In the realm of film criticism, especially focusing on low budget horror films as I do, it's a rare treat to catch a director early in his career, and get to watch as his craft grows and develops with each successive project. I've had that kind of experience watching the films of Henrique Couto, with Haunted House on Sorority Row being his latest.
Moving away from the more real world based stories that he's preferred in the past, Couto is going with a variation on the haunted house genre here. Alex (Joni Durian) is starting a small sorority and needs a cheap house. It turns out she can get a great deal on an isolated home in the country, that has something of a sordid past. Soon enough, Alex and her friends are moving in, with the help of Jim and Dave (Eric Widing and Mike Hilinski). Right away, things get weird. Fresh food they've just brought to the house is spoiled an inedible, including such things as potato chips. But it gets much worse from there.
As the night goes on, everyone is tormented by visions of their most hated and feared memories. Melissa (Haley Madison) sees her scarred and angry mother, Sherrie (Couto regular Erin R. Ryan) cuts herself, and even worse things happen to others. They are all pushed to their limits, with some very disturbing results.
Couto gets better in his technical execution with every film, and Haunted House on Sorority Row is no exception. The score is powerful and affecting, really adding to the tension and atmosphere. The subtle glimpses in the background, out of focus or in shadow, of the demonic figure harassing the group keep the audience unsettled and tense. The sets, camera work, editing is all top notch. The effects, particularly the makeup and prosthetics, are quite good too, especially considering this is a very low budget film and a four and a half day shoot.
As noted, this is a low budget endeavor, and there are a few rough edges here and there to demonstrate it, but what is accomplished is only that much more impressive because of the scarce resources. Couto is able to get some intense and rewarding performances out of his cast, and Joni Durian is elegant and effortless in the lead.
If you don't like a dark and twisted story, or nudity, or blood, then you probably won't enjoy Haunted House on Sorority Row, and it helps to have a special love for micro-budget horror films. But this is an impressive effort, and a lot of fun. Highly recommended.
The image is 2.35:1 widescreen, and looks quite good. The lighting and color scheme are meant to be disturbing, and the look of the film really shows it off. The image is clear and sharp, with thick shadows, but the action is never obscured. This is a good looking film.
Audio is Dolby 2 channel, and sounds pretty good. The dialogue is always easily understood, though no subtitles are included. No hiss or other problem is audible.
There are a couple of extras included. They are:
Just over eighteen minutes, this features interviews with Couto, production designer and FX man Geoff Turner, producer Marylee Osborne, and most of the cast. It's fairly interesting.
This is a short film, starring Erin R. Ryan. It's spare and simple, but quite funny.
Trailers are included for Babysitter Massacre, Bleeding Through, Faces of Schlock, Porkchop, Snow Shark, Stiffed, The Ripping and Zombie Allegiance.
This is the most substantial extra included, featuring Henrique Couto, Joni Durian, Mike Hilinski, Erin R. Ryan and Eric Widing. These people are all friends, and Couto is a very engaging fellow, so this is pretty enjoyable. They discuss the quirks of the location, the origins of the story, advice for make out scenes, dead ladybugs appearing in the house between shooting days, and lots of other stuff. This is quite good.
Haunted House on Sorority Row isn't a studio level perfect film, and if you insist on absolutely slick and seamless productions, this isn't for you. But it is an enjoyable (even though somewhat dark) ride, with disturbing imagery, a few good jump scares, and an interesting story. If you're a fan of low budget cinema, this is definitely one for you.
A note: if you watch the film to the end, you'll notice my name (though slightly misspelled) in the Special Thanks section. Please know that I did not contribute financially or creatively to the film, just by way of encouragement.