If only Kelly Fairchild (Daphne Zuniga) could've cut dead that endless, excruciating, nails-on-chalkboard chant so short in the movie proper. It's just that she's pledging Delta Rho Chi, and suffering is part of the deal. You recognize Kelly's family name, don't you? Megan (Frances Peterson) -- the pushing-forty-year-old queen bee of ΔΡΧ -- sure does. Kelly's pop owns a line of upscale department stores, so to prove herself to her not-quite-sisters, she and the other new pledges are gonna have to break into the Fairfield Building to swipe the long-donged security guard's uniform. Easy peezy, right? Well, Megan's secretly going to slink in with some frat bros to scare the hell out of 'em, but that's the story she's going with, anyway. Oh! ...and it might be worth mentioning there was an escape from a mental ward upstate, including someone or something that factors into the recurring nightmare that's tormented Kelly for so many years.
That is as pitch perfect a premise for an '80s slasher as I've ever come across. Too bad The Initiation doesn't bother to make much of it. This largely forgotten slasher seems like it piles on all the right elements: a repressed childhood tragedy (complete with stabby scissors and a full-body burn gag!), no shortage of T&A, a claustrophobic-in-theory spam-in-a-department-store backdrop, and a respectable body count. Somewhere near the top of the list of The Initiation's swings and misses is waiting until right at an hour in to get the girls into Fairfield's gargantuan corporate headquarters/showcase store/whatever it is. In the meantime, the flick gets distracted by a largely uninvolving psychological angle analyzing what Kelly's recurring nightmares represent. The body count stands at a whopping three as the counter ticks up to the hour mark, and every one of those murders involves stabbing some poor bastard with a garden fork (with, okay, one punctuated afterwards with a machete through the neck). Its first two-thirds are awfully slow-going, even with the likes of Psycho's Vera Miles, The Return of the Living Dead's Clu Gulager, and...well, this guy to help nudge things along.
The Initiation livens up somewhat when it finally creaks open the backdoor of the Fairfield Building, but there are too few stabs at suspense or proper stalk-and-slash, and the kills are pretty much across the board forgettable. Aside from one savage, seemingly endless stabbing, the slaughter in the mall is basically just sudden, bloodless piercing with something or another. The grisliest effects in the film are from the aftermath of a murder that takes place offscreen, even. Limping in at the tail end of the Golden Age of Slashers, The Initiation lacks the demented imagination that made so many other body count movies from the class of 1984 so memorable. Its pacing is an interminable slog, and with as troubled a shoot as this was, I'm surprised it never occurred to anyone to just tear a few pages out of the shooting script. There's no reason for this sucker to approach the 100 minute mark.
It kinda makes sense that screenwriter Charles Pratt, Jr. would have such a future in soap operas, seeing as how The Initiation piles on tropes like amnesia, infidelity, multiple secret childhood tragedies, an impossibly wealthy family, and everything about its gonzo climactic reveal. I have to step lightly around spoilers here, but it's a twist that caught me completely off-guard but, looking back, is actually setup really well. If there's anything to compel me to give The Initiation another look, it'll be to keep an eye out for any further clues dropped along the way. The acting is uneven, which isn't exactly any great shock for a slasher, but even leading lady Daphne Zuniga struggles at times. There are only a couple of really standout sequences, most memorably a prickly nurse being taunted in a mental ward, with too much of the direction otherwise being competent but completely uninspired. Its sense of humor is drenched in flopsweat, lobbing out one-liners like Vera Miles' "sometimes I think that man would lose his head if it wasn't attached" as she's blissfully unaware of her character's decapitated husband in the driveway. Get it?! Yeah. The band at the obligatory, seemingly seven and a half hour long frat party sequence can't hold a candle to the mighty 4 Out of 5 Doctors from The House on Sorority Row. I appreciate that there's a greater emphasis on characterization than these sorts of movies usually bothered with, even if some of it seems out of place, like a harrowing story about childhood molestation that segues right into a sex scene. It's a shame that Heidi marked the one and only feature film role for Joy Jones, who makes a heckuva impression as a sleuthing, sarcastic TA. There's also full-frontal from a pre-Hunter Tylo Hunter Tylo (she was still going by Deborah Morehart back then), and there really just aren't words.
The Initiation kinda plays like the screenplays for two completely different movies somehow got stapled together, and neither of 'em are really all that great. I'm an easy lay when reviewing '80s slashers, but this one's middle of the pack at best, failing to approach the heights of the genre's best and rarely managing to be accidentally brilliant a la Blood Rage either. That hasn't stopped Arrow Video from giving it the white glove treatment on Blu-ray, of course, but even with a release this terrific, The Initiation is a tough one to pledge twentysomeodd bucks to buy sight-unseen. Rent It first.
Don't get thrown off by the deliberately soft focus dream sequence that opens the flick:
By and large, The Initiation is a knockout. Yeah, yeah, since its troubled production required things to be kind of rushed along, I guess it follows that some shots aren't entirely in focus, and a couple of underlit night exteriors struggle. Pretty much every other waking moment is sharp and teeming with fine detail, just as you'd hope for from a brand new remaster from the original negative. Its colors are more vivid than what I waltzed in expecting to see, and the sheen of grain looks lovely. There aren't any nicks or flecks of dust to fret about, and the authoring is, as ever, top-shelf. Well done.
As far as the technical end of things goes, you're looking at a dual layer Blu-ray disc and an aspect ratio of 1.85:1.
This uncompressed, 16-bit monaural soundtrack hits the marks you'd hope for. Dialogue is consistently discernable and clean enough. The score is no great shakes but is reproduced reasonably well just the same. There are never any concerns about hiss, pops, clicks, or the like threatening to dominate. Nothing that inspires paragraphs of fawning praise nor a furrowed brow. It's totally what it oughtta be. No surprises here!
Also included is a set of optional English (SDH) subtitles.
The Initiation is coded for play in region A only. The newly commissioned artwork by Justin Osbourn is gorgeous -- perhaps Arrow's best yet -- and it reverses to reveal the way-phallic melting candle poster art from a few decades back. Also included is an essay by James Oliver, making a case for The Initiation aiming its sights at least a little higher than the slashers to which it pays such tribute.
The Final Word
What do you think of The Initiation, Heidi?
Yeah, me too. Rent It.