The Haunting of Sorority Row has one of those titles that, when you first hear it, you immediately make assumptions about. My initial assumption was that the movie might very well feature a house full of hot young girls in various stages of undress, acting all catty between pillow fights and being menaced by a supernatural entity of some kind. And then I looked down to the bottom of the dvd case and noted that this was produced by Lifetime. Wait, I thought, isn’t a horror movie by the Lifetime Network akin to Spike TV producing a Jane Austen film festival? Or Comedy Central hosting a David Cronenberg retrospective? Or Arts & Entertainment producing a reality show about a guy who traps raccoons….? Oh. Wait.
The Haunting of Sorority Row stars Gossip Girl’s unfortunately named Leighton Meester as Samantha Willows, a pledge at a cookie-cutter sorority somewhere in the US. The one thing that sets it apart from other such sisterhoods is that, outside of the fact that the entire sorority seems to be composed of three members and five pledges, current members and alumni are dying mysteriously.
Now, when I first read the handy plot synopsis on the back of the case, I immediately felt hopeful that this would be one of those astoundingly bad movies that are so fun to write reviews about. In fact, combined with the thumbnail photos alongside the synopsis, I was sort of expecting a tame Suspiria rip-off. All that talk of sinister sorority sisters and something evil happening in the house had me all warm and giggly.
Well, outside of an opening scene involving a girl being killed, that’s where the similarities end. The deaths of the sisters revolve around a girl who disappeared a year earlier. She went through the final initiation and left in the middle of the night, never to be heard from again. Or at least that’s the official story. Could she have perhaps died during that initiation and now be wreaking vengeance on the girls who are responsible? After a few fairly predictable twists and some ham-handed exposition featuring Samantha’s high school boyfriend who happens to be an expert on the paranormal, we get our answers.
As I watched, however, it beagan to dawn on me that the movie is nowhere near as terrible as it should be. Don’t get me wrong, it’s nowhere near being good, or even competent, but it avoids that dreaded niche where it’s so bad that it enters another plane of reality.
First off, the performances are not that bad. Leighton Meester plays an eager young freshman who, in true Lifetime fashion, is re-evaluating her relationship with her high school beau and trying to figure out who she is and what she will be and all that stuff. She plays all this with a convincing air and I couldn’t help but think that she might make herself into something if she can find a worthy project.
Another surprise in the film is how the Mean Girls-style queen bee of the sorority turns out to be a decent human being, quietly having all peanut-based products removed from the house when she finds that Samantha has a peanut allergy. A small touch, I know, but one learns to appreciate seeing these kinds of conventions being broken, like Dan Hedaya’s father in Clueless; a dad in a teen comedy who was as sharp as a tack and a total match for his incorrigible daughter.
As a horror film though, The Haunting of Sorority Row fails on every level. The deaths aren’t unsettling or even, in some cases, convincing. They all happen on screen, and all involve a ghostly cold that fills the room, which is conveyed by a cheesy CGI frost effect that, rather than scaring me or creeping me out, put me in the mood for that spearmint gum from those commercials where their breath frosts up all the windows. It’s as if the filmmakers have heard of horror films, and really really like the idea of them, but haven’t made the time to see any yet, so aren’t quite sure how they’re supposed to play.
The Haunting of Sorority Row is presented in its original 1.33:1 format, so be ready for bars along the sides of your screen. It’s not particularly well lit or well shot, and there is a graininess throughout the production. However, in some scenes, that graininess ascends to a whole new level and actually becomes distracting.
The disc’s audio is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0, and there is nothing special to report here. Most of the sound is competent, however at certain points the dialogue is muddied up by ambient noise or music.
None at all.
Fans of Meester or Lifetime seem to be the intended audience here, though the usual Lifetime types of issues aren’t really covered (there is a brief flirtation with bulimia, but the only lesson learned is to not go to the isolated, unused bathroom alone). However, for such fans, be content with a rental because I can’t see you giving this a second viewing. Ever. As for the rest of you, this film, though bad, never descends to the level of kitsch, so best to just give it a miss.