The House on Sorority Row Remains One of the Slasher Boom's Smartest Films

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<I>The House on Sorority Row</i> Remains One of the Slasher Boom's Smartest Films

The slasher boom now referred to as the “Golden Age” of the genre, kicked off by Halloween in 1978 and accelerated by Friday the 13th two years later, is full of inventive and wildly fun work within a segment of horror cinema that was still figuring out its various tropes and archetypes. It was a period of experimentation when everyone was trying out new masks, new weapons, new final girls. While some films from that era play like carbon copies of each other now, others stand out as bold expressions of a then-emerging trend in scary movies.

The House on Sorority Row, released wide across North America 40 years this month, still ranks as one of the boldest and most fascinating mainstream slasher films to come out of this period. Like the films that came before it, there’s an inciting incident, a mysterious killer and a group of attractive youths being picked off one by one, but even while delivering on the established slasher formulas, Sorority Row emerged as one of the smartest early interrogators of that formula. Even now, four decades later, it remains one of the smartest slashers not just of the Golden Age, but of all time.

Narratively, The House on Sorority Row recalls earlier slasher efforts like Black Christmas, Prom Night and My Bloody Valentine, following a group of sorority sisters as they try to throw one last party at their shared house, much to the chagrin of their strict and venomous house mother Mrs. Slater (Lois Kelso Hunt). Then, like The Burning, a prank goes wrong. When Mrs. Slater forbids them from having their party in her house, the ringleader of the girls, Vicki (Eileen Davidson) lures her into the derelict swimming pool in the backyard at gunpoint. The gun’s meant to be full of blanks, but a real bullet sneaks through, killing the house mother just as party organizers start to show up at the house.

Naturally, the girls cover up what they’ve done, justifying sinking Mrs. Slater’s body in the pool by arguing that their collective futures will be ruined by the accident. Then they throw the party anyway, and a mysterious attacker wielding Mrs. Slater’s cane sets out for revenge.

Even beyond the slashers I’ve already mentioned, you can find elements of other classics of the subgenre in this story: Friday the 13th’s tale of watery revenge; the prank-infused college murders of Terror Train and Final Exam. You can even look back further to slasher precursors like the legendary French thriller Les Diaboliques for influences, creating a clear throughline of the genre’s progression within the film. Writer/director Mark Rosman clearly knew his stuff, and it makes House on Sorority Row stand out.

But it’s not just the canny use of horror tropes that makes the film hold up as a smart, savvy entry in the Golden Age of the slasher. It’s what it does within those tropes, and within slasher movie logic in particular. To better illustrate what I mean, I’m going to turn to one of horror’s current reigning luminaries—novelist Stephen Graham Jones—for a concise summation of what slasher stories are in the first place.

“The slasher genre is basically a justice fantasy,” Jones said. “But the bad thing about living in a slasher world where wrongs are punished is that they’re punished brutally. You might catch a machete to the head.”

At their core, most of our leading slasher narratives have to do with some form of revenge, no matter how slight or how deserved the original wrongdoing is in the first place. My son drowned, so I’m going to kill camp counselors (Friday the 13th). You killed my mother, so I’m going to kill you (Friday the 13th Part II). You decided to bypass the justice system and murder me brutally, so now I’m coming for all of your kids (A Nightmare on Elm Street). Your family’s transgressions ruined my family’s life, so I’m going on a killing spree (Scream). We can, of course, argue over whether or not any given slasher victim “deserves” to die for these sins, and some slasher victims are just caught in the crossfire, but as Jones said, it all begins with a justice fantasy, a twisted mind’s obsession with righting wrongs on the edge of a knife.

In The House on Sorority Row, it’s pretty clear what the wrongdoing which sets off the killing spree is…or so we think. Mrs. Slater, after all, has issues of her own, issues that run deeper than simply being a domineering and mean-spirited house mother who gets a little too brutal with her charges sometimes. Does she deserve to die for that? Probably not, but the more the film looks into her own past and the secrets she’s keeping—secrets at the root of why she needs the girls to leave promptly at the end of each semester—the more we realize there are other sins at play in this story, sins stretching back decades which tie to a broken system, a manipulated woman and a violent secret.

By layering in these secrets, and unspooling them over the course of the film even as the kills get more elaborate and the murderer gets more brazen, Rosman asks us to more closely consider what “justice” means in a story like this, even from the perspective of the killer. The House on Sorority Row, like so many slashers, is about young people whose potential is snuffed out in the prime of their lives, and this movie in particular forces us to reckon with that more than most. Some of the girls are more reluctant to hide Mrs. Slater’s body than others, but they all participate in the party. Does that mean they deserve to die? Does going along with the prank in the first place? Does daring to throw a party when their house mother told them not to? And what about Mrs. Slater’s sins? At what point did she deserve it? At what point was her twisted life going to make it inevitable? Then there’s the question of the system that put her in a place where her own potential, and the potential of any family she might have had, is ground to a halt, forcing her to watch young women move towards their own bright tomorrows year after year while she’s sitting still. Where does the justice cycle begin in this case, and where does it end?

By the end of the film, these questions are twisting over each other in a maelstrom of bittersweet tragedy, while Rosman is still giving us the slasher goods on top of it all. You may come away with your own definitive answer to each aspect of this justice fantasy puzzle, or you may not, but whatever you carry away from The House on Sorority Row is likely to linger just a bit longer than what you’ll get from many other Golden Age slashers. That was true 40 years ago, and it’s true now.

Matthew Jackson is a pop culture writer and nerd-for-hire who’s been writing about entertainment for more than a decade. His writing about movies, TV, comics, and more regularly appears at SYFY WIRE, Looper, Mental Floss, Decider, BookPage, and other outlets. He lives in Austin, Texas, and when he’s not writing he’s usually counting the days until Christmas.