A glossy, largely dull retread. Fans of the original The Initiation of Sarah, a 1978 made-for-TV classic starring the inimitable Shelley Winters, would do well to steer clear of this cable mediocrity. The "Satan school for girls" sub-genre of occult and horror films has always been one of my favorites, because the films are usually so ridiculously naughty. Clearly clued into fears young women have with growing up sexually and going off from home into the "real world" of college, those movies reliably play up the whole pulpy Satan/sex angle, while showing a lot of pretty twenty-somethings in school girl uniforms, doing abominable things to each other. And I say "Amen" to that.
But this new incarnation of The Initiation of Sarah throws out a lot of uninteresting innuendo for the sake of titillating its tween audience, giving out the okay for its giggling audience members to safely revel in oh-so-subtly suggested lesbianism, blood drinking, ritualistic sacrifices, mean-girl cliques and that old schoolgirl romantic standby: the suicide attempt (by the way, what the hell is going on over at ABC Family, where this was produced and shown? Isn't that supposed to be a family-friendly channel?). All of that actually sounds pretty good, if this was a for-real exploitation shocker; but unfortunately, it's just a basic cable mix of Felicity, Charmed, and Carrie, with a little bit of the warped, twisted sensibilities of The View and Oprah thrown in to boot (those last two are the ones you should really worry about for your kids).
Temple Hill University has two new freshmen: fraternal twins Sarah Goodwin (Mika Boorem), the bored nonconformist who hides her suicide scars on her wrists, and Lindsey Goodwin (Summer Glau), the pert straight arrow who sees her chance to reinvent herself at college. Brought to school by their glam, bitchy mother Trina (Morgan Fairchild), the girls are told that they are shoo-ins for pledging at Alpha Nu Gamma, Trina's old sorority and the single most popular - and powerful - group on campus. They're also warned to stay away from PED, a sorority past its prime and noted for its eccentric members.
Naturally, Sarah rejects her mother's advice, and becomes intrigued with PED, but the Alpha Nus make it difficult for her to resist joining, particularly Corinne (JoAnna Garcia), the blonde bombshell witch who runs the Alpha Nus. And I do mean witch. You see, the Alpha Nus are an old coven of witches (complete with a sacrificial altar surrounded by an eternal flame, down in the basement - by the way, how does the gasman read the meter down there?), and their eternal flame is dying. They need the power of The One. Or more accurately, they need the blood sacrifice of The One, who must also be a virgin. And apparently, Sarah is The One, with the Alpha Nus tipped off to her powers by a spy in the ranks.
But Sarah wants no part of the Alpha Nus, particularly after meeting Dr. Eguenia Hunter (Jennifer Tilly), who immediately identifies Sarah's powers, and tries to bring her over to the PED side. You see, the PED's are also a coven of witches, but apparently, they're good ones, who get their power from the Earth Mother (oh boy), unlike the Alpha Nus who acquire their power through force and sacrifices. Lindsay, on the other hand, is right at home with the Nus, who prey on her insecurities about her own looks to the point of transforming her into some kind of uber-Stepford student, complete with implants and a circa 1963 astronaut wife's hair-do. Thrown into this mix is Finn (Ben Ziff), the hunky/dorky RA for the girls' dorm, who likes Sarah, and who stands to lose his life in a desperate bid by the Nus to force Sarah to initiate into the sorority, so she can be sacrificed. But is Sarah really The One?
There were a couple of moments in The Initiation of Sarah where I thought it might be undemanding but clever fun. Some of the one-liners were smart (Sarah makes a joke in the girls' bathroom about Linda Blair and a broomstick - a nice reference to Blair's TV cult classic, Born Innocent, while someone else says, "This isn't my first time at the sacrificial altar"), and Fairchild, suitably arch and dewy and pneumatic, has a moment or two, bitching out some girls and laying down the law. Even some of the special effects aren't too bad for cable, with the swirling smoke and fog whirlwind that surrounds the Nu House nicely reminiscent of 1970s Disney.
But too much of The Initiation of Sarah is implied and vague, with plot tangents all over the place that are never explored. Morgan Fairchild used to drink Sarah's blood, thinking she was The One, thus explaining the "suicide" scars. Why doesn't Sarah find out that fairly important plot point? Does Lindsay ever find out that Fairchild isn't her mother? I wasn't even sure if Sarah indeed was The One, or if she had transferred her powers to Lindsay, or if it was the other way around, where Lindsay was indeed The One. And why does Sarah need to deflower herself with Finn, if she's not The One, because The One is the virgin that needs to stay a virgin, prior to initiation (I now have a headache). And why does every single scene transition have to be marked with a blast from the song-heavy music track?
Ultimately, none of these questions matter because The Initiation of Sarah exists only to tantalize young tween girls with oh-so-naughty, overly-dramatic taboos like lesbianism (Finn makes such a joke about the sisters wrestling, while the director takes a nice big close-up of Corinne kissing a girl on the lips, along with the implication that Tilly's character is open to such a relationship), cutting/suicide scarring, witchcraft, and hottie college boys bewitched to perform any service. If any of these "taboos" had been handled with even a modicum of juice, The Initiation of Sarah might have been interesting, but unfortunately, this cable pablum is interested in sniggering suggestion and innuendo, not in delivering the hard exploitation goods. And if your defense of that stance is that there's no way ABC Family would make such an explicit film, then why are they dancing around these mature themes in the first place, with tween viewers as their main target audience? Trying to swim between the two extremes, The Initiation of Sarah satisfies neither.
The anamorphically enhanced, 1.78:1 widescreen image for The Initiation of Sarah is quite good, with a sharp, clear picture and subtle color values. Blacks hold throughout, with no compression issues.
The Dolby Digital English 5.1 Surround audio mix is full-bodied, with plenty of directionality during the effects sequences. English and Spanish subtitles are also included, as are close-captions.
There are no extras for The Initiation of Sarah.
Innuendos - and misplaced ones at that for the intended audience - don't make up for a serious lack of appreciation for exploitation expectations. The Initiation of Sarah likes to suggest a lot of naughty little taboos for its tween girl audience, but it can't deliver the simple thrills that made the original 1978 TV version of The Initiation of Sarah so memorable. Besides, why buy this disc? The movie will inevitably show up on ABC Family again, and there aren't any special bonuses on this disc to entice you to buy it. Skip The Initiation of Sarah.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.