During the early 1980s, the slasher genre was at an all-time peak, not critically but commerically. The more movies that were released, the more money was made. Although the quality of most of these movies declined after a certain point, there were some great ones to come out of that profitable boom. Director Larry Stewart's 1984 effort The Initiation is one of those great ones, a better and more stronger contribution to the most understood genre in movie history. It was also notable for being the debut of future film and TV star Daphne Zuniga in a leading role. So let's take a look into the "night new blood is pledged."
Zuniga plays Kelly Fairchild, a headstrong college student juggling with trying to survive "hell week" with the sorority she has joined, wealthy parents (Vera Miles and Clu Gulager) who keep her on a pedestal, and a budding romance with Peter, a dreamy psychologist/teacher. On top of that, she is a former amnesiac who can't remember the first nine years of her life, especially with the connection of disturbing nightmares of a stranger being set on fire. As she tries to put the missing pieces of her like back together, Kelly's sorority sisters hatch a plan involving her and her fellow pledges that leads to them all being trapped in her father's gigantic department store. Things go from bad to worse for Kelly when she discovers that there is killer on the loose in the store, killing all of her nubile friends until she's the only one left.
Despite the ridiculous twist at the end, The Initiation works better than most of its slasher ilk. It's pretty much aware that it is not high art and knows it. It actually relies more on atmosphere than straightforward gore and bloodshed. The kills are vicious but pretty quick; they don't entirely take away from the tone of the movie, which can be sometimes formulatic but fun. There is also an unusually compelling aspect of dream/nightmares and how they shape our psyche. They play a big part of Kelly's life and you understand how she has them and why. This adds a certain intelligence that was mostly absent from other slasher films of the period.
Of course, the movie belongs to Zuniga, who brings spunk and strength to her role as Kelly. There are also game performances from film veteran Vera Miles as Frances, her domineering but loving mother; James Read as Peter, her handsome new beau; Marilyn Kagan as her best friend Marcia; and Joy Jones as Heidi, Peter's sarcastic assistant. Stewart's direction is actually competent where the pacing is rather slow but works against type. It is one of the reasons why the film has a cult following among horror buffs and midnight-movie fans.
As usual, Arrow saved the film from almost obscurity giving it a stunning presentation and some neat bonus features:
- Brand new commentary by The Hysteria Continues
- Soroity Saga: a brand new interview with screenwriter Charles Pratt, Jr.
- Pledge Night: a brand new interview with actor Christopher Bradley (Chad)
- Dream Job: a brand new interview with actress Joy Jones (Heidi)
- Extended Scene
- Original Theatrical Trailer
- Original Screenplay & Production Schedule (works only if you have a BD-ROM enabled Blu-ray player)
There is also a new essay by critic James Oliver and reversible sleeve with original and commissioned art by Justin Osbourn.
Overall, The Initiation is one of the perfect midnight movies because it did what a slasher film is supposed to do: entertain the audience and deliver a thrill-ride that only an '80' slasher can do. It's worth the watch and has certain a style that's unusual for the college slasher flick.