Director/Screenplay – Mark Rosman, Producers – John G. Clark & Mark Rosman, Photography – Timothy Suhrstedt, Music – Richard H. Band, Makeup Effects – Make-Up Effects Labs (Supervisor – Rob E. Holland). Production Company – VAE Productions.
Kathryn McNeil (Katherine Rose), Eileen Davidson (Vicki), Lois Kelso Hunt (Mrs Slater), Christopher Lawrence (Dr Beck), Janis Zido (Liz), Robin Meloy (Jeanie), Harley Kozak (Diane), Michael Kohn (Peter), Jodie Draigie (Morgan), Ellen Dorsher (Stevie), Michael Sergio (Rick)
The girls of Pi Theta sorority decide to throw a graduation party at the sorority house. This meets the disapproval of the housemother Mrs Slater who wants them all out over the break. When Vicki sneaks a guy into her room, Mrs Slater breaks in on them and in her angry outburst ruptures Vicki’s waterbed with her cane. The girls plan a prank to take revenge on Mrs Slater. They toss her cane in the swimming pool and then pull a gun loaded with blanks on her to make her go and retrieve it. However, the prank goes wrong and Mrs Slater is shot with real bullets. As people begin arriving for the party, the girls decide to hide the body by dumping it in the pool. As the party gets underway, they discover the body is missing and realise that Mrs Slater might still be alive. Meanwhile, someone starts eliminating their numbers.
The slasher film began with Halloween (1978) and was followed by the equal hit of Friday the 13th (1980), both of which spun out a string of sequels that were still going into the 2000s. The slasher film itself was quickly inundated by a host of low-budget copycats all using some holiday or celebratory date and creating a series of tropes that were endlessly copied. These became so prolific that the genre had peaked by 1981 and fairly much burned itself out by 1983. (For an overview of the genre see Slasher Films).
The House on Sorority Row was a directorial debut for Mark Rosman. Rosman had previously worked as an assistant director to Brian De Palma on Home Movies (1980). Rosman’s name was praised on the basis of The House on Sorority Row but his career elsewhere has been thoroughly unexceptional – it promptly fell into a run of Disney Channel films, episodes of Lizzie McGuire (2001-4) and other Hilary Duff fare such as A Cinderella Story (2004) and The Perfect Man (2005), and YA/romance tv movies such as Princess (2008), Snow 2: Brain Freeze (2008), William & Kate (2011), A Wish Come True (2015) and Sun, Sand and Romance (2017), which should be about as undistinguished and dully sedate a career path as it is possible to get. (See below for Mark Rosman’s other genre films).
The House on Sorority Row has gained good some good word of mouth over the years where it is said to have style and be better made than the average slasher film. I can say I have probably 90% of all the slasher movies made in the 1980s and a lesser percentage of the ones made after that point. I am not completely convinced.
As I have said elsewhere, when a work gets a certain praise in some quarters, it alters the perception of those watching and becomes a case of confirmation bias ie. people sit watching it looking for material that bolsters the opinion that it must be good because other people have said so. (One of the things that was promoted by the original publicity for the film and often mentioned in write-ups was Rosman’s association with Brian De Palma which is where I suspect the films elevated reputation comes from). This certainly altered my expectations when I sat down to finally watch The House on Sorority Row. As a result, I ended up disappointed. In truth, there is nothing much about the film that stands out from the rest of the slasher entries of the day.
Mark Rosman does an okay job delivering the various set-ups. On the other hand, there was no particular sequence amidst this that made me go ‘wow’ and applaud the stylishness of the set-ups as I have done in other slasher works like Halloween, Clownhouse (1989) or Deep in the Woods (2000), or for that matter almost anything that Brian De Palma puts his hands on.
The film has a slightly better constructed plot than usual. The scenes with the body dumped in the pool and then disappearing are clear evidence that Rosman is borrowing from the classic French psycho-thriller Les Diaboliques (1955). There is also an ending blatantly lifted from Halloween where the killer is seemingly killed only for the body to disappear moments later. The denouement is tipped in the opening prologue. On the other hand, I felt that the script didn’t do nearly enough to make the sudden left field reintroduction of the doctor near the end credible, nor for that matter offer much in the way of explanation as to why the killer is killing victims.
The film later underwent a remake as Sorority Row (2009).
In genre material, Mark Rosman subsequently went on to make the children’s time travel tv movie The Blue Yonder (1985); The Force (1994) about a disembodied soul; the killer robot film Evolver (1995); the alien impregnation film The Invader (1997); Life-Size (tv movie, 2000) where Lindsay Lohan brings one of her dolls to life, the modernised fairytale A Cinderella Story (2004); the Christmas fantasy Snow 2: Brain Freeze (2008); the children’s film Time Toys (2016); as well as produced the remake Sorority Row (2009).