Initiation of Sarah (1978, dir: Robert Day; scp/story: Don Ingalls,
Carol Saraceno, Kenette Gfeller, Tom Holland; cast: Kay Lenz, Tisa Farrow,
Morgan Fairchild, Morgan Brittany, Kathryn Crosby, Shelley Winters, Tony
Bill, Talia Balsom)
Initiation of Sarah was inspired by Carrie -- but it also surpasses Carrie. For unlike Carrie, The
Initiation of Sarah was a TV-movie, hence subject to budgetary and
censorial restraints. But it overcame these restraints, even turning
them to its advantage by emphasizing story and acting and atmosphere over
shocks and gore. It's my personal favorite horror TV-movie, better
than the oft-cited and rightly praised The
Initiation of Sarah tells a common tale: A young high school/summer
camp/college nerd is long picked on, then finally retaliates. In
the horror genre, the nerd often employs supernatural powers, or is severely
injured in a "prank gone bad" so he becomes an Überpsycho.
coined Überpsycho in my essay, "But Is It Horror? Defining and Demarcating the
Genre" to distinguish the indestructible post-Halloween "horror psycho" from the vulnerable "suspense psycho" of such earlier films
as Frenzy. For
a fuller, more up-to-date analysis, see my book, Horror Film Aesthetics.)
Sarah (Kay Lenz) has telekinetic powers, which manifest when she's angered. But as she is unable to control its destructive potential, and being a
good-hearted nerdy girl, Sarah suppresses her powers.
begins with Sarah and her half-sister, Patty (Morgan Brittany) going off
to college. Both pledge the campus's elite sorority, ANS (Alpha Nu
Sigma), but ANS only accepts the beautiful Patty, not the mousy Sarah. Instead, Sarah joins the brainy PED (Phi Epsilon Delta -- which the svelte
ANS girls refer to as Pigs, Elephants, and Dogs).
led by the beautiful and bitchy Jennifer (Morgan Fairchild), who pressures
Patty into tormenting Sarah. Meanwhile, the timid Sarah finds new
friends at PED, including Allison (Talia Balsom, Martin "Psycho"
Balsom's daughter, and star of The
Kindred and The
Supernaturals) and Mouse (Tisa Farrow, Mia's sister, and star
of Zombie and Grim
Reaper). Several other cast members (some very minor)
are the daughters, nieces, and sisters of famous thesps -- a gimmick employed
by the film.
also comes under the wings of PED's loopy house mother, Mrs. Hunter (Shelley
Winters), who teaches "anthropology and belief systems in primitive cultures." Naturally, she's also a practicing witch. The evil Satanic kind.
follows the usual trajectory. Sarah is rejected and tormented, encouraged
to develop and use her powers for revenge, everything finally culminating
in a fiery cataclysm. Yet within the framework of its familiar story
conventions, the film offers much.
asset is Kay Lenz, whose physical appearance, body language, mannerisms,
and expressions consistently capture the nuanced timidity of a girl nerd. Consider Sarah maneuvering silently amid the ANS partygoers. (See below clip.) In
her dowdy cardigan sweater, the 5'1" Lenz holds herself together, trying
to avoid touching anyone as she squeezes past the exuberant taller girls
chattering over her. The insecure Sarah strains to be inconspicuous,
painfully self-conscious despite the beautiful ANS girls' obliviousness
to her. It's a short scene, but The
Initiation of Sarah is full of such moments when Lenz shines as Sarah.
flaw in Lenz's portrayal is when the ANS girls fling mud and vegetables
at Sarah, who stands screaming rather than retreat into the house. But most likely, this was Robert Day's direction. A small mistake,
in an overall fine job as director. (No, I don't buy that Sarah was
"too shocked" to move -- just as I rarely buy that horror's legions of
screaming women are too shocked to move whenever a monster lumbers toward
of the cast is competent-to-stellar. Tisa Farrow is best known to
horror fans as the star of Zombie,
yet her portrayal of Mouse is her best horror (or even non-horror) performance. In The
Initiation of Sarah, Farrow is less spacey and distant than usual --
infusing Mouse with pain, insecurity, trepidation, despondency, and an
occasionally distraught edge (Mouse had attempted suicide).
Fairchild's Jennifer is a proper bitch, more nuanced that most movie/TV
bitches, shifting from girlish camaraderie, to coy flirtation, subtle slights,
and raw cruelty. Shelley Winters gives a stammering, hyperactive,
hammy performance, which is inappropriate against Lenz's realism, but is
still mildly fun to watch. Perhaps the celebrated Winters did not
think this horror TV-movie was worth a serious effort, but Lenz and Farrow
demonstrate that it was.
Initiation of Sarah, one should compare it to The
Craft (1996), an overrated and inferior film about four nerdy
high school girls who employ witchcraft to take vengeance on their bitchy
Craft is a heavy-handed mess, overstated in every way that The
Initiation of Sarah is subtle. Both films have stereotypical
WASPy blond bitches. Yet Morgan Fairchild's Jennifer knows when to
withdraw and feign decency. (ANS girls call it "tact"). Conversely, The
Craft's Laura Lizzie (Christine Taylor) is openly racist, brazenly
calling a black nerd (Rachel True) "the N word" in public.
Sorry. Whatever she may say in private, I just don't buy that a sophisticated
teenager would publicly shout "the N word" in an elite California school
in 1996. Maybe in 1956, but not 1996. Even Jennifer, whose
film is set in 1978, knows better.
Jennifer (like Laura) is vicious, when publicly called on it, Jennifer
immediately retreats and says it was "just a stupid joke." The
Craft eschews such realism. It "tries too hard" to establish
Laura's villainy (and subsequent reformation). The
Craft's heavy-handedness, its stark blacks and whites, ring
false. Not a problem in The
Initiation of Sarah.
the nerds. The nerds of PED look like nerds. Dowdy, plain,
or overweight. Even the pretty Lenz and Farrow manage, through costuming
and body language, to portray proper nerds. Conversely, in The
Craft, two of the four nerds (Robin Tunney and Rachel True)
are way too attractive to be treated as nerds.
other two nerds, Fairuza Balk can be pretty, but is effectively distorted
by her Goth makeup; and Neve Campbell's nerd passes because of her physical
-- and resultant emotional -- injuries).
Initiation of Sarah also compares favorably to The
Spell, yet another TV movie about a tormented nerd girl with telekinetic
powers, who is yet again tutored by an elder woman, played by an overbearing
Lelia Goldoni, the mousy wife from The Unseen).
Initiation of Sarah also surpasses the average TV-movie in every area. TV lighting (especially in older TV-movies) tends to be flatter than in
cinema, as TV screens display a smaller color palette than does film stock. Despite this, The
Initiation of Sarah is especially atmospheric (credit to cinematographer
Ric Waite), especially in its murkily-lit photography of the PED sorority
has some plot holes, or at least raises issues that remain unaddressed
(e.g., the fate of Sarah's birth mother; and where is Mr. Hunter?). The classrooms are underpopulated (trying to save money by hiring few extras?). Gore is limited, this being a TV-movie.
Even so, The
Initiation of Sarah is an underrated horror gem. An engrossing
(if familiar) story, performed by a talented cast. Kay Lenz's portrayal
of the nerdy Sarah would alone be enough to make The
Initiation of Sarah worth seeing.
Review copyright by Thomas
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