The Initiation of Sarah

As close as they are, stepsisters Patty and Sarah Goodwin could not be more different, one of them effortlessly beautiful and sophisticated, attracting the attention of men and the envy of her peers, a natural fit at the sought-after Alpha Nu Sigma sorority house at Waltham College where her mother was once also accepted; for Sarah, shy, hesitant and reclusive, it is neighbouring Phi Epsilon Delta where she finds a place with lower expectations and less challenging than Patty’s obligations as pledge.

The sisters of ΑΝΣ led by Jennifer Lawrence, years before her mother had accused ΦΕΔ’s house mother Erica Hunter or being involved in the unexplained death of one of her charges, the feud between the two houses continuing as Jennifer and Mrs Hunter use the two sisters as their proxies, Jennifer forbidding Patty to talk to Sarah while Mrs Hunter plays a game darker and more subtle, trying to awaken in Sarah the secret power she has uses to protect herself.

First broadcast as a television movie in February 1978 on the ABC network and now remastered from the original camera negative for Blu-ray release by Arrow, The Initiation of Sarah was written by Don Ingalls, Carol Saraceno and Kenette Gfeller from a story by The Beast Within’s Tom Holland and Saraceno, a supernatural thriller of rivalry, revenge and telekinesis directed by Robert Day whose varied credits included The Green Man, Corridors of Blood, several episodes of The Avengers and the pilots of both Logan’s Run and Dallas.

The men on campus entirely restricted to supporting roles, The Initiation of Sarah is conducted entirely by women, the ensemble led by House’s Kay Lenz as Sarah, later an Emmy winner, Dallas’ Morgan Brittany as Patty, Phantom of the Mall’s Morgan Fairchild as Jennifer, glacial and conniving, The Night of the Hunter’s Shelley Winters as Mrs Hunter, smiling while the sacrificial blade is concealed inside her shawl, and Tisa Farrow as timid musician Mouse, Sarah’s only friend on campus following Jennifer’s vicious game of favourites.

The limitations of the budget and the obligations associated with network oversight constraining what can be seen and done, the script never pushes the more interesting aspects of the primal powers; while the mean girls daub Sarah in mud, she fights back with the other elements, air, water and finally fire, the questions of individuality, conformity and acceptance swept into a holding pattern before the film ultimately gives in to peer pressure and goes all “Carrie at the prom.”

Amanda Reyes opening her commentary with the comment that she has only been able to glean “a spotty production history” of The Initiation of Sarah, she does herself a disservice, providing a mine of information, insight and connections, while Alexandra Heller-Nicholas considers the feminist context of the film, Samantha McLaren considers the cultural parallels and co-writer Tom Holland recalls the good fortune of “an A cast for television of the moment.”

The Initiation of Sarah will be available on Blu-ray from Arrow films from Monday 20th June



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