They pledge themselves to be young, stay young…and die young.
I have long been saddened by the fact that music critics get to coin crazy new genres and subgenres on a regular basis. Film critics, in contrast, essentially inherit a handful of genres – the romantic comedy, the Western, the blockbuster – and then get to identify and trace the rise and fall of sub-genres. Which means that it is sometimes difficult to talk to those who aren’t keeping abreast of these rises and falls. When someone says “I don’t like slasher films,” it’s hard to take it seriously (unless, for instance, they have a blanket ban on viewing violence). It’s hard to take seriously because there’s so much variety in the slasher “genre” that dismissing it wholesale is difficult. There’s the backwoods slasher, the camp slasher, the urban-stalker slasher, the holiday-themed slasher, and the list could go on. One of the most potent ways to combine the elements of the slasher – plenty of young victims confined to a relatively isolated location, menaced by someone with a grudge – is the sorority slasher. The Initiation takes the formula for a test-drive in 1984, a bit after the big slasher booms, and it’s a fine, if formulaic, take on the material.
The Initiation opens with a young girl catching her parents having sex before an intruder breaks in and gets burned. Flash-forward and Kelly (Daphne Zuniga, Spaceballs) is all grown up and a college student with recurring nightmares. Her sorority sisters convince her that breaking into her father’s department store after-hours is a good idea. But there’s a killer among them.
There are, functionally, two basic types of slasher films. Probably the more famous version (represented by the Friday the 13th franchise) is the supernatural-oriented slasher. The joy here is knowing exactly who the killer is and appreciating the types of kills and the surprise of the order in which the victims are dispatched. The second kind is more influenced by mystery films. The same pleasures of guessing which victims will go first and how they’ll be killed apply. But there’s the added issue of not knowing who the killer is.
The Initiation is definitely in the latter category. And like so many of this kind of mystery-slasher, the opening scene sets up the psychological situation that leads, inevitably, to the series of murders the rest of the film will document. Then we get the inevitable red herrings amongst the cast of victims, a bunch of kills, and the reveal of who the killer actually is.
On the level of mystery, The Initiation does a pretty good job riding the line between making the mystery really opaque (and the killer unguessable) and making the killer super obvious from the beginning. Viewers who are paying attention can put the pieces together between the opening scene of Freudianism run amok, the visit to the insane asylum, and the presence of a psychology grad student. But if you’re not one for guessing who the killer is, the film unfolds in a way that feels logical without either being too obvious or too out-of-left-field.
The kills are pretty solid too. Lots of people fetishize the various implements of destruction that the killers of slasher films employ. And pretty much every fan has their favorite weapon. The Initiation has a fancy for edged weapons and sharp implements, most prominently a garden hoe that’s pretty great.
The victims are pretty interchangeable sorority sisters and their boyfriends. There aren’t any particular stand-outs, either in terms of characters so annoying you want them to die or characters you might love enough to want to see survive. This might be the most generic aspect of the films. None of the characters really stand out as memorable, though the addition of Hitchcock actress Vera Miles to the cast makes the film somewhat notable.
The folks at Arrow have treated The Initiation like a top-shelf slasher property with an excellent Blu-ray. The 1.85:1/1080p AVC-encoded transfer was sourced from the original negative. It’s in solid shape, and the transfer largely respects the film’s slightly gauzy, grain-heavy visuals. Detail is pretty strong throughout, and colors are appropriately saturated. A few of the darker scenes can get a little too grain-heavy, leading to some blockiness, but overall black levels are okay. This isn’t a jaw-dropping transfer, but it respects the source material and presents it appropriately. The film’s mono audio gets the same treatment. There isn’t any significant damage to speak of, which leaves the film’s dialogue and score to be subtle and audible throughout. Dynamic range is appropriate, and though there’s no directionality, the track is very clear.
Extras start with a group commentary by The Hystery Continues, a podcast collective. It’s kind of fun, but the recording (some by phone) can make it hard to distinguish participants. We also get a brief extended scene. The bulk, however, is confined to three new interviews with writer Charles Pratt Jr., actor Christopher Bradley, and actress Joy Jones. Together they run almost 45 minutes and dish a lot about the film’s trials (including a replaced director) and what it was like to complete the film’s shoot. A booklet with an essay by James Oliver is also included.
If you can name a slasher film, it’s probably someone out there’s favorite. I’m sure that’s the case with The Initiation. Somebody undoubtedly loves it. For the rest of us slasher fans, it’s a decent example of the genre that got produced pretty late in run for these kinds of things. It’s not as weird as slashers would get in a few years (Hell High for instance) but it’s not so cliché as to be unnecessary. Basically, if you enjoy slashers, especially sorority-oriented slashers, then this film is worth watching. If that’s not your thing, there’s nothing particular about The Initiation to make it worth seeking out.
The Initiation is a fine little sorority slasher. It’s a decent mystery with some good locations and decent performances. This Blu-ray is one worth upgrading to for fans, and the curious can seek it out with confidence. Consider yourself initiated.