The Initiation (1984) Blu-ray Review: Old School's Out Forever

Arrow Video brings us a new HD transfer of the sorority slasher many of us kids ditched out on the first time around.
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If there was one lesson to be learned from the entire run of the slasher film subgenre, it is that no school-themed event, national holiday, or generalized superstition was safe from the prying eyes of bloodthirsty, homicidal maniacs. Indeed, after the first session of class began with John Carpenter's Halloween in 1978, no one ever thought to offer up "Nothing Lasts Forever" as part of the curriculum for the uninitiated. Instead, one applicant after another ‒ originating from actual graduates of filmmaking schools to drop-outs from other ends of the camera ‒ signed up for a refresher course, culminating in the institutional craze's swift demise in 1984, when Wes Craven's late night after school special A Nightmare on Elm Street changed the face of horror.

Of course, there are always a few undergraduates who don't get the memo until it is too late. And Larry Stewart's The Initiation is perhaps the most notable of that lot. Though the slasher film had already worn out its welcome by the time The Initiation hit theaters in December of '84, a major marketing error essentially doomed it to a short-run, as Craven's fantastical take on the genre opened less than a month before (and to much better attendance). In the immediate years that followed, the New World Pictures release became a staple fixture in video rental stores. Indeed, much like another late offering, 1983's Curtains, The Initiation was one of those tapes I always saw sitting on the shelf as a kid, but never bothered renting.

Most notable for being the first starring role for Daphne Zuniga (who had previously had a small part as one of the many victims of The Dorm That Dripped Blood in 1982), The Initiation owes more to the gialli that inspired the slasher than most of its competitors, but is still very much American. In fact, its Dallas/Fort Worth shooting (and stabbing) locations could almost sorta kinda possibly permit various gatherings of obnoxious, drunken horror trolls an opportunity to sit up and drunkenly argue all night over as to whether or not The Initiation could be semi-technically constituted as a regional horror title. And yes, boys and girls, that's just one of the many advantages this sorority Initiation will get you, should you decide to take the pledge.

Actually, The Initiation is nowhere near as bad as some would have you believe. The aforementioned Ms. Zuniga ‒ along with her unconvincing nude body double, whom I believe may be one of her character's fellow pledges (the one who appears to have been written in and who stays behind for the actual initiation itself) ‒ stars here as a troubled young lass with recurring nightmares and the oddest set of marquee value parents a girl could ever hope to have: the top-billed pairing of Vera Miles and Clu Gulager, the latter of whom is only in the picture for about ten minutes, before his agent phones him up to say "Hey, I have you down to appear in both The Return of the Living Dead and A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy's Revenge next year, so get it in gear, man!"

Ms. Miles, on the other hand, is allotted more screentime than Mr. Gulager. And for that, she is allowed to walk into a number of scenes, throw a fit, and storm out again. (I can only guess her casting was some sort of bizarre attempt at a good luck token because of her relation to the Psycho series, as she appeared in the first two Psycho movies ‒ Alfred Hitchcock's original film being viewed by many as the grandparent of the slasher ‒ as the sister of Janet Leigh, whose daughter Jamie Lee Curtis starred in Halloween, Prom Night, and Terror Train.) The bulk of the movie is devoted to our young starlet (Zuniga, in case I lost you back there), whose character ‒ like any ambitious young coed ‒ is bedding someone on the college payroll.

Thankfully, Zuniga's graduate assistant beau, as played by future North and South actor James Read, is all about studying dreams. He's also eager to translate Daphne's nightmares for the people in the audience, who, let's be fair, are just here for the clothes-shedding and bloodletting. Thankfully, The Initiation does not disappoint on either front (and there is a bit of frontal to be seen here, too, thanks primarily to the actress whom I believe was Zuniga's secret body double). Furthermore, Charles Pratt, Jr.'s screenplay shows the future soap opera scribe's ability to whip out a neck-breaking twist at the last minute, which ultimately saves The Initiation from being completely silly. That, and a look at the long-lost world of the department store (thank you, Walmart).

Though most of the cast never went on to do anything else in the world of film, this fun (if forgettable) thriller from the guy who played Judd Holdren's faithful Ranger flunkie in Captain Video, Master of the Stratosphere co-stars Marilyn Kagan, Robert Dowdell, Hunter Tylo (who also graduated to soaps, along with James Read), Joy Jones, and Christopher Bradley. Arrow Video brings this cult classic to HD via a rather marvelous 1080p transfer, as culled from the original 35mm negative. Despite the occasional instance of (natural) grain in many of the film's darker scenes, this presentation is still quite free of debris otherwise. An LPCM monaural soundtrack delivers dialogue, music, and sound effects admirably, and fresh (SDH) English subtitles are included with this release.

Select cast and crew were kind enough to donate their time and memories for this Arrow Video release, including screenwriter Charles Platt, Jr., who contributes a nice interview here. Performers Joy Jones and Christopher Bradley (or, "Morrissey Brolin" as I dubbed his present-day appearance) also lend us their thoughts in two separate featurettes. An extended scene is also available ‒ in glorious open matte form, to boot ‒ but the audio for this segment was lost somewhere along the line, and is thus presented silent with subtitles. Lastly, we get a theatrical trailer and an audio commentary by The Hysteria Continues: a group of podcasters (really, Arrow?) who have probably drunkenly argued into the wee hours of the night as to whether or not The Initiation constituted as regional horror.

While it may feel like Gone with the Wind when pitted against the near-infinite number of dumb horror thrillers we've had to contend with ever since Wes Craven revived the subgenre with Scream in 1996, The Initiation is still far from being hailed as a "masterpiece" by even most old-school graduates. But of course, much like the many clueless, graceless girls I see regularly roaming about in tight yoga pants, ridiculous looking furry boots, and loose-fitting half-shirts which clearly expose their bra straps (when applicable), The Initiation really wasn't intended to stand out over its peers. Its whole purpose was one of timing and convenience. And though its timing was off, Larry Stewart and Co. still managed to make an entertaining slasher flick.

I give it passing grade. Enjoy.

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