The sorority has been effectively used in slasher films since the sub-genre formed in the early seventies. With the trailer for fall 2009 release Sorority Row playing in theaters and all over the internet, it seems like a good moment to reflect on the use of the setting in previous horror films.
One of the earliest slashers, the Canadian film Black Christmas (1974), featured a serial killer terrorizing sorority sisters staying at their house over the Christmas break. That film’s effective use of first-person camera angles, disturbing music, and a strong cast (Olivia Hussey, Margot Kidder, John Saxon, and Andrea Martin) set the bar high for Greek-organization horror. The trailer (one of my favorites for a slasher) captures the creepiness of the film, particularly its crank calls:
It’s difficult to understand just how influential Black Christmas was in developing the slasher genre. It clearly drew from Italian giallo films, which often featured groups of women being terrorized by a serial killer. Other conventions–the crank phone call, the first person camera angles–now come standard in the horror genre but were fairly unique at the time. The sorority house itself plays an important function in simultaneously bringing these female characters together to create tension between them and isolating each woman from the others to make her vulnerable. The attic becomes a sort of nest for the killer to gather his prey in one place, and, in a grim kind of female homosociality, allow their cadavers to commune. Black Christmas, then, portrays the female space of the sorority house as prone to victimization. (A largely panned remake of Black Christmas was released in 2006.)
The House on Sorority Row (1983), recycles elements of Black Christmas’ plot. The film follows a handful of graduating sorority sisters as they plan their last hurrah before entering “the real world.” Right from the beginning, the film plays up the girlishness of the sorority space with a credit sequence that features a montage of feminine practices (Start the video below about two minutes in to see the sequence):
As the film progresses, there are scenes of queer female-bonding, such as the one starting about nine minutes into the video above. Of course, this homosocial paradise devolves into a blood bath after bad girl Vicki gets caught having sex by the house mom, Mrs. Slater. After a poorly planned prank ends with Mrs. Slaters’ death, the women try to cover up the accident before getting picked off by a killer that may or may not be Mrs. Slater. Of course, the women are presented as careless, petty, and cruel (with the exception of the “final girl” character). The trailer emphasizes the promiscuous and violent behavior of the women:
Obviously, the film’s regressive sexual politics bothered me as did the lack of creativity and poor execution. The House on Sorority Row felt much longer than its ninety minute running time, in part because it failed to develop compelling characters and lacked suspense.
A far better example (stylistically) of use of the sorority house in horror would be a scene with Sarah Michelle Gellar in Scream 2 (1997). Gellar portrays Cici, a sorority sister assigned to stay home on a Saturday night so she can drive her sorority pals home safely. Of course, the assignment makes her vulnerable to the film’s killer in the scene below:
The film does not take place exclusively in a sorority house, but Greek life does play a role in the film since it is set on a college campus. Scream 2 perpetuates many of the stereotypes of sorority sisters as shallow and ditzy (particularly in scenes where a group of sisters attempt to recruit the primary protagonist of the film, Sydney), but interestingly, the film avoids the temptation of exploiting the sorority house setting to show women at odds with one another, instead choosing to isolate one character in the house in order to make her a victim of the killer. In other words, Cici is specifically targeted because she is alone, and her status as sorority sisters seems coincidental.
Sadly, most sorority horror films depict women in groups as incapable of working together, and at worst, pit the female characters against each other when utilizing the sorority house setting. This appears to be the case with the remake of The House on Sorority Row, now abbreviated to Sorority Row. The trailer, for instance, begins with a unified effort by its female characters to avenge a cheated sister, but as with the original film, the prank turns deadly:
Of course, efforts to cover up the accident fail, and the terror begins anew during graduation. It’s difficult to say just how problematic Sorority Row will be, but if the trailer’s last line–”Don’t think I’m a afraid of you, I run a house with fifty crazy b…”–and the hints of soft core sex are any indication, Sorority Row will likely carry on the regressive tradition. I’d love to see something that exploits the queer elements of the sorority house and portrays women making a unified effort to overthrow a killer, but that film has yet to be made.