The Film: 3/5
Released during last call for slasher cinema's golden age, The Initiation is as warmly old-fashioned in this age as a John Wayne western or watching Fred and Ginger cut a ring in glorious black & white. It just has the added bonuses of bloody death scenes and gratuitous nudity from a pre-soap opera stardom Hunter Tylo (The Bold and the Beautiful). The Initiation was the sole feature film directed by television actor and director Larry Stewart and it has a greater deal more style, intelligence, and restraint than other movies in the sordid sub-genre of horror that Harlan Ellison lovingly dubbed "knife kill movies". It was also the second straight slasher to feature young Daphne Zuniga; though she plays the main character this time around she was not so lucky when she became a psychopath's victim in 1982's The Dorm That Dripped Blood (original title: Pranks).
In years past The Initiation had undergone 59 seconds of edits to its violent content for the U.K. video release. The version Arrow Video presents here is complete and uncut as it was seen in the U.S. Zuniga plays Kelly Fairchild, a college student and daughter of a wealthy department store magnate (Clu Gulager) who has been selected to pledge the sorority Delta Ro Kai. As part of the initiation process of Hell Week, sorority president Megan (Frances Peterson) orders the pledges to break into the monolithic store owned by Kelly's father and steal the uniform off of the night watchman. In the meantime Kelly has been having a recurring nightmare where she witnesses a strange man being accidentally set on fire by her father. It could be a repressed childhood memory but she has no recollection of her youth before the age of nine when she fell from a tree house and came out of a three month-long coma with amnesia. With the help of her parapsychology professor Peter Adams (James Read), who also operates a dream research clinic on the campus with his inquisitive assistant Heidi (Joy Jones), Kelly attempts to unlock a dark secret buried deep within her subconscious that may hold the key to recovering her past. But unbeknownst to her a killer armed with a gardening fork has escaped from a local mental institution and is targeting her, her friends and family, and anyone else who gets in their way. When the night of what was meant to be a harmless prank falls the senseless sorority slaughter begins.
For fans of slasher movies 1984 was poignantly the year the mayhem died, then was quickly reincarnated as a much different being. It was the year when Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter, which had cleverly brought Tom Savini back to do the make-up effects and retained the services of a talented director and cast, exceeded box office expectations and demonstrated to Paramount Pictures that killing off Jason Voorhees might have not been the best course of action. Thus explains the pained birth the following year of the extraordinarily mediocre A New Beginning. 1984 was the year that the slashers' golden age had been rudely halted by the unexpected controversy over the Christmas-themed entry Silent Night, Deadly Night. Groups of bored soccer moms and overly judgmental critics (most infamously Siskel and Ebert) made a pet cause out of protesting and excoriating Deadly Night until it was finally pulled from theaters after a brief but profitable release by original distributor Tri-Star Pictures and handed over to a lesser-known company that do little but dump the movie directly onto home video.
Finally, 1984 was the year when audiences around the world were introduced to a new kind of horror movie monster, the bastard son of a hundred maniacs who stalked and murdered his victims in the one place they always assumed was the safest at their disposal - their dreams. The original A Nightmare on Elm Street was not only a huge surprise hit for fledgling indie studio New Line Cinema and the start of the franchise that would help sustain the company throughout most of its history, but it also changed the way slasher movies were produced and marketed in the U.S. They became louder, more fanciful and over-the-top, and were intentionally being sold to younger audiences via the mediums of MTV and Fangoria magazine. Most of the old arguments the critics and parents' groups used to justify their anger toward Freddy Krueger, Jason, Michael Myers, Leatherface, and other popular movie series centered around superpowered serial slayers either broke down under rigid scrutiny or altogether ignored. If anything this proved that there would always be an audience for slasher movies, but only as long as they were constantly in the process of reinvention. With Wes Craven's Scream movies they brazenly satirized the very movies that had influenced them, and with the advent of the Saw series the infusion of fresh blood and CGI-enhanced torture and gore made slasher films even uglier and more nihilistic than they were once perceived to be in their heyday.
Watching The Initiation was for me a quaint and affectionate throwback to a time when movies about faceless maniacs hacking their way through an endless supply of collegiate pork chops with barely enough brain power between them to start a lawn mower didn't have to be excessively violent for horror fans to have fun. It has plenty of blood but it doesn't go overboard with the flowing red stuff, and some murder sequences allow characters to die off-screen, leaving their fates to the power of the active imagination. The movie also has an interesting, albeit derivative, mystery at its center; only the most seasoned of slasher movie aficionados - myself included - will have the slightest clue as to the possible identity of the killer. Some of us can spot a red herring coming a mile away and the obvious warning signs thrown up in advance by the machinations of the plot can be easily disregarded. But they do add some genuine suspense to the proceedings, in particular the wholesale mayhem of the third act when The Initiation finally succumbs to its slasher movie roots and lets the good times roll.
Top-billed Vera Miles and Clu Gulager are barely in the movie even though they have an important role to play in the story. They were hired for their name value and connection to horror movies of the past. Only Gulager would see his stock as a horror actor rise in the years following the release of The Initiation. But both actors are consummate professionals and they never sleepwalk through their performances. Zuniga had so much movie star quality that why she never actually became one I will always find perplexing. She's beautiful, a gifted actress, and has the impressive ability to emote without coming across as whiny and unbearable. She makes Kelly one of the most interesting and sympathetic slasher movie heroines, a real human being rather than just a "final girl". James Read also didn't play his handsome professor character as the archetypal horror hero; his strengths are his analytical mind and the willingness to use his brains to help Kelly instead of hitting on her. The rest of the cast is mostly a wash, though young Hunter Tylo looked amazing in the buff and Frances Peterson makes the most of playing Megan as someone who be described as a four-letter word that starts with a "c" and ends with a "t" and is not a coat.
Director Stewart has a blast turning the Dallas Market Center (standing in for the Fairchild's department store) into a cavernous playground for his sorority massacre. The towering atrium and endless array of empty stores and hallways are a unique location for a slasher movie and they prove to be effective. Little touches of humor, like a frat dork who goes to a costume party dressed as a giant cock-and-balls, liven up the standard-issue jump scares and violent kills. The best the uninitiated could say about The Initiation is that it's an equal opportunity slasher - five women and five men make up the body count - and that doesn't help the customary contention that it's a genre of horror that deals primarily in the brutal repression of women.
Arrow Video has released The Initiation as part of its Arrowdrome series of DVD-only titles. Like previous Arrowdrome releases Dead End Drive-In and The Vineyard it was distributed in the U.S. by New World Pictures and made its domestic DVD debut courtesy of Anchor Bay Entertainment. Both Arrow's release and the previous Anchor Bay disc both presented The Initiation in a widescreen transfer in its original 1.85:1 theatrical exhibition ratio. Not much work has been done to make the movie any more presentable on home video than before, but despite some modest print damage sticking around the quality of the transfer looks pretty good. The print grain has been cut down to an agreeable amount while the colors and details are clean and lacking in excessive digital noise reduction. Performing just as solidly is the English 2.0 mono audio track. The only clear defect on this track is the presence of occasional drop-offs in the sound mix. Given the movie's age, low budget, and little appeal outside of cult horror fanatics this never really hampers the overall quality of the soundtrack. Everything else sounds just fine. No subtitles have been included.
The only extra feature Arrow has provided this release with is the original theatrical trailer. To be included with the DVD is a collector's booklet with writing on The Initiation by Calum Waddell that was not provided to us upon the writing of this review. I'm sure it's a really nice book though.
The Initiation is a fun, bloody fright flick with a bit more plot than you would expect from a sorority slasher. Arrow's DVD presentation doesn't have much to recommend it besides the actual movie but it's worth a purchase if you can find it for a reduced price.