If there were a checklist of low budget slasher movie clichés, there is little doubt that The Initiation would hit every box: nubile teenagers, often played by actors well beyond their teenage years? Stab. Escaped mental patients? Stab. Family secrets and repressed memories? Stab. Drunken frat parties and other supposedly hilarious hijinks during which the cast get picked off one by one? Stab. A twist ending? Stab, slash, and stab again.
Despite being intended for cinema distribution, upon original release The Initiation was not widely circulated with many of the cast only seeing it for the first time themselves when it arrived on video; remastered and released on Blu-Ray by Arrow Films it is possibly more readily available now than it has ever been before, and certainly in higher quality, though whether the film is deserving of the restoration it has received is debatable.
It starts with nightmares for Kelly Fairchild (Spaceballs‘ Daphne Zuniga in her first lead role), herself as a child, her dolls decapitated, her parents being attacked, a man burning. Away from home at college, she has gained a space in the Delta Rho Chi sorority but has yet to complete her initiation which head sorority sister Megan (Frances Peterson) has decided will involve breaking into the multi-level department store owned by Kelly’s father after hours and stealing the security guard’s uniform.
With fifteen pledges whittled down to just Kelly and her friends Marcia and Alison (Marilyn Kagan and Deborah Moreheart) they have little choice to obey though Kelly is understandably unhappy, though she has at least found someone to talk to about her sleepless nights and the missing memories of her childhood, graduate assistant Peter Adams (Charmed’s James Read) whose thesis is to be on dreams and nightmares, though his assistant Heidi (Joy Jones) believes the cause to be psychic phenomena.
When pledge night rolls around, the Kelly, Marcia and Alison put their plan into place, but unbeknownst to them Megan has also assigned three college boys, Chad, Ralph and Andy (Christopher Bradley, Trey Stroud and Peter Malof) to also sneak in with a view to scaring the three girls witless, but amongst those locked in the building overnight, one of them has a very different agenda.
A troubled production, original director Peter Crane who auditioned and engaged the young cast was dismissed only three days into shooting over concerns over his slow progress, and Larry Stewart was contracted to accelerate the process, completing the remainder of principal photography in only fourteen days.
Inevitably the pace impacted what could be achieved creatively, and the result is, if uninspired, at least competent and coherent, though it is apparent that scenes are staged to be shot as swiftly as possible and that the cast, primarily drawn from acting classes and community theatre groups around Dallas where filming took place, do not give performances as strong as might have been achieved had they been given more coaching and rehearsal.
Released in December 1984 less than a month after A Nightmare on Elm Street, and neither as stylish or inventive nor boasting any character who could aim to become an icon, The Initiation inevitably suffered and the Christmas market is not a natural fit for horror, though with negligees, big hair and too much makeup at times it approaches so close to soft porn that it’s easy to determine which performers had “no nudity” clauses in their contracts.
Despite the college setting which could have lifted it to the sometimes successful comedy horror genre the party scene is terrible, as flat as the drinks and painfully unfunny, and while it undeniably passes the Bechdel test it doesn’t advance the cause of women in cinema in any way, the women terribly written and unbelievable, unable even to run away from a threat convincingly, though the men are worse, raising the question of how any of them were accepted into college in the first place.
Despite Heidi’s intimations, the dream aspect and the supernatural angle are redundant and abruptly abandoned, the audience clued in to a crucial revelation long before the characters, though the second half of the film is by far the more interesting, narratively and stylistically, the Fairchild Building, actually the Dallas Market Center, a great environment which takes the film into the sub-sub-genre of shopping mall horror alongside Dawn of the Dead, Night of the Comet and of course Chopping Mall.
With the only two major adult roles Kelly’s parents Frances and Dwight (Psycho‘s dignified Vera Miles and The Virginian‘s Clu Gulager, still convinced he’s playing in a western) there is an air of entitlement among the majority of the characters, though one which perhaps they have learned from their elders: the rich can lie to their children and threaten their teachers, while the sorority sisters bully the pledges and force them to criminal acts, breaking into a place of business where they walk around like they own the place with impunity and steal as they wish.
Featuring new interviews with writer Charles Pratt Jr and performers Christopher Bradley and Joy Jones, they recall a sense of camaraderie on what was a stressful production, particularly among the local players who were simply delighted to be working in their home city, with Zuniga singled out by both Pratt (“we pulled her out of nowhere… the perfect soap actress”) and Bradley, who says that appearing in almost every scene she was under enormous pressure, leaving her unable to socialise with the cast but always prepared for what was needed.
Inevitably in a hasty production, there are oddities, from the ironically named Fireside Sanitarium where the typeface on the sign is comforting but inside it’s a zoo, less of an imminent threat and more of a shambling embarrassment, to Peter apparently driving from a different time zone as it’s still dark where he is but the exterior of the Fairchild Building was shown in light only moments before, and on occasions the plot just spills out before concluding with an end title theme which is nothing more than one bar of muzak repeated over and over.
For all that, The Initiation is unpretentious and does not purport to be anything other than it is, with Bradley agreeing “you can’t call it art, but it’s so much fun,” though perhaps the assessment of one of Pratt’s film school teachers is the most telling, having said to him after a screening “If I had a million dollars… that’s not the film that I would make.”