Initiation of Sarah Blu-ray Review
Blu-ray Release: June 21, 2022
Audio: English DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 Mono
Subtitles: English SDH
Run Time: 96:49
Director: Robert Day
Shy misfit Sarah Goodwin (Kay Lenz) has a secret gift: the ability to control – and destroy – with her mind. When Sarah goes off to college with her more outgoing and popular sister, Patty (Morgan Brittany), their plans to join the most prestigious sorority on campus are scuttled by snobby president, Jennifer Lawrence (Morgan Fairchild). Separated from her sister, Sarah is taken in by a rival, less popular sorority, whose mysterious house mother, Mrs. Hunter (Shelley Winters), is harboring a secret of her own: a scheme to harness Sarah’s terrifying power for revenge. Betrayed by Patty, humiliated by Jennifer, it can only be a matter of time before Sorority Hell Week erupts in flame! (From Arrow’s official synopsis)
One of the most enduring made-for-TV horror films of the ‘70s not directed by Dan Curtis (of Dark Shadows [1968-’69], The Night Strangler , and Trilogy of Terror  fame), Robert Day’s Initiation of Sarah (1978) is typically remembered as Carrie Goes to College, because the concept is pretty much Stephen King’s Carrie in a college setting. The film originally aired on ABC the same year as Brice Mack’s even more obvious cash-in on Brian De Palma’s 1976 Carrie adaptation, Jennifer (1978), was released in theaters and one year after Curtis Harrington attempted to combine King’s novel with William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973, based on William Peter Blatty’s novel of the same name) for Ruby (1977). Funnily enough, it also followed Lee Philips’ NBC original Carrie rip-off, The Spell (1977). It was a golden era for supernaturally-powered social outcasts seeking revenge. Initiation of Sarah is also a good example of the occult school subgenre, alongside Dario Argento’s Suspiria (with which it shares some seemingly coincidental images and ideas, 1977), and specifically sorority-based horror, like Bob Clark’s Black Christmas (1974), Tom DeSimone’s Hell Night (1981), Mark Roseman’s House on Sorority Row (1982), and Larry Steward’s The Initiation (1984). Though, even in this regard, it comes across as merely the latest in a line, because it was following the lead of David Lowell Rich’s Satan’s School for Girls, a 1973 ABC original movie produced by Aaron Spelling, and Jerry Thorpe’s 1977 NBC film The Possessed.
Before events really begin to turn against her, Sarah’s problems are generally less dire than Carrie’s. She’s more likely to be ignored than bullied, she has at least one supportive relationship with her adopted sister, Patty, and her shyness is relatable, especially in the context of something as passive aggressively mean-spirited and judgmental as sorority pledging. In fact, Initiation of Sarah works best as a lightweight melodrama about pledge life. The script passed through many writers’ hands, but the story-by credit is shared by regular TV scribe Carol Saraceno and future Fright Night (1986) and Child’s Play (1990) writer Tom Holland. I wonder if Holland and Saraceno’s treatment was more horror-centric and admit that, without the supernatural elements, the plot would be listless (contrasting a cult ritual with a frivolous ‘hell night’ ceremony during the climax is quite clever), but Day was right to recognize the strength of his cast and focus on soapy interactions between cartoonish characters. The supporting players add considerable camp appeal, including Shelley Winters in a borderline hagsploitation role and Tisa Farrow as an arty misfit literally named Mouse who is even shyer than Sarah*, but the most memorable part is reserved for Morgan Fairchild, who helped solidify the cruel bitch persona she’d begun to develop in daytime soaps with this film. Following decades of trademark celebrity, it’s easy to forget that Fairchild was actually quite good at this kind of thing, arguably better than Nancy Allen, whose Carrie performance she’s meant to be emulating.
As established, British director Robert Day wasn’t a Dan Curtis-level TV movie guy, but he was a very busy director in both film and television, and had been since the mid-’50s. His horror pedigree included collaborations with Boris Karloff, The Haunted Strangler and Corridors of Blood (both 1958), two episodes of Richard Matheson’s Circle of Fear (both 1972), another occult TV movie called Ritual of Evil (1970), as well as Hammer Studios’ non-horror fantasy adventure She in 1965. Initiation of Sarah was remade for ABC Family in 2006, directed by Stuart Gillard and featuring Fairchild as Sarah’s mother. Alas, someone else once again got there first, as Spelling remade Satan’s School for Girls for ABC in 2000.
* Within a year, Farrow would temporarily relocate to Italy, where she appeared in Lucio Fulci’s Zombie (Italian: Zombi 2; aka: Zombie Flesh Eaters, 1979) and Joe D’Amato’s Anthropophagous (aka: The Grim Reaper, 1980).
After its premiere, Initiation of Sarah was released at least twice on US VHS tape from Goodtimes and Worldvision. The only stateside DVD release was a Scream Factory double-feature with Walter Grauman’s Are You in the House Alone? (1978), but it did, of course, continue airing on television. I don’t know if it was ever shown in HD, but it doesn’t really matter, because this Blu-ray debut is sourced from a brand new 4K scan of the original camera negative. The 1080p remaster is presented in the intended, TV-friendly 1.33:1 aspect ratio and also maintains cinematographer Ric Waite’s soft and blooming made-for-TV style photography. It looks like a movie that was designed for a cathode-ray tube and I mean that in the best possible way. The edges aren’t oversharpened, grain is cushy, but not noisy, and contrast levels are dynamic, especially during the more stylistic climax. Colors aren’t hyper-saturated, but very consistent and vivid where necessary.
Initiation of Sarah is presented in its original mono sound and uncompressed DTS-HD Master Audio. There’s a bit of hiss during some of the outdoor sequence, but this was probably present on the raw tracks and the sound floor remains low throughout most of the track. Dialogue isn’t too soft, but Johnny Harris’ busy, brassy score is loud enough that you might find yourself fumbling for the remote after dialogue-heavy scenes. There aren’t any notable issues with compression aside from the occasionally quiet performance and little to no distortion at high volume levels.
Commentary with Amanda Reyes – The editor/co-author of Are You In The House Alone?: A TV Movie Compendium 1964-1999 (Headpress, 2017) offers up an extremely robust look at the larger history of TV movies (with an emphasis on horror and other violent or transgressive films), the careers of the cast & crew, Initiation of Sarah’s themes and the context surrounding them, how the film was advertised, and the 2006 remake.
Welcome to Hell Week: A Pledge's Guide to The Initiation of Sarah (16:33, HD) – A playful new featurette from the co-hosts of the Gaylords of Darkness podcast, Stacie Ponder and Anthony Hudson, which explores the cast’s careers and the film’s queer and feminist pedigrees.
Cracks in the Sisterhood: Second Wave Feminism and The Initiation of Sarah (14:48, HD) – Critic and author of Rape-Revenge Films: A Critical Study (McFarland & Company, 2011) Alexandra Heller-Nicholas discusses the film in the context of the late-’60s feminist movement.
The Intimations of Sarah (16:19, HD) – Author and critic Samantha McLaren breaks down the history of ‘70s TV horror, their scandalous and taboo nature, their habit of ripping off popular theatrical releases, the stuff Initiation of Sarah had specifically stolen from Carrie, and some of the film’s queer/feminist themes.
The Initiation of Tom (8:58, HD) – Screenwriter Tom Holland closes things out with a look back at his early career and some of the differences between his treatment and the final film (the Carrie elements were added later).
The images on this page are taken from the BD and sized for the page. Larger versions can be viewed by clicking the images. Note that there will be some JPG compression.