The Initiation was released in 1984, in the heyday of the '80s slasher craze. Despite its formulaic approach to the genre, it certainly has its own flair, adding a new dimension to the slasher film with its strangely stoic setting and a stronger cast of characters than most films of this style are known for. Jen McEntire, who writes for PlayWithDeath.com, found herself pledging for Halloween Fifteen. The following is her review of The Initiation.
The 80’s was a golden era for horror movies full of camp, gore, and cheesy FX. Slasher films were a dime a dozen, but certain titles stood out when personality and charm were added to the mix. A 1984 film called “The Initiation” became one of the few that redeemed themselves for me for these very reasons.
The film starts out with a sorority pledge named Kelly played by Daphne Zuniga (Spaceballs, The Fly 2) who is undergoing the first stage of her initiation. Led by chants and candlelight she learns of the den mother’s plot to have the pledges sneak into her father’s department store after hours and steal the night watchmen’s uniform. Seems innocent enough right? But there is something about Kelly that’s not right. She has recurring nightmares about a man being set on fire in the house where she grew up.
These nightmares come to her almost every night getting to the point where she seeks help from her college professor Peter who is doing his thesis on dream psychology. Kelly agrees to be tested on to help her know why she is being haunted by these images while she sleeps. Meanwhile, the sorority throws a repressed fantasy themed party with awesome tunes, people actually dancing (only in the 80’s!), and a dude dressed in a penis costume. Then the night of the pledge prank comes.
The first half of the film is mainly concerning Kelly’s struggles with college life, her parent’s, and her hazy dream sequences. If you were to stop the film halfway and then start up again later, like I did, it would almost seem like a different movie. For me, that meant double the excitement and entertainment and turned out that I was right as I continued watching. So the pledges get to the mall and are locked in until they complete the task. What they don’t realize is that the den mother plans on locking herself and some of their goofy guy friends in to scare the hell out of the girls. But someone else is watching the sorority games, and this person wasn’t invited.
This is when the real action starts as the group separates and the coeds are taken out in various slasher style film fare. Hatchets, knives, and crossbows are among the weapons used on the pledges who don’t even put up much of a fight. When it comes down to just Kelly and her friend Marcia, what do they do? Certainly not take the security guards keys and get the hell out, that would be too easy. So they lock themselves in an elevator and try to wait it out. Back at the college, Peter and his assistant unravel the mystery of Kelly’s nightmares and find out a shocking revelation about her past. He races to track her down but not before she finds out what is really happening in a halfway surprising twist ending.
Good FX, likeable characters, mystery, and an ominous film score make this a pretty likeable movie. I would rate this as one of the best midnight movie slashers of the 80’s, dripping with blood and campiness. Daphne Zuniga is great as the slightly disturbed Kelly and Clu Gulager (Return of the Living Dead, The Offspring) has a brief role as her father giving the film some street cred from a seasoned genre actor. Grab yourself a beer on a stormy night and be prepared to have some fun!
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The Moon is a Dead World's Take
The Initiation is one of those slasher films I've been meaning to watch but have passed up on. Maybe it's the obvious sexual imagery on the poster that has kept me from diving into this film about girls who are pledging to get into a sorority; maybe it's the fact that I wasn't too keen on watching a bunch of sorority girls do stupid things a la Slumber Party Massacre. But the Halloween Fifteen seemed like a perfect time to check out this frightfest, and I pledged my time to The Initiation like a frat boy getting paddled.
The film stars Daphne Zuniga as Kelly, a college student studying psychology and also looking to join one of the most popular sororities on campus. Lately, she's been having this awful nightmare about her younger self walking in on her mother and another man having sex, and she stabs the man until her father runs screaming into the room. He's promptly set on fire, and little Kelly is scooped up only to watch her dad burn. Kelly wants to rid herself of this dream once and for all, so she decides to devote her time to the study of dreams and nightmares; plus, it doesn't hurt that handsome TA Peter (James Read) wants to get her into bed - for research, of course.
But a breakout at the local mental hospital, and a series of grisly murders, are later linked to Kelly's father, and she begins to find that her sorority life is the least of her worries when her sisters wind up with garden rakes to the abdomen.
Surprisingly, The Initiation is a slasher film that effectively sets up its characters for extreme likability; we spend a lot of time in the beginning of the film simply watching Kelly with her classmates and her family, interacting with them and forming bonds that strengthen as the film continues. Her relationship with Peter is also well done. Horror films are generally lacking in character depth when it comes to potential sheep for slaughter, but The Initiation builds these characters thoroughly while remaining interesting at the same time.
There's also a fairly fresh plot here. Sure, it follows a very formulaic pattern for a slasher, making sure to kill off less important characters in first-person camera views before moving on to Kelly's friends, but the storyline behind it is rather intriguing. It's a coming-of-age tale, but it's also about Kelly recognizing her past after her amnesia, and The Initiation creates a strong sense of realism in this respect when Kelly continues to try to uncover the truth behind her dream.
And the film hits its peak once it settles itself inside Kelly's father's department store; story after story of spooky, dimly lit shops are what the viewer gets for atmosphere, and for a large portion of the film, The Initiation explores these corridors. It's a lot of fun, actually, and a refreshing twist on setting for a slasher.
What The Initiation doesn't do so well is the gore and the scares. The department store is creepy, but rarely does the film make use of dark moments. Nor does it get creative with character kills, instead settling for very generic death sequences using blunt objects repeatedly. Only one kill remains memorable, and that's because it's spliced with a very unsettling sex scene involving a woman who has just told the group that she was raped when she was younger - the movie calls up the perversion of sex and violence by joining each scene together.
There's the insane twist ending, too, that, like Sleepaway Camp, might throw some viewers. There are references made to it from the beginning, including the dual mirrors Kelly is obsessed with and the back profile of a woman who looks similar to Kelly, but for the most part, the surprise comes out of left field and leaves little time to explain it away. And it never resolves the fact that Kelly's dream seems to indicate that she was the one stabbing her mother's lover. Go figure.
But for the most part, The Initiation is worthy of induction into your list of favorite slashers. It features some good protagonists, a gnarly twist, and its plot is much smarter than some of the one-off fair that plagues the '80s after the golden age of slashers. Give this film a go - it's no Halloween, but I can consider The Initiation one of its sisters.
The Initiation on Rotten Tomatoes