. Goodwin, the intensely proud mother; Tony Bill (Less Than Zero) as Paul Yates, the overly-friendly teaching assistant; Tisa Farrow (Zombie) as the emotionally fragile sorority sister, “Mouse”; and Robert Hays (Airplane!) as boy-toy Scott Rafferty. While each do their best with the material, only Fairchild gets to shine.
While easily dismissed as “Carrie Goes to College” The Initiation of Sarah is actually a pretty enjoyable coming of age story with a variety of sinister elements thrown in for good measure. The film was remade (for television) in 2006, and featured Morgan Fairchild once again, now in the role of the pushy mother. Sadly, everything else that once made Sarah special has been pushed aside, as the new plot grants everyone supernatural powers and is filled with mid-level visual effects. The original holds up better than expected and is easily recommended viewing as an introduction to the genre for anyone seeking their own initiation.
Are You in the House Alone?
Directed by Walter Grauman
Written by Judith Parker, Richard Peck
1978, Region 1, 96 minutes, Not Rated
DVD released on December 10th, 2013
Kathleen Beller as Gail Osbourne
Blythe Danner as Anne Osbourne
Tony Bill as Neil Osbourne
Scott Colomby as Steve Pastorinis
Dennis Quaid as Phil Lawver
Robin Mattson as Allison Bremer
Tricia O'Neill as Jessica Hirsch
Randy Stumpf as E.K. Miller
Alan Fudge as Chris Elden
Ellen Travolta as Rouillard
Are You in the House Alone? opens with Gail Osbourne in a clinic having just been raped. She quickly bursts into hysterics claiming that she knows her attacker, but refuses to identify him as no one will believe her accusations. We then flash back to the time leading up to this moment and meet a much happier heroine, but this framing device takes a while to get past, as we know nothing good is going to come of all her smiles, hopes and dreams.
Gail is an attractive, intelligent high schoool student with her fair share of problems. She is surrounded by good friends and loving parents but has also attracted the attention of a mysterious stalker. She receives menacing notes in her locker at school and “heavy breather” phone calls at home. Although she has no idea who is responsible for terrorizing her, she has plenty of suspicious characters to choose from (most of whom are red herrings). Is it E.K. Miller, the scorned ex-boyfriend jealously lashing out now that Gail has started dating the hunky Steve Pastorinis? Perhaps her current beau has a dark secret, as he does have a temper. Maybe it's Mr. Elden, the creepy photography teacher that encourages her to take “sexy” pictures of herself. Gail's parents are supportive and loving, but also quickly approaching divorce court and her dad is acting kind of strange lately, too.
She tells her friends Allison, Phil and Steve her concerns and while supportive of her feelings, they encourage her to report the activity. When Gail mentions the harassing notes and phone calls, every adult without fail dismisses her concerns and tells her to relax and ignore it. She reluctantly follows their advice and is soon raped in return for the effort. Worst. Advice. Ever. What follows is a study in how rape victims are sometimes blamed for what has happened as if they were “asking for it” or somehow “deserved it” or some other unbelievable bullshit stance. Gail opts to fight back and if she cannot defeat her attacker using the legal system, she will find a way to stop him from doing this to anyone else.
Are You in the House Alone? originally aired as a TV Movie of the Week in 1978, and while marketed as a horror film (primarily in the later home video market release), this is actually a thriller. It begins with familiar elements of slasher films (POV stalker shots, threatening phone calls, etc.), but quickly switches into a darker drama. It is not enough that Gail is raped, but she is also further punished at school when not everyone believes her and some go so far as to actually accuse her of simply seeking attention. The idea that her attacker could possibly get away with the crime is simply awful, but the actor's performance following the rape is repugnant and smarmy - it's not enough that he's a dirty rapist, but he's also a gloating prick about it!
Kathleen Bellar (The Sword and the Sorcerer) does most of the heavy lifting here as Gail, our doe-eyed heroine, and handles the responsibilities nicely. Robin Mattson (Candy Stripe Nurses), Randy Stumpf (Silent Night, Deadly Night), Scott Colomby (Caddyshack) and Dennis Quaid (Jaws 3-D) are all fine as her classmates and friends, while Quaid exhibits the most star potential for obvious reasons. The adults really serve only as distraction or to provide additional pressure on Gail, but Tony Bill (again) and Blythe Danner (Futureworld) are serviceable as her parents. Alan Fudge (I Saw What You Did) is particularly creepy as Mr. Elden, the pervy photography teacher, most likely to be suspended in contemporary society.
Both The Initiation of Sarah and Are You in the House Alone? are fine representations of televised drama in the 1970s. Neither is really all that scary, though Sarah comes closer to the mark. It is a nice touch for Scream Factory to include this style of programming in their lineup, and if the title proves successful, hopefully more classic-TV double features will follow.
Video and Audio:
The Initiation of Sarah and Are You in the House Alone? are both presented in the original 1.33:1 aspect ratio and look pretty good for their age. Colors are consistent and black levels remain solid, but everything remains fairly muted as a result of the original source elements. The DVD transfer is much stronger than the original VHS counterpart and while not a full restoration, this is likely the best these films are going to look.
The only audio option is the original stereo preserved in a DTS-HD MA 2.0 mix. Music cues are fairly traditional and unobtrusive, while dialogue is occasionally tinny but free from distortion.
There are no special features on this DVD.