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Greek Tragedy

MOVIE REVIEW
Sorority Row (2009)

SROW-168 SR-02482
Michael Desmond/Summit Entertainment

Within its first 15 minutes, “Sorority Row” is already batting with a two-strike count. Before the opening credits even begin, the knowledge that the film is yet another tired horror remake is present, although the original in this case is a mostly-unloved piece of 1983 trash, “The House on Sorority Row.” The void of creativity sets in from jump, and once the central set-up — six sorority sisters stage a prank that follies into murder and then an agreed-upon cover up — is established, director Stewart Hendler’s cue seems to come directly from 1997’s “I Know What You Did Last Summer.” Let’s tally the offenses up, now: “Sorority Row” is a remake (first strike) that totally plunders from a horror film that today’s generation knows well (there’s the second). Ask any lawyer worth his graduate-school diploma about what happens to double offenders. And then tell Mr. M.B.A. to behold an exception, because, some how, some way, “Sorority Row” overcomes such obstacles and chalks up one of the year’s most successfully executed horror films.

Never any more than what it needs to be, the film basks in beautiful coeds, bare breasts, gory kills and a charming spunk. Mr. Hendler directs with quick, compact control, and each of the actresses — clearly enjoying herself here — dives headfirst into the cause. The otherwise lazy character types (the quiet bookworm, the loose-legged drunk, the levelheaded good girl) are forgivable when played with the collective’s verve. As the group’s catty alpha-female, the cocksure Leah Pipes leaves the strongest impression, owning every second of screen time in the film’s best-developed role. The comparison to “Mean Girls” has been made to death, but it’s certainly deserved; full of snappy one-liners and a slick balance of vicious bloodshed and tongue-in-cheek sight gags, Josh Stolberg and Pete Goldfinger’s script is an exercise in self-aware glee. Princess Leia herself, Carrie Fisher, as the sorority’s house mother fires off the film’s best line while clutching a sawed-off shotgun: “He, she or it is about to get two rounds in the face!”

It’s somewhat backwards, then, that the weakest link in “Sorority Row” is actually the blood-spiller in Ms. Fisher’s sights. The killer in 1983’s “The House on Sorority Row” was its best asset, a ridiculously amusing prowler in a clown costume. Pennywise, the villain was not. Still, this redo should have kept that caliber of cheese intact. Wearing a bland all-black graduation gown, the body-dropper of “Sorority Row” lacks a commanding presence. Any memorable slasher film — or simply passable, such as 2007’s “Hatchet” — benefits most from its costumed baddie, the anticipation of when and how it’ll strike next being the main attraction. A handful of jump scares in “Sorority Row” work, just never in any lasting terror. Much of the slaughter is nastily inspired (a nicely-paced sequence ending with the clever use of a champagne bottle), but the assailant responsible isn’t intimidating. He or she (we stay spoiler-free here) is simply efficient, without any defining personality.

Unlike everyone else on screen, which is what makes “Sorority Row” such a sleazy good time — the degree of horror movie that’ll come and go within a month’s memory span, yet provides all of the campy elements and spark necessary for an entertaining fix. Messrs. Stolberg and Goldfinger even use a pair of red herrings to their manipulative advantage, playing with the expectations of those overanalyzing who’s under that cap-less gown. Keyser Söze need not worry; it’s an altogether ho-hum lifting of the mask, a byproduct of the slayer’s overall anonymity. The people behind “Sorority Row” should have tested their luck with a third offense: the shameless pilfering of another slasher icon. Had Jason Voorhees had these ladies and Mr. Hendler’s energy to work with, this year’s dismal “Friday the 13th” reboot could have been something special. The consolation of “Sorority Row” being one of the better horror remakes in recent memory, though, shouldn’t be taken for granted.

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