Color, 1983, 91 mins. 53 secs.
Directed by Mark Rosman
Starring Kate McNeil, Eileen Davidson, Lois Kelso Hunt, Harley Jane Kozak
Scorpion Releasing (Blu-ray & DVD) (US R0 HD/NTSC), 88 Films (Blu-ray) (UK R0 HD), Liberation, Elite (US R1 NTSC) / WS (1.78:1) (16:9)
At the Theta Pi sorority, house mother Mrs. Slater (Hunt) seems to be harboring a grudge dating back to a traumatic birth (seen in the atmospheric pre-credits sequence.) At the end of term, one of the sorority girls, Katherine (Monkey Shines’ McNeil), refuses to move back home and decides to stay with her Greek sisters for a final graduation party. Unfortunately, a lack of funds has forced the girls to throw their party at the house instead of off campus as originally planned. Mrs. Slater always demands the house be closed down by June 19th, but since she'll be off at the mental institution for treatment, she won't mind... right? Unfortunately Mrs. Slater cancels her stay and shows up unannounced while the girls are planning during a binge of boozing and smoking. Even worse, she catches one of the girls fooling around with a college boy and takes a poker to their water bed, with messy results. They decide to get back at the old tyrant by pulling a practical joke involving a partially loaded pistol and the house's swimming pool; naturally this little joke backfires, leaving Mrs. Slater dead and the guilty parties conspiring to leave her body submerged in the water. However, the corpse disappears and the girls begin dying one by one. Even worse, Mrs. Slater's nasty secret reason for closing the house every year might have something to do with a surprise lurking in the attic...
Released during the seemingly endless stream of low budget slasher films during the early '80s, The House on Sorority Row is less a Friday the 13th copy than an arty, flawed, but entertaining blend of Diabolique and Black Christmas. Don't let the sorority setting fool you; this isn't quite your average slice and dicer. Though hardly groundbreaking, it remains a diverting time killer and contains enough stylish touches to lift it above the norm. The repeated use of clown imagery is undeniably creepy, particularly during one nicely executed moment during the lively attic climax, and some occasional surreal shock effects also work well such as a creepy climactic discovery in the pool and a nasty throwaway gag involving a girl's severed head in a toilet. Bearing a striking resemblance here to a brunette Nicole Kidman, McNeil handles the main girl duties admirably and is more sympathetic and intelligent than your average screaming bimbo in these films, while the script gives her an opportunity to show off some genuine acting ability.
Director Rosman, who started out under the wing of Brian De Palma but found his B-movie career cut short by getting kicked off of Mutant, displays a flair for suspenseful set pieces but not necessarily for pacing and logic. He's aided considerably by one of Richard Band's finest scores, a rich orchestral work well worth seeking out on CD. It's not surprising this film made a substantial impression with a lot of '80s slasher fans, and of course, it was remade in 2009 (simply as Sorority Row); surprisingly, this extensive revamp -- while no classic by a long shot-- at least treated the material more respectfully than catastrophes like the remakes of A Nightmare on Elm Street or Prom Night and is worth a look on its own, too.
The first DVD edition of House on Sorority Row came from Elite in 2000, with a reissue in 2003; the anamorphically enhanced, letterboxed image looked clean and detailed enough, with solid compositions trimming off some of the dead space from the open matte VHS versions while adding a little to the sides. On the other hand, flesh tones were drab while a handful of scenes were marred by repeated vertical scratches running along the left side of the frame. That disc also included the vague theatrical trailer, apparently lifted from a mediocre VHS source. Liberation revisited it in 2010 for a 25th Anniversary Edition that was barely distributed in an attempt to cash in on the remake, though it does feature an improved (albeit still imperfect and interlaced) transfer, a fun commentary with Rosman, McNeil and Davidson, a storyboard study, and a still gallery look at the original ending changed at the distributor's request.
This release left the gate open for a much more substantial two-disc special edition soon afterwards from Scorpion in 2012. Branded as part of the "Katarina's Nightmare Theater" line, it's easily their most stacked release to date and features a new HD transfer from the internegative, looking pretty stunning considering the low budget source while also ditching the Liberation disc's gimmicky 5.1 remix. The extras from the Liberation release have been ported over along with an avalanche of new additions including a second Rosman commentary track, moderated by host Katarina Leigh Waters. It's focused strictly on the conception and execution of the film from his standpoint including the changes the story went through, the efforts made to differentiate the project from run-of-the-mill slashers, and wrangling the personalities of the actors. The previous track is a bit bouncier and has more angles thanks to the participation of two of the thespians, but they suit each other nicely and work well at variations on a theme on the same disc. Actress Harley Jane Kozak gets her first appearance in a supplement for the film with a surprisingly exhaustive video featurette (41m40s), which spends the first half focusing on the shooting of the feature at hand (ranging from the paltry shooting conditions to the difficulties of playing an aquatic corpse) and the rest going over her subsequent career on the big and small screens, including a turn opposite Ken Wahl in one of his rare leading man features. Not enough yet? On disc two, McNeil (14m26s) and Davidson (7m15s) pop up again for new video interviews (about 22 minutes split up between them) in which they offer thumbnail sketches of some of the material from the earlier commentary while going into much more depth about their careers outside the film, including some other cult-related titles of interest. Rosman gets about as much time himself on camera for another new video chat (21m23s), which is obviously focused more on his career both before and after the film since he'd already covered the making of House pretty extensively elsewhere twice over. All three are moderated again by Waters, and it's worth noting on this disc that her usual format familiar from past releases has been tweaked a bit with an unexpected new twist that won't be spoiled here.
Fan favorite composer Richard Band gets a very welcome new interview (45m20s) as well on the second disc, and it's a marvelous career-spanning piece that should please horror soundtrack fans of all stripes. He talks about his early days scoring for brother Charlie Band (who founded Full Moon, Empire Pictures, et al) and father Albert, getting a gig scoring Mutant before the film switched directors, and becoming one of the most prolific genre composers of the '80s, among many other subjects. Interestingly, portions of his score for House later popped up as library tracks for David DeCoteau's 2007 version of The Raven, including the same main credits theme! Igo Kantor, the film's post-production supervisor, gets a much shorter (10m13s) but intriguing video featurette as well in which he discusses working on the film and his general career with its distributor, Film Ventures, whose founder Ed Montoro is an oft-repeated saga unto himself. The theatrical trailer (looking far more robust than the old Elite disc) and two TV spots round out this very extensive package for slasher fans, along with the usual cross-promotional trailers for other '80s horror titles like The Incubus, Humongous, Double Exposure, and Terror.
Almost two years later in 2014, Scorpion revisited the title again as an inevitable Blu-ray reissue -- logical enough given the title's popularity. The Karatina wraparounds have been ditched here, with the major new selling point being that the pre-credits sequence has been color timed back to the original misty monochrome intended by the director. (The familiar violet-tinted version is retained as an extra.) Apart from the missing host footage, the Blu-ray retains the presentation of the first DVD with the two commentaries, Kozak interview, trailer and TV spots (plus a bonus one for Sorority House Massacre), and lost ending overview. The second DVD is carried over as well with no changes. As for the Blu-ray transfer, it offers the expected boost in detail while some of the more aggressively colorful scenes (especially the stylized purple lighting in the climax) have a vibrancy and solidity beyond the capabilities of NTSC. The use of heavy diffusion in some scenes means this isn't always the most razor sharp presentation in the world, but that's the nature of the source. The DTS-HD audio is also solid for what it is, with that evocative score sounding great. A subsequent edition appeared in 2017 on Blu-ray from 88 Films, porting over the trailer but otherwise featuring a different slate of extras including an audio commentary by the always enjoyable gang at The Hysteria Continues, a different Richard Band interview, and a critical appraisal featurette with Kim Newman.
However, that first Blu-ray didn't stick around too long, and Scorpion decided to give it a second visit in 2018 with a fresh transfer from the film's internegative, a restrained and much more faithful new 5.1 mix built from the three-track original magnetic audio elements, and for the first time, all of the substantial extras gathered together on one disc. The new transfer modulates the color timing a bit more carefully to tone down some blown-out whites and looks a bit more coherent in the darker scenes, with the heavy reliance of violet and pink lighting still left intact. The night scenes are also cooler in terms of color temperature. (Frame grabs in the body of this review are from the 2018 Blu-ray, with comparison ones below.) The DTS-HD MA audio options include the aforementioned 5.1 mix and 2.0 mono (with optional English subtitles), both much cleaner than the prior Blu-ray which had some audible crackling and popping at times. Audio-wise, the disc also features both of the preexisting commentaries and an isolated score track for Band's score. In addition you get the alternate ending and storyboard comparison (cut into one 5m18s reel here), all of the video featurettes (Davidson, McNeil, Kozak, Rosman, Kantor, and Band), the still gallery, and the trailer and TV spots. The Katarina's Nightmare Theater Mode has also been restore with the intro and outro, so no need to hang on to that DVD now at all. The reversible cover ditches the familiar U.S. romance novel-style poster design in favor of two different designs, with the reverse one utilizing a doctored image from The House That Screamed of all things. It's always great to have a vintage slasher favorite in HD, and this is obviously an essential one to add to your collection.
Scorpion Releasing (2018 Blu-ray)
Scorpion Releasing (2014 Blu-ray)
Updated review on May 19, 2018.