Director: Larry Stewart (and an uncredited Peter Crane)
Cast: Vera Miles, Clu Gulager, Daphne Zuniga, James Read, Marilyn Kagan, Robert Dowdell, Patti Heider, Frances Peterson, Hunter Tylo
Watch The Initiation online in the UK: Shudder UK
Every other weekend, our resident horror fanatic Anton Bitel delves into Shudder’s selection of horrors.
By 1984, the slasher was already entering the moribund stages of overrepresentation in the horror market – which is why the arrival of a certain, unusually talkative, Elm Street-based antagonist was as welcome as it was necessary for the subgenre’s renewal. Yet Freddy Krueger was not the only slasher that year to visit his young prey in dreams no less than in reality. For like Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Initiation not only focuses on the psychology of dreams (and on a figure with burn scars), but also expressly riffs on previous proto-slashers (Psycho, 1960; Peeping Tom, 1960; A Bay of Blood, 1971) and actual slashers (Black Christmas, 1974; Friday the 13th, 1980; Dressed to Kill, 1980; The Boogey Man, 1980; Hell Night, 1981; The House On Sorority Row, 1983; Nightmare Vacation, 1983) with the sort of self-awareness that typically marks the end of a cycle.
What is more, The Initiation wears this knowingness on its sleeve. Near the beginning, protagonist Kelly Fairchild (Daphne Zuniga, in her first lead rôle) says of her sorority’s head girl: “Megan’s whittling us down to nothing.” Kelly is describing the way that Megan’s hazing rituals during ‘Hell Week’ are serving to eliminate the sorority’s new pledges – indeed, of the 15 initiates, only four (including Kelly) still remain – but, of course, her words are equally apt for marking the slasher subgenre’s typically by-numbers approach of killing off characters one by one. It helps that Kelly also explicitly calls Megan ‘a maniac’. In a later scene, Kelly’s mother Frances (played by Psycho’s Vera Miles) will say of her own husband, Dwight (Clu Gulager), who has just forgotten his keys, “Sometimes I think that man would forget his own head if it wasn’t attached” – this just moments after we have seen Dwight being stabbed and decapitated by a mysterious assailant. By the time a policeman discovers the car in whose boot Dwight’s corpse has been concealed, the bloody Texas numberplate is shown to include the letters ‘PUN’, in open confirmation of the film’s verbal wit and macabre double-entendres – like when one student speculates that a building’s absent nightwatchman, whom we know has been stabbed, must have “cut out early.”
The film opens with an impressionistic primal scene: a nine-year-old girl, woken by a storm, walks in on her mother and father in flagrante delicto in a bedroom full of mirrors, uncomprehendingly attacks her father with a pair of scissors, and then sees a male stranger enter the room, tussle with her father, and end up ablaze. All this is part of a nightmare that the now adult Kelly experiences night after night, but her amnesia about her childhood means that she cannot grasp the dream’s insistent significance – even if it is clear that her conspiratorial parents know far more than they are telling. So Kelly turns for answers to Peter (James Read), a parapsychology graduate writing a thesis on dream analysis, even as a shadowy escapee from an asylum heads into town to carry out a vengeful series of murders. Everything will come to a head in the department store owned by Dwight, where Kelly and her fellow pledges are spending the night as part of their initiation into Delta Rho Chi.
The first and only feature film of TV journeyman Larry Stewart (called in early to take over from Peter Crane, who was falling behind schedule and over budget), The Initiation offsets fun, funny co-eds (bolstered by Charles Pratt Jr’s arch dialogue) against deep psychological traumas – and its duplicitous narrative ends with a twist that is hard to see coming, yet satisfies by playing studiously fair with the viewer.
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