The stereotype about 1980s horror movies is that they’re all about horny, dumb teenagers who get stabbed to death by psychopaths, and that the movies are full of gratuitous female nudity that was clearly included just to attract male teen eyeballs. As stereotypes go, this is a pretty good one, as it holds true about 95 percent of the time. I wish all stereotypes were as useful!
A prime example of this winning formula is “The Initiation,” a slasher film from 1984 that set out to indulge in every cliche except for the one about slasher films occasionally being scary. That is where they drew the line. Nubile coeds being naked a lot? Yes. A frightening villain, or a plot that makes any kind of sense? NO SIR AND GOOD DAY!
A title like “The Initiation” suggests the movie will be about a satanic cult or an inner-city gang, but it’s actually about something more evil than that: a sorority. A college freshman named Kelly Fairchild (Daphne Zuniga, later of “Spaceballs” and “Melrose Place”) is pledging the Delta Rho Xi house, which is a typical movie sorority in that all of its members are buxom and their primary activity is showering and their president is an awful b-word named Megan. Kelly’s father (Clu Gulager) is a wealthy businessman whose ugly three-level cinderblock department store, called The Fairchild Building, is the city’s most popular shopping center, providing a sad commentary on the state of consumerism in the mid 1980s. Awful b-word Megan’s scheme for the upcoming Delta Rho Xi “prank night” is for Kelly to use her family connections to gain access to The Fairchild Building after hours so that she and the other pledges can perpetrate harmless mischief (and get murdered, but that’s not explicitly part of Megan’s plan).
So we have a boring prank to look forward to, but what about in the meantime? In the meantime, Kelly keeps having a recurring nightmare in which she sees herself, as a little girl, walking in on her parents having sex, whereupon they are interrupted by another man, whereupon the other man grapples with her father and then accidentally catches on fire. Kelly talks to handsome Peter Adams (James Read), a grad student in the psychology department, about the dream, and Peter notes that it contains “all the classic symbols: mom, dad, fire, strange man.” (Tell me the last dream you had that DIDN’T contain mom, dad, fire, and strange man. See? You can’t.) Peter is also fascinated by the fact that Kelly cannot remember anything from before she was 9 years old, when she fell out of her treehouse and suffered a head injury. Or at least that’s what they tell her. She doesn’t remember the incident.
At this point, any viewer who is paying even casual attention to the film — say, a viewer who is also looking at Twitter a lot while he is watching the movie — can deduce the following:
1) Kelly’s recurring nightmare is not a Freudian exploration of her subconscious but a suppressed memory of something that actually happened.
2) It probably happened instead of the alleged “falling out of a treehouse” incident, which sounds suspiciously like “I walked into a doorknob” or “I fell down the stairs, I’m such a klutz!”
But “The Initiation” cannot risk any of its viewers failing to see through this transparent attempt at misdirection. To drive the point home and eliminate any chance of suspense or mystery, the film gives us a sequence at a sanitarium where an inmate whose face is covered with burn scars (!!!) does the gardening, followed by “someone” escaping from the sanitarium. There. Now it’s pretty obvious that Kelly’s nightmare is a real memory, and that the strange man who caught on fire is still alive and probably angry. The movie should not expect us to be surprised later on when it tells us flat-out that this is the case.
Kelly lets Peter hook her up to an EEG machine while she’s sleeping so that Peter and his frumpy research assistant, Heidi, can monitor her brain waves. Heidi points out that even when Kelly is having her nightmare again, the EEG doesn’t indicate that she’s dreaming. Why, it’s almost as if — but it can’t be — but it’s almost as if her nightmare isn’t a “dream” at all but an actual memory of a real event that she witnessed as a 9-year-old! Peter dismisses this notion as folly — but still, the movie should not expect us to be surprised later on when it reveals that Heidi’s suspicion was correct.
Back at Fairchild manor, Kelly’s parents hear the news about the sanitarium breakout and express concern. Oh dear, they say. Perhaps the terrible lie we’ve been perpetrating all these years is coming back to haunt us, they say. They don’t mention specifics, but we have a hunch about what happened. The movie should definitely not expect us to be surprised later on when it reveals everything, not after it’s telegraphed it to us three different ways.
Meanwhile, the girls at the sorority take a lot of showers. The name of the university is never mentioned, but it is evidently one where everybody gets really dirty all the time. (Best guesses: Grime College; University of Muck; Texas A & M.) One scene begins with the camera pointed at a showering coed’s naked crotchular region. Then the camera moves up to reveal that this girl also has breasts and — who knew? — a face, before moving out to the adjoining bedroom to show us the people who are actually in the scene, who have nothing to do with the girl we just saw in the shower. If you look up the word “gratuitous” in the dictionary, you will find … well, just a definition of the word “gratuitous.” I don’t know what you were expecting.
But wait a second! What about all the murders we were promised?? Don’t worry, friends, “The Initiation” has got you covered. While the EEG sessions and random showers and Fairchild soap operas are happening, the movie occasionally cuts to a scene in which someone is stabbed by an unseen person, usually with a gardening tool. Not to sound jaded, but these murders are boring. They also remind us A LOT of the first “Halloween,” in which a dangerous lunatic escapes from an asylum and kills his way back to his hometown to do more killing. But at least Michael Myers had flair! Whoever’s killing people in “The Initiation” is doing so with a noticeable lack of enthusiasm.
Finally it is time for “prank night.” Kelly and her three fellow pledges sneak into The Fairchild Building after hours. Their task is to obtain the night watchman’s uniform, via seduction if necessary, but they are unable to complete this mission on account of the killer already got there and killed the night watchman and stashed his body somewhere, uniform and all. Awful b-word Megan and three frat guys named Andy, Chad, and Ralph are creeping around with the intention of scaring Kelly and the pledges, but instead Megan and Andy get murdered immediately, and so does one of the pledges. That leaves Kelly, two other pledges, and the two remaining frat guys to sit around the closed department store and wait for whatever is supposed to happen, unaware that there are like seven dead bodies moldering all around them.
One of the pledges is Kelly’s friend Marcia (Marilyn Kagan), who gets teased by everyone for being a virgin. Marcia, Kelly, Andy, Chad, and the other pledge (it doesn’t matter what her name is) are chillin’ at The Fairchild Building, drunk somehow, when somebody makes a good-natured crack about Marcia’s lack of sexual experience. That is when Marcia, in a Very Special Episode of “The Initiation,” drunkenly reveals that when she was 12 she was raped by her violin teacher, and THAT’S why she doesn’t sleep around like every other girl at Filth University.
I wouldn’t mention this unpleasant detail except for two things. One, it winds up having nothing whatsoever to do with the story, raising the question of why the movie saw fit to include it. And two, right after this emotional moment, Ralph the “class clown” frat boy comforts Marcia, then has sex with her on a department store bed. Revealing her past trauma to a couple of friends and casual acquaintances while drinking wine in a closed shopping mall turns out to have been an aphrodisiac for ol’ Marcia!
But I have not even gotten to the astonishing part yet. The astonishing part is right after the sex, when Ralph jokes, “Was I as amazing as I think I was?” Marcia’s reply is: “Well, I don’t have a lot to compare you to, but I’d say, mmm, maybe a 7.”
I don’t have a lot to compare you to? Uh, do I need to spell this out? Marcia’s only prior sexual experience was — I mean, she just got done telling us about it! It was a devastating assault from which she is still recovering psychologically. But good news, Ralph! Sex with you was better than that!
Ralph and Marcia have a sweet conversation and then get cheaply killed, because this is an ugly movie with no regard for human emotions or cinematography. Whoever else was left besides Kelly gets killed, too. Then it turns out — HOLY CRAP, GUESS WHAT? You know that recurring nightmare Kelly has? IT REALLY HAPPENED. Except the truth of it is that she walked in on her mother having sex with another man, and her father was the “strange man” who entered the scene and got burned up. Then Mom and not-dad sent Kelly’s melted dad away to the nuthouse, got married, and pretended Kelly was theirs all along, aided by her convenient amnesia.
So Kelly’s real father is the one who’s been killing everybody, right? No! There is a twist! Kelly’s father has been following the murderer, trying to prevent the murders! (Not trying very hard, apparently.) The actual murderer is … Kelly’s twin sister! She was in the loony bin with their father, then broke out so she could kill everybody!
Yes, Kelly had a twin all this time. Don’t feel bad for not knowing. The movie never mentioned it. The movie was so busy setting up the shocking revelation that Kelly’s nightmare was a real memory that it forgot to lay any groundwork for the out-of-nowhere revelation that Kelly has a twin. I would not be surprised if the movie itself didn’t know Kelly had a twin until the movie got to the part of itself where it had to reveal the murderer and then the movie was like, “Hey, what if she had a twin?” Maybe the movie was high when it thought of that. At any rate, “The Initiation” is a bad movie with bad ideas that are badly executed; but, then again, boobs.