The Initiation Blu-ray review (originally published 2016)
Kelly’s new sorority has a special initiation ritual in store for her – an after-hours break-in of her father’s department store. But what begins as a night of harmless college fun turns sour when, once inside the enormous mall, Kelly and her fellow pledges find themselves locked in for the night… with a deadly intruder stalking the corridors. (From Arrow’s official synopsis)
Larry Steward’s The Initiation (1984), not to be confused with Brian Yuzna’s Silent Night, Deadly Night 4: Initiation (1990), was released towards the end of the slasher genre’s ‘golden era’ and was sort of forgotten in a sea of sorority-themed murder movies, such as Bob Clark’s Black Christmas (1974), Joseph Mazzuca’s Sisters of Death (1977), and Mark Rosman’s The House on Sorority Row (1983). It’s not even the only college-set slasher to feature a performance by Daphne Zuniga – she appeared in Jeffrey Obrow/Stephen Carpenter’s The Dorm that Dripped Blood the year before (1983). Initially helmed by BJ and the Bear (1979 -1981) director Peter Crane, who fell behind schedule, The Initiation was completed by Stewart, who was also mostly known for his work on television. Screenwriter Charles Pratt Jr. sticks to the college slasher bible in terms of the set-up, in which attractive, hip young people are isolated and picked-off by a mysterious killer with ties to the main character/Final Girl. His remarkably unremarkable version of the formula gets a boost from its melodrama and pseudo-scientific babble; both elements that the director(s) openly embrace(s). The stalking, the slashing, and the sorority rush week shenanigans all converge with the main character’s nightmares and a shocking event from her past (which is shown to the audience in the first scene). When this mishmash works, The Initiation actually has more in common with ‘70s era Italian giallo movies than a typical, mid-’80s North American slashers.
Every excuse to delve into dream logic, Freudian jargon, and soap opera antics pulls the film closer to greatness, while the valley girl arguments and extended party sequences feel as if they’ve sprung from an entirely different movie. Perhaps this is where the division between Crane and Stewart – one of them drove the tone into odd places while the other drove it back towards the bloody violence, suspense, and gratuitous nudity that audiences expected at the time. The fact that both filmmakers cut their teeth on TV might have even worked to this particular movie’s advantage, because it ends up with a unique, though probably not intended flavor, as if a typical daytime drama is being attacked by the violence and T&A of an R-rated horror movie. It’s just as awkward as it sounds (especially the forced nudity, which practically screams ‘studio mandate’), but in a thoroughly enjoyable way. The murder sequences are pretty gory by 1984 standards (the time after parent groups complained about Friday the 13th, in 1980). During the bloodiest kill, the filmmakers even cut between a victim’s cries of pain and a nearby friend’s cries of joy as she orgasms, even though equating sex & violence was a huge no-no for the censors in many countries (including the UK, where the scene was originally cut by almost a minute) at the time. The weapon of choice for the early murders is a gardening trowel (itself a means to set up a red herring), but extends to a machete, a hatchet, a bow & arrow, a hunting knife, and a harpoon gun when the killer discovers the mall’s sporting goods store.
The Initiation isn’t the most popular movie of its era, but it has enjoyed easy availability on home video in North America. Following Thorn EMI’s VHS, the first DVD was an anamorphic release from Anchor Bay, which was reissued as a double-feature with Jim McCullough’s Mountaintop Motel Massacre (1986), then again by Image Entertainment. For its Blu-ray debut, Arrow has created a new 1080p, 1.85:1 transfer using a 2K scan of the original 35mm camera negative that had been remastered in-house at Pinewood Studios. The results are an authentically film-like image that recreates the purposefully ‘foggy’ look that Stewart/Crane and cinematographer George Tirl were going for. Grain levels may appear a little too thick for some viewers, though I think the real issue is that the levels have been cranked a bit too high. This doesn’t only blow-out some white levels and washout some of the finer detail during both dark and bright sequences, but it makes the grain itself appear quite black. Fortunately, there aren’t many other print damage issues (a smattering of dots here and there) and compression artifacts are basically nil. The occasional blurry corners of the frame appear to be an intended fisheye effect.
The original mono soundtrack is presented in uncompressed LPCM audio. This is a relatively low-impact track, though the film was produced at a time when it was becoming more common for even low-budget movies to be mixed for stereo, so the sound design is still well-layered. Dialogue has a natural, consistent quality with minor hiss and only a couple of issues with the sound floor dropping out. The party scene features loud, neatly separated pop tunes and Gabriel Black & Lance Ong’s electronic score neatly underlines these effects.
Commentary with The Hysteria Continues – Members of the slasher/giallo-themed podcast Justin Kerswell (also writer at hysterialives.co.uk and author of The Slasher Movie Book, 2012), Eric, Nathan, and Joseph (no last names given and I can’t seem to find them) try to make sense of the plot, note the connections to other movies, examine the careers of the cast & crew, and crack mostly funny jokes. This track is good fun all-around.
Sorority Saga (21:17, HD) – An interview with Charles Pratt, Jr. in which the screenwriter discusses film school, developing The Initiation as his feature writing debut, the producers changing directors, the film’s soap opera twists (it appears it was done on purpose!), and the movie’s legacy.
Pledge Night (18:36, HD) – Actor Christopher Bradley talks about trying out for the role (apparently he only got it because the other guy in the running left town), the hectic pace of the shoot, the woes of working with special make-up effects, the rest of the cast, the silly script, and his post Initiation career.
Dream Job (13:34, HD) – In the final interview featurette, actress Joy Jones recalls her career in film and theater, reiterates the story of the director change, and relays fond memories of the film, despite it being a difficult production.
Extended party scene (1:07, HD, no audio)
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