Oh my gosh, you guys! I'm so enraptured with this month's pick, I can hardly express it! But I'll try.
The Initiation of Sarah was one of several "The [SOMETHING] of [SOMEONE]" movies from the 1970s. FinalGirl did a whole Awesome Movie Poster Friday post about them - The Reincarnation of Peter Proud, The Eyes of Laura Mars, The Haunting of Julia, The Possession of Joel Delaney. Whatever else these movies were about, you know from the title that SOMEONE is going to have SOMETHING happen to them. Which I guess is fairly basic for a movie plot, but it just SOUNDS EXCITING, doesn't it?
This was a made-for-TV movie with a pretty HAWESOME cast. You've got Kay Lenz, who has been on pretty much every television show ever, was in both Rich Man, Poor Man (!!) and the sequel, and has the distinction of being the first Mrs. David Cassidy. You've got Morgan Brittany, who is probably best known as Pamela Ewing's half-sister on Dallas (!!!). You've got Robert Hays of Airplane! fame ("Surely you can't be serious."). You've got Morgan Fairchild, who is ... MORGAN FLIPPING FAIRCHILD. And you've got Shelley Winters, who is just plain rules the planet with her awesomely brassy and badass self.
This is very much a 70s movie, and you can see it from the first frame. The soft lighting, the credits, appearing in a font that looks like it's right off a package of Massengill. The disco music. Every frame of this movie looks like it was cut out of an old JCPenney catalog, and I LOVE IT.
We begin on a beach at dusk. It's the last beach party of the summer and Sarah and her sister Patty are having some fun, yo! Until the guy who takes Patty off for a swim turns out to be a rapist. We then get our first glimpse that Sarah is a little different. She's a good distance from Patty and her attacker, but a few jumpy camera moves and a "STOP IT!" later and Mr. Rapist is thrown back into the water so that Patty can escape. Yes, that's right - Sarah has some telekinetic mojo.
Because the other thing this film is besides a 70s-fest and a "something of someone" movie is a ... let's just call it an homage to Brian DePalma's Carrie. Unpopular girl turns out to have powers, so you'd better not mess with her or she will set the whole school on FIRE.
Sarah and Patty leave for college. It's clear that they're quite close. It's also clear that one of them is adopted, because while mommy gushes over Patty and gives her enthusiastic advice about how to pledge a sorority, she says farewell to Sarah as if it's an afterthought. Patty is excited about rushing, because Mommy was once a member of Alpha Nu Sigma - the hottest sorority on campus - which should mean both girls have a leg up in becoming pledges. But poor adopted Sarah is worried people will go digging into her past, a past which even she knows nothing about.
The girls go to sorority row, which seems abysmally empty considering it's meant to be Rush Week. Their first stop is the Alpha Nu house, where Patty is taken to meet some of the other actives and Sarah is taken ... to the refreshment table. Just when I thought I couldn't love this movie more, suddenly Sarah has like 70% of my college experience in the span of a few minutes. I RELATE TO YOU, GURL! The Alpha Nus are a special brand of snotty bitches, and their Head Bitch in Charge is none other than Jennifer Lawrence (Morgan Fairchild).
"Stranded at the punch bowl ... branded a fool.
What will they say ... Monday at school?"
The girls then go to the Pi Epsilon Delta house, which the Alpha Nu girls have nicknamed "Pigs, Elephants, and Dogs." Yeah, it's lame, but it's still mean. They're an older house, the girls are more brainy than beauty, and they don't really do the tradition thing. Naturally, they love Sarah, and she feels a connection to them too. But more than anything, she doesn't want to be parted from her sister. Mommy, however, thinks it's time that Patty and Sarah went their own ways.
Soon it's time for the girls to find out which sororities want them, and, predictably, Patty ends up with the snooties and Sarah ends up chosen by only one sorority, the "Pigs, Elephants, and Dogs," which she calls "P.E.D." like it's a venereal disease. Jennifer and the other Alpha Nus forbid Patty to talk with any P.E.D.s. including her own sister, for the duration of pledging, leading Sarah to run off by herself and cause another strange accident. It's starting to get confusing, though. Does she actually cause these things to happen? Or does she sense that they will happen in time to save someone from getting hurt. I think we're meant to understand that she actually causes these things to happen, but a couple of times it's not clear.
Patty and Sarah move into their respective houses, and we get some generic spooky mood setting in the P.E.D. house. There's a room that's always locked that only the house mother, Mrs. Hunter, has ever gone into. Oh, and by the way, the house mother is SHELLEY WINTERS. This is ... not her finest acting moment, but she's Shelley Winters, so that's okay. She's supposedly very into the occult and has been working on a thesis on the topic for hundreds of years or whatever. She calls Sarah into her room to get to know her a bit better, and it looks like the writers meant to drop some heavy clues here that Mrs. Hunter is Sarah's biological mother. It's never resolved beyond this one scene, but I suspect it was originally meant to be and they just ran out of time or had to cut that particular subplot. In any case, Mrs. Hunter recognizes Sarah's special abilities and you can tell already that she's thinking of how to exploit them.
Sarah makes friends with her sorority sisters (and even, bizarrely, becomes their leader, even though she hasn't even been initiated into the sorority yet) and develops an almost-relationship with her cute Psych T.A., Paul. She has a standoff with the snooty Jennifer, using her powers to send her for a swim in a campus fountain, and oh honey, it is ON. Jennifer goes to Patty, pretending that she feels bad about how she treated Sarah and even hinting that she'd like to invite her to join Alpha Nu Sigma. She weasels some details out of Patty, including that she's been spending a lot of time with Paul, and Jennifer hatches her plan. It's very clearly inspired by the Carrie prank, but while it's not as iconic, it's still incredibly mean and sends Sarah into revenge mode (again like Carrie), egged on by Mrs. Hunter, who has a longstanding grudge against Alpha Nu Sigma and Jennifer's mother. The initial revenge is a bit lackluster - Sarah telepathically causes Jennifer (and inadvertently her sister Patty) to be trapped in a shower with scalding hot water pouring on them. (I will give the film points, though, for not only referencing the shower scene in Carrie but for giving an unexpected nod to women in prison flicks with the two chicks in the shower - you go, movie!)
Speaking of Carrie, though, here are some more parallels. Jennifer is quite clearly the Nancy Allen character - the leader of the mean girls who sets up the prank. Her boyfriend Scott (played by Airplane!'s Robert Hays) is a cross between the John Travolta character who helps her with the prank because he's under her sexual spell (they have some of the ugliest fake kissing I've ever SEEN, blech!) and the William Katt character who feels sympathy for her. Patty is the Amy Irving character who reluctantly participates in some (though not all) of the taunting, but is actually really nice. And Mrs. Hunter is kind of the inverse of Piper Laurie, an enabler rather than an abuser.
Everything comes to a head on the night of initiation, and here's where the film falls a bit short. It's not horrible, it's just ... I think the film takes on a bit more than it can handle given its limitations. If this were a theatrical feature and not a TV movie, they could have gone full on Suspiria with the crazy ritual stuff. As it is, it's kind of a jumbled mess. I do kind of love the jumps back and forth between the fairly innocuous Alpha Nu initiation (part of which includes feeding the blindfolded initiates peeled grapes and telling them they're eyes) and the more sinister P.E.D. ministrations (where the girls wear what can only be described as black KKK hoods - WTF?!). Mrs. Hunter wants to use Sarah to bring down the Alpha Nu house, particularly Jennifer (who becomes horribly disfigured), and restore P.E.D. to its former glory. For some reason, this involves a human sacrifice, and one of the girls (who has apparently already had blood taken from her for the ritual) is trapped-but-not-really under the table awaiting the fulfillment of this purpose. Everyone manages to escape, however, leaving Sarah to have a final showdown with Mrs. Hunter, ending with the two of them dying in a fiery flame of burning fire and leaving the viewer to think to herself "Well, that made no sense."
Um, what the--?
Even though the ending is a bit "bzuh?" I really loved this. It gets MAJOR style points, if nothing else, and there's some fairly good characterization. Nobody felt like a generic "bad guy" or "good guy." I adored Kay Lenz, and she really pulled off the girl-who's-pretty-but-so-down-on-herself-you-can't-see-it. Yet again, much like Sissy Spacek in Carrie.
Anyway, despite my misgivings about the plot and the very obvious influence of Carrie, I thought this was awesome. Would watch again.