Friday, April 24, 2015

Cranpire Movie(s): Sorority House Massacre and Sorority House Massacre II

 Welcome back to Cranpire Movies! It's been a little while since I visited this feature of the Blogorium, so maybe a quick refresher is in order. There are bad movies I like to watch, but many more of them that I just can't (or won't) find time to sit through. When that happens, I'll hand then off to my friend Cranpire, who will watch just about anything I won't. He's fond of Syfy Channel Original movies, and not just the new ones - thanks to Bruce Campbell's presence in Terminal Invasion, Alien Apocalypse, and The Man with the Screaming Brain, Cranpire was on board early with their quickly manufactured schlock. Every now and then, the Cap'n ends up watching something (usually accidentally) that would normally fall into Cranpire's wheelhouse, and when that happens, they are reviewed accordingly.

 Today we're going to take a lot at the Sorority House Massacre series, specifically the first two. The third film - Hard to Die - is technically a sequel in that it has much of the same cast and uses the exact same back story, but it's also a Die Hard knock-off instead of a slasher flick, so I'll mention it in passing or when relevant. It's also worth noting that other than possibly using the same exterior, there's no continuity whatsoever between Sorority House Massacre and Sorority House Massacre II, although the second films does tie itself to a completely different slasher series. But more on that when we get to the sequel in name only.

 For a Roger Corman produced, late-era slasher cheapie, Sorority House Massacre is kind of... classy? It's a relative term, I realize, but considering where it came from and what the marketing sells the film as, there's a comparably nuanced story buried inside of slashing and T&A. Yes, it's borrowing (heavily) from A Nightmare on Elm Street during the dream sequences, but the imagery is also suggestive of Dario Argento in a way you wouldn't expect. If you somehow end up seeing the films in the wrong order, you'd be shocked at how much better Sorority House Massacre is than its "sequel". While Carol Frank didn't quite make a "Feminist Slasher" on the same scale as Amy Jones and Rita Mae Brown's Slumber Party Massacre, it's definitely a less voyeuristic approach to the subgenre than I had expected.

 Actually, it's debatable that Sorority House Massacre is even a slasher film at all, because the dream / psychic connection between the Final Girl and the Killer (shades of Halloween II) means we almost immediately meet our antagonist. Most of the film is about putting together how they're connected, what he's after, and what it has to do with the sorority house their paths collide in. By necessity, I'm going to SPOIL this, but it's hardly that since the audience is miles ahead of the characters for most of Sorority House Massacre. Beth (Angela O'Neill) is a withdrawn college student staying over at a friend's sorority house during Spring Break. Most of the girls are gone, including their sorority "mother," but when Beth arrives, she begins having nightmares about the house, of tables covered with blood and butchered mannequins. Her dreams begin to affect her waking life, and simultaneously Bobby (John C. Russell), an inmate in a mental institution, becomes more active, eventually escaping. He's looking for Laura, the only member of his family he didn't kill during a bloody massacre, and wouldn't you know it that Beth just happens to be her middle name...

Sorority House Massacre is not an especially violent or even gratuitous movie. Sure, there's nudity, but not in copious amounts (mostly taking place while Beth's friends (Wendy Martel, Pamela Ross, and Nicole Rio) try on the "rich" girl's clothes after she leaves, and during a Teepee make-out later in the movie), and most of the film's 77 minute running time is devoted to cutting between Beth's hallucinations / memories and Bobby coming "home". He kills just about everyone he runs into quickly, particularly the unfortunate boyfriends (Joe Nassi, Marcus Vaughter, and Vinnie Bilancio) of the main characters. What keeps Bobby interesting is that when he sees the women, it switches to his POV, where he imagines them as his sisters. He calls them not by their names, but by who he sees them as, almost as though he was killing them all over again. The disconnect between imagination and reality in the film actually makes the deaths that much more brutal.

 Of the two films, the first Sorority House Massacre is probably less deserving of being a "Cranpire Movie": it's a lower-to-mid-tier slasher film, but is surprisingly atmospheric for a low budget horror film. While it borrows from better movies, Frank at least manages to make the "lifts" seem interesting, and the characters are at least developed enough that you care when they die. Horror hounds looking for a quick and bloody fix should probably go elsewhere, as this is (surprisingly) reserved considering where it came from, but I might have a film that's right up your alley in the next paragraph...

 If Sorority House Massacre has some degree of class in the way it's presented, Sorority House Massacre II has all of the exploitation elements, and almost nothing else. Directed by Chopping Mall's Jim Wynorski, it offers gratuitous nudity, spurts of blood, leering perverts, dumb jokes, pointless subplot(s), and 60-ish minutes of nubile young ladies running around in their nighties, sometimes soaking wet. That said, as schlock goes, it's pretty entertaining, provided you're watching it in the right frame of mind. The opening should be a dead giveaway that it's not to be taken seriously, with an aggressive synthesizer soundtrack and pseudonyms in the credits like "Produced by Shelley Stoker" or introducing an actor as being the same person as his character.

 The jokey tone is heightened after we're introduced to the new sorority sisters moving into a house that may or may not be the same one from the first film (if it's not, the exterior is pretty close, but the interior looks nothing like it - just a generic "house" set). In short order, we meet Linda (Robyn Harris), Jessica (Samurai Cop's Melissa Moore), Kimberly (Stacy Zhivago), Suzanne (Michelle Verran), and Janey (Dana Bentley), who are staying at their new house overnight until the power and phone utility men come over the next morning. They got the house cheap because it was the site of a series of murders five years ago, which kind of creeps out the girls, but they have tequila, so it's okay. They also meet their creepy neighbor from across the street, Orville Ketcham (himself) who, in addition to keeping the key to their basement in his underwear, was present during the original massacre. Just not the Sorority House Massacre.

 For reasons unknown to me, instead of using the fact that there's already a Sorority House Massacre and it's kinda the same house and roughly five years later, Wynorski opts to use the back story from a completely different movie in both Sorority House Massacre II and Hard to Die. Even though the house looks nothing alike, all of the flashbacks to "Old Man Hocksteder" who went crazy and killed his family is footage from Slumber Party Massacre, another Corman produced slasher movie that has its own sequels. And it's a lengthy flashback to many of the "kill" scenes from Slumber Party Massacre, which uses a totally different murder weapon than the hook in Sorority House Massacre II. Why? Your guess is as good as mine, but it adds another layer of intertextuality, albeit a very silly one.

 The girls, having taken cold showers and slipped into something more comfortable, go down into the basement and find a Ouija board, so they have a little séance - as you do - which ends in a spooky way. And by "spooky" I mean "basically what happens in Night of the Demons but much cheaper". Maybe it's the framing, but it's easy to spot the boom mike in many scenes, most notably in the living room near the beginning. It's also a shockingly well lit house for only having candles and a few portable lamps. Maybe it's the lightning that helps, although that looks an awful lot like the same stock animation I saw in Hillbillys in a Haunted House...

 Anyway, so the girls try to get some sleep, but they have arguments about sleeping with a guy someone else is "going with," and somehow Jessica's 40-something boyfriend Eddie (Mike Elliott) never comes up again. Sorority House Massacre (mostly) waits until the boys come over to start a-murderin', but Sorority House Massacre II is ladies night through and through. Other than persistent cutaways to Ketcham looking menacing / loathsome, the bulk of the film is just gals in lingerie bouncing around the house, running into oddly placed bear traps (in the attic!) or getting murdered by a hook (despite the presence of a chainsaw in the basement). Interestingly, the drill that "Hocksteder" used to kill all of his victims in the "flashback" is nowhere to be found in the film.

 To keep the "appropriating Slumber Party Massacre as a prequel to this film," Sorority House Massacre II has a subplot involving to cops (played by Jürgen Baum and Karen Chorak) who are slowly investigating a phone call that came from the "old Hocksteder place" - which, for the record, is the house with no phone service. They don't want to drive through a roadblock (or something) because of the rain, so instead they head to a strip club. If you're asking "why?" the answer is more breasts on camera while the action slows down back at the house, but the plot excuse is that one of the survivors of the original massacre is now stripping to work through her trauma. Candy (Bridget Carney) has her own routine, followed by a sit down with the cops while another stripper does her show (all on camera, of course), and suggests that maybe Ketcham shouldn't have been ruled out as a suspect. While this should surprise nobody, Bridget Carney wasn't in Slumber Party Massacre, nor was there a character named "Candy." But hey, more boobs, am I right fellas?

 As it's really not clear where this movie should be going, Wynorski throws in a "possession" angle to justify the Ouija board, and while I won't tell you who ends up with Hocksteder's ghost at the wheel, I will give the director enough credit to make sure they're always where the killer would be or at least separated from the group. There's a lot of "let's split up" that you'd expect from really bad slasher movies, but in this instance it does serve as pretty good misdirection, at least until there aren't enough ladies left to rule out anybody else. Despite continually trying to imply that Ketcham is dangerous, it's pretty clear he's just a weirdo red herring, and despite being stabbed, choked with a chain, drowned in a toilet, and being shot by the police, he's still somehow alive at the end of the movie, not to mention the one who kills the, uh, Final Girl. It must have been all the raw meat he was eating earlier...

 While I can easily say that Sorority House Massacre is pretty good "for what it is," it's difficult to say the same for Sorority House Massacre II. It is exactly the lurid, dumb, gratuitous slasher movie you think you're getting based on the cover. So it has that going for it. If you want cheap thrills, you'll mostly get them without groaning too much. Gone is any hint of artfulness, replaced with a workman-like approach of showing the goods and getting out. The comedy isn't that funny (trust me, I'm not sure if we're really supposed to laugh at the "Arab" stereotypes at the strip club, or just marvel at how dated they are), the gore is mostly limited to blood splattering on the wall (and one bathtub scene lifted from Slumber Party Massacre 2 - oh, did I not mention that there are more than one Slumber Party Massacre films?).

 I guess the only thing that Wynorski really delivers on is the nudity, which I suspect Cranpire will agree is at least a selling point. They are attractive young women, and have no problem disrobing and taking cold showers for no reason, or standing directly underneath a porch dripping water in white nighties. Good for them? While Hard to Die is more of an "action comedy," it does have most of the same cast, including Orville Ketcham, playing the same kind of unkillable exposition machine he does in this one. Oh, and yes, the same flashbacks to a different movie. Well, the same different movie, because Hocksteder was a busy driller killer. As Cranpire Movies go, these are arguably better than his normal fare, but what is that really saying? I can easily recommend Sorority House Massacre and Sorority House Massacre II over the likes of Sharknado 2: The Second One and, uh, Sharknado 3: Oh Hell No, but they aren't going enhance your life or anything. Or maybe they will. Who knows, it might win you trivia one night, just by knowing what other series this one flashes back to. And if I'm being honest, the Sorority House Massacre movies are better than Slumber Party Massacre 2 and 3, so there's that. If you're the sort of person who hears the phrase "Cranpire Movie" and is excited, you're probably Cranpire, but if not, prepare for a fun double feature.

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