Welcome back to my Halloween Made-for-TV Marathon!
-Last Week’s Movie–Trilogy of Terror
This week, I watched 1978’s The Initiation of Sarah. Like Trilogy of Terror, it aired on ABC.
Now, the elephant in the room. The basic plot of the movie is that a bullied sorority girl uses her psychic powers to get revenge on the rival sorority girls that tormented her. Carrie was released two years before this movie, and The Initiation of Sarah really does draw quite a bit from Carrie. That being said, I think there are enough unique elements to make the story stand alone.
Kay Lenz and Morgan Brittany star as Sarah and Patty Goodwin, sisters about to go to college.
Sarah is shy and has a more natural style while Patty is outgoing and stylish. They both plan to rush their mother’s sorority, Alpha Nu Sigma. When they meet Jennifer Lawson (Morgan Fairchild!), the president of ANS, it’s clear that Patty is welcome but Sarah is not.
Sarah is advised to try her luck at Phi Epsilon Delta, nicknamed “Pigs, Elephants, and Dogs.” They visit PED and meet indifferent, cool girls that I’d absolutely hang out with in a minute, in a cool, creepy house.
Tensions rise between the two sisters as Patty is accepted into ANS and Sarah is accepted into PED. Jennifer forbids Patty to talk to Sarah if she wants to keep her place in ANS. Even their mother urges Patty to ditch her (Sarah is adopted and her relationship with her adoptive mother is frosty.)
Sarah’s powers that she’d once used to save her sister from a rapist on the beach now turn on Patty. Sarah cracks a mirror after overhearing Patty’s end of the phone conversation where their mother urges Patty to let Sarah go. It’s implied that she made the rope of a piano being hoisted up snap over Patty, but then she rescues her. The tension culminates with Sarah using her powers to push Jennifer into a fountain when she’s teasing her and fellow PED member, Mouse (Tisa Farrow).
Mrs. Hunter (Shelley Winters!), the den mother of PED, recognizes there’s something special about Sarah, and wishes to use her powers to restore PED to glory. She also dresses like Anton LaVey.
Mrs. Hunter teaches anthropology and it’s rumored that she believes in the rituals that she teaches. Mouse uncovers a spooky room behind a door that’s usually always locked.
The bad blood between ANS and PED culminates with Jennifer orchestrating a prank to lure Sarah to a supposed party for her boyfriend, Paul (Tony Bill), where she’s pelted with mud and rotten fruit.
It’s cruel, and as Mrs. Hunter cleans her off, she encourages Sarah to use her powers to get vengeance. Shelley Winters chews all the scenery while giving this amazing speech about “how they covered you with that awful filth!” Sarah uses her powers to scald Jennifer and, demonstrating her ambivalent relationship with her sister, Patty.
Initiation Night finally comes and it’s clear that Mrs. Hunter is a full-fledged witch and plans to use Sarah’s powers to destroy ANS.
Sarah is supportive and even uses her powers to turn Jennifer into a kind of crispy, Corn Flake-faced mummy.
What keeps Sarah from destroying the whole sorority is realizing that Mrs. Hunter plans to sacrifice Mouse. Sarah uses her powers to immolate herself and Mrs. Hunter.
This movie obviously mirrors Carrie the most with the prank. Sarah in her sullied white dress covered in mud looks fairly similar to Carrie in her bloody pink dress. Jennifer gets her boyfriend involved in the prank in a way that’s very similar to how Chris Hargensen gets her boyfriend involved in the prank on Carrie. Jennifer and Chris both have similar looks.
Where I think the movies differ, and I know it’s wild that I’m even saying this, is that The Initiation of Sarah is a more nuanced representation of female friendship. Carrie White doesn’t have a friend in the world until Sue Snell and Miss Collins take an interest in her, and their friendship is tenuous at best. Sarah and Patty are best friends, despite their mother’s disapproval. But there also seems to be resentment that Sarah holds towards Patty. Patty’s better treatment, not just by her mother but by their peers, seems to be something that Sarah is used to. It’s not hard to push Sarah against Patty.
I actually like Jennifer as a villain. Chris Hargensen’s fixation on Carrie white is creepy bordering on stalker-ish. Jennifer’s dislike of Sarah is cruel but feels more natural. She’s a pretty, rich girl. Why would she even be interested in someone as different from her as Sarah?
Also, some of what happens between Sarah and Patty is natural. It’s normal for people to grow apart in college. Sarah has a whole new friend group, where she’s appreciated, and a guy who’s interested in her. You wonder if they’d have normally grown apart even without the sorority rivalry tension.
There’s this vague gay subtext that I appreciated. Trust me, there are loads of long stares and touches between the girls that makes you think “Friends or friends?”
I liked the witchcraft aspect. I really wish we’d gotten to see a full evil sorority coven. And Shelley Winters is just delightful as Mrs. Hunter.
The cinematography is really striking for a movie made with a TV movie budget. Here are some cool shots;
Where this movie falls short is it feels incomplete. Sarah’s heritage is discussed and never mentioned again. We know that Sarah is adopted. We know that Patty’s biological father died. There’s a scene where Mrs. Hunter discusses her dislike of ANS, how Sarah and Patty’s mother was a member, and how she knew Sarah and Patty’s father and he was a big man on campus. Was Sarah adopted and a true orphan or was she Patty’s father’s illegitimate child? Is Mrs. Hunter actually her mother? That could explain Mrs. Goodwin’s animosity towards her. There’s one scene and it’s never mentioned again. Also, what led to the animosity between ANS and PED? It’s revealed that PED used to be as popular as ANS, back when Mrs. Hunter was young, until a girl died during her initiation. I just wish these loose ends had been resolved.
Also, the soundtrack is this mix of orchestral and disco music. The orchestral is nice but the disco is kind of rough.
Overall, this is a fun, surprisingly atmospheric movie for something that aired on network TV. I just really wish that Sarah had become fully evil and created a super witch sorority. I wonder if the character chose self immolation over vengeance because of pressure from the network and the desire not to have a villain winning on network TV.
I know the movie was remade in 2006 for ABC Family. I’d definitely be willing to watch it because they cast Morgan Fairchild as the mother.
This movie is fun if you like supernatural thrillers and if you don’t watch it making Carrie comparisons.
- Scarina--the authoress and editrix of this site. I like scary movies and have dedicated my free time to cataloging horror--the good, the bad, and the ugly. Sometimes there are books too.
There's film criticism, literary criticism, and humor here. I can be highbrow but there's lots of pop culture too. And feminism.
I fervently love "Twin Peaks" and wish it were a real place so I could move there. I can't list my favorite scary movies because they change depending on my mood, the season, and how much coffee I've had.
I'm an artist looking for ways to blend creepy with cute. I try to channel my childhood nightmares, my love of horror, and my experiences with sleepy paralysis.
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