The House on Sorority Row (1983)


For a film that begins in flashback mode and whose action ignites with a prank gone wrong, THE HOUSE ON SORORITY ROW is a relentlessly original slash excursion and easily one of the best of its kind. The plot may sound familiar, a group of sorority sisters being offed one by one by someone they wronged, but the execution is blow-you-away slick and suspenseful. Unlike most prank gone wrong flicks, the crime here is a recent one and the looming specter of discovery by authorities helps to add yet another level of anxiety. It’s no surprise to learn that director MARK ROSMAN at one time worked alongside BRIAN De PALMA for the potential victims here in no way have clean hands. ROSMAN, credited with the script as well, also knows a thing or two about keeping a viewer on their toes and questioning everything. Who is responsible for the escalating body count and why is always frustratingly just out of reach.

As many interesting queries as the movie raises the biggest one is how did the lead actress KATHRYN McNEIL (also of MONKEY SHINES) escape major A-list stardom? She looks pretty incredible on film and she exudes a regal ferocity that should have had her stealing parts from SIGOURNEY WEAVER or at least NICOLE KIDMAN. As the lone voice of reason amongst her pack, some of what she is required to say and do is a bit hokey by today’s standards, but that’s part of her charm. She comes off as worlds, or at least decades, removed from her very-eighties cohorts. All in all you could not ask for a better lead in a film like this. The viewer can’t help but to follow her like a puppy.

The most fascinating thing about H.O.S.R. to me is how it subtly gets darker and more twisted with each scene so that by the end you can’t believe you are watching the same film you began with. Early scenes are bright with chirpy birds and corny music, and then eventually you end up in the grimmest of Gothic arenas surrounded by a darkly grandiose score (not to mention very creepy clown wallpaper). There is even a side step into SUSPIRIA-like neon psychedelic dream imagery. As a whole, the movie is like one of those sped up film shorts where you watch fruit rot right before your eyes.

H.O.S.R. is less concerned with its character’s sexuality then most slashers (although the requisite “bad girl” does know her way around a water bed and crankin’ up a jack-in-the-box means certain death), but the themes it does focus on are just as common. Wrongs from the past resurface just like the corpse that won’t stay submerged in the swimming pool and forced accountability is the order of the day. Authority figures are routinely stifling or duplicitous and when we are granted access to the dorm’s hidden attic room, we are shown symbol after symbol representing the false happy facade of childhood. Although there’s not much new ground broken here, it’s hard to cite many of its contemporaries that present these ideas with the same amount of grace and aplomb.

My only gripes would be with the slightly off dubbing of the wicked cane-carrying housemother Mrs. Slater (LOIS KELSO HUNT) and I hate to say it, the open ending which many people adore. I admit it is legitimately classy in a BLACK CHRISTMAS (’74) kind of way, but the film has worked itself up into such an incredible crescendo at this point that, to me, it feels like being pushed out of a car at high speed. The latter part of the film, when it has come down solely to McNEIL and the killer (who is now donning the most horrific harlequin/jester outfit you have ever seen) is just TOO GOOD and should have gone on for at least another 15 minutes. (I would even sacrifice the awesome new wave party band FOUR OUT OF FIVE DOCTORS to make this happen!)

H.O.S.R. was a huge financial success that made almost twenty-five times its budget back. Why there was never a sequel (preferably one that takes place right after the events like HALLOWEEN II) I’ll never know. Without giving away the identity of the killer, I’d just like to say that he or she could have been a serious contender as an indelible horror icon. I personally would buy every action figure, t-shirt and poster they could produce. On the other hand, maybe that’s just what makes this masked killer so uniquely powerful, rather than overexposure and tangled story lines we have an ambiguous, mysterious threat that for all these years has remained securely hidden in the shadows. Your mind can have a field day filling in the blanks and perhaps that’s the point. This scary jester may have not made it into big screen movie sequels, but maybe at the end of the day, starring in an actual nightmare or two is the more dignified gig.

NOTE: This review is in conjuncture with DINNER WITH MAX JENKE, for another take on THE HOUSE ON SORORITY ROW, stop by and visit HERE.

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14 years ago

I agree…I’m cool with open endings if they’re done right (a la Black Christmas ’74), but HOSR‘s open ending just seemed too abrupt. If I remember correctly, it plays out like this: You think it’s over. Wait…it’s not over! Cut to black. No time for the open ending to sink in, or to show the reaction of someone (anyone) who might be affected. A co-worker of mine was going to watch HOSR for the first time recently. I had four words for him: “Head in a toilet.” I definitely didn’t expect that victim to end up on the wrong end of the sword after the extended cat-and-mouse chase and struggle she put up.

Jeff Allard
14 years ago

I totally agree about Kathryn McNeil, Unk! I’d put her right alongside Friday the 13th Part 2’s Amy Steel as a slasher heroine who really should’ve had a much bigger career in film. Until I rewatched this, I’d forgotten what a great lead McNeil was here.  

Amanda By Night
14 years ago

“I’m a sea pig.”

Love this movie.

I am kind of obsessed with Harley Jane Kozack (sp?). She was SO good in this movie, and (you can hate me) I think she was the best actress in the film. With the exception of Morgan (who is still great because she’s so bad), all of the actresses were fantastic. I just think Harley was oozing personality.

And the score! It’s so amazingly sumptuous. I have the CD. It’s incredible.

Definitely one of the more underrated slashers of that time period. I too am glad there weren’t any sequels. This movie is fine just as it is.

14 years ago

I remember watching this at a slumber party when I was in high school. Film-father said, “Head in a toilet.” and that is one of the things I vividly remember from the movie. The harlequin freaked me out too. Other than that, I thought it was cool that the woman that plays Ashley Abbott on The Young and the Restless was in it. Yes, I admit it, I love The Young and the Restless.

14 years ago

Thanks for introducing this to me.  I will be doing by best to hunt it down.  I gotta admit, knowing that the director was a DePalma disciple got me a little excited.  I’m like that with that man.

Kathryn McNeil was super cute.  I love the buck teeth.  I’ve always liked imperfect teeth on cute girls… figure that one out, I don’t know.  Anyway, she kinda looks like Kristen Stewart, who I think is a cutie.  I hope that ok to say… I don’t know how old she is.

Vince Liaguno
14 years ago

Love that you guys and Dinner with Max Jenke have created a movie review tag team! Good stuff, guys.
Amanda, Jodi’s best “bad” line from the film is: “But how do we know she’s alive?” Her husband and I tease her relentlessly about it. BTW…I will go to my grave swearing that the filmmakers eventually dubbed over her voice, because the real Jodi Draigie sounds nothing like Morgan from the film. She says it wasn’t.