You may not recognise the name Larry Stewart but if you were growing up in the late 70’s early 80’s and liked genre television you no doubt watched some of the shows he was involved in. These included some real classics from The Bionic Woman to The Incredible Hulk and Buck Rogers In The 25th Century. His acting and directing career was hardly a prolific one though and he only seems to have one film to his name The Initiation made back in 1984. It’s hardly surprising that he decided to get involved in the stalk and slash genre as anyone who could write a script and get behind a camera was getting caught up in slicing and dicing teenagers at the time and the amount of films made around then with copious amounts of flesh and grizzly demises runs to the hundreds. Stemming from the Italian giallo and noticeably Mario Bava’s seminal Bay Of Blood (1971) it was not actually until some years later that the floodgates opened and the blood literally flowed courtesy of classic movies like John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) and Sean S Cunningham’s Friday the 13th (1980) . Not only was any event from Christmas to Valentine’s day an excuse to go out and dismember but the stalking ground of the college campus in the USA proved far too big a hunting ground to ignore.
I think it is fair to say that The Initiation is not that well known in the great pantheon of slasher movies. It doesn’t even warrant a mention in Stephen Thrower’s exhaustive Nightmare USA and that really says something. It was acknowledged as a bit of a sleeper alongside the likes of Student Bodies, The House On Sorority Row and Final Exam but compared to the bigger films like Happy Birthday To Me and Hell Night it is probably a film that has been largely forgotten and so it is good that Arrow have dragged it out of the tomb because as far as these sort of films are concerned it actually is quite clever and has a lot going for it.
The plot centres on rich sorority pledger Kelly Fairchild (Daphne Zuniga in a very early role for the One Tree Hill actress). Along with her friends she is about to be initiated into Delta Ro Kai sorority but first they have to survive prank night. I have to admit that all this American frat tradition seems really alien to us in the UK but it is an integral coming of age thing over there and it’s easy to understand even if we do think it is bloody silly and crazy. That as an aside it’s easy to follow in that sense (after all who the hell hasn’t seen classics like Animal House and King Frat?) Having seen some of the initiation challenges on certain (ahem) specialist sites they get off quite lightly as all they have to do is go to Kelly’s family business (a huge mall, department store shopping complex) and leave with the night watchman’s uniform. Hell they even have the keys. Unfortunately Kelly is a bit distracted by some recurring nightmares involving her parents, a stabbing and a burning man. Luckily though she is getting some help from the smooth and charming psychology teacher Peter (James Read) who just so happens to have machines hooked up to help read dreams and can do regressive hypnotherapy. This is particularly helpful as apparently in handy plot hurdle 101 Kelly cannot remember anything before the age of nine due to falling out a tree-house and landing on her head.
It’s obvious her parents are acting a bit oddly (Clu Gulager) so excellent in Return Of The Living Dead plays the dad who would forget his head if it were not attached (that’s kind of asking for it). Meanwhile over at the local sanatorium the orderly who has obviously watched Cuckoo’s Nest one too many times annoys her charges that bit too much and it’s a case of the lunatics taking over the asylum and doing a bunk. Add all this with everyone in the college trying to get laid, drunk and off their faces including a great so bad its good party scene, bitchy sorority head girls and nerds galore and you simply cannot wait till the slaughter starts in earnest. The soundtrack should also be mentioned as apart from the awful party band and bland AOR of the closing credits the film goes for that very popular brand of eerie synth electronics favoured in the likes of The Burning and Maniac which adds to the tone nicely.
When it really kicks off with the various players being dispatched in the shopping mall the cat and mouse chases are as good as one could expect. With each and every film trying to outdo each other in the inventiveness stakes The Initiation does a good job employing a wide array of weapons like bow and arrow, harpoon gun (yeah should be on sale at every self-respecting mall) gardening implements, daggers and a machete. Gore effects are like the nudity in the movie handled effectively and as far as these are concerned the film lives up to expectations. Where it does excel as well as baffle though is in the “even I didn’t see that ending coming,” for that of course you will have to watch for yourself
If like me you were watching 2-3 of these films a day in the golden video age (this originally came out via CBS / Fox but I think it escaped me which is probably just as well as the distributor pre-cut by 59 seconds!) this has enough cliché genre convention parts to have you knowingly nodding along and enough surprises and deaths to keep you entertained. The Initiation is far from a bone-fide classic but it’s a fun watch and a worthy addition to your collection.