The Initiation of Sarah

Film review by Thomas M. Sipos




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The Initiation of Sarah  (1978, dir: Robert Day; scp/story: Don Ingalls, Carol Saraceno, Kenette Gfeller, Tom Holland; cast: Kay Lenz, Tisa Farrow, Morgan Fairchild, Morgan Brittany, Kathryn Crosby, Shelley Winters, Tony Bill, Talia Balsom)




The Initiation of Sarah has never attracted copious praise. John Stanley calls it an "undistinguished TV-movie ripoff of Carrie." Michael Weldon dismisses it as a "Carrie imitation."  Leonard Maltin rates it: Average.

Yes, The Initiation of Sarah was inspired by Carrie -- but it also surpasses Carrie. For unlike Carrie, The Initiation of Sarah was a TV-movie, hence subject to budgetary and censorial restraints. But it overcame these restraints, even turning them to its advantage by emphasizing story and acting and atmosphere over shocks and gore. It's my personal favorite horror TV-movie, better than the oft-cited and rightly praised The Night Stalker.

The Initiation of Sarah tells a common tale: A young high school/summer camp/college nerd is long picked on, then finally retaliates. In the horror genre, the nerd often employs supernatural powers, or is severely injured in a "prank gone bad" so he becomes an Überpsycho.

(I coined Überpsycho in my essay, "But Is It Horror? Defining and Demarcating the Genre" to distinguish the indestructible post-Halloween "horror psycho" from the vulnerable "suspense psycho" of such earlier films as Frenzy. For a fuller, more up-to-date analysis, see my book, Horror Film Aesthetics.)

The Initiation of Sarah, like Carrie and The Craft, follows the former pattern.

Like Carrie, Sarah (Kay Lenz) has telekinetic powers, which manifest when she's angered. But as she is unable to control its destructive potential, and being a good-hearted nerdy girl, Sarah suppresses her powers.

The film begins with Sarah and her half-sister, Patty (Morgan Brittany) going off to college. Both pledge the campus's elite sorority, ANS (Alpha Nu Sigma), but ANS only accepts the beautiful Patty, not the mousy Sarah. Instead, Sarah joins the brainy PED (Phi Epsilon Delta -- which the svelte ANS girls refer to as Pigs, Elephants, and Dogs).

ANS is led by the beautiful and bitchy Jennifer (Morgan Fairchild), who pressures Patty into tormenting Sarah. Meanwhile, the timid Sarah finds new friends at PED, including Allison (Talia Balsom, Martin "Psycho" Balsom's daughter, and star of The Kindred and The Supernaturals) and Mouse (Tisa Farrow, Mia's sister, and star of Zombie and Grim Reaper). Several other cast members (some very minor) are the daughters, nieces, and sisters of famous thesps -- a gimmick employed by the film.



Sarah also comes under the wings of PED's loopy house mother, Mrs. Hunter (Shelley Winters), who teaches "anthropology and belief systems in primitive cultures." Naturally, she's also a practicing witch. The evil Satanic kind.

The film follows the usual trajectory. Sarah is rejected and tormented, encouraged to develop and use her powers for revenge, everything finally culminating in a fiery cataclysm. Yet within the framework of its familiar story conventions, the film offers much.

Its strongest asset is Kay Lenz, whose physical appearance, body language, mannerisms, and expressions consistently capture the nuanced timidity of a girl nerd. Consider Sarah maneuvering silently amid the ANS partygoers. (See below clip.)  In her dowdy cardigan sweater, the 5'1" Lenz holds herself together, trying to avoid touching anyone as she squeezes past the exuberant taller girls chattering over her. The insecure Sarah strains to be inconspicuous, painfully self-conscious despite the beautiful ANS girls' obliviousness to her. It's a short scene, but The Initiation of Sarah is full of such moments when Lenz shines as Sarah.




The one flaw in Lenz's portrayal is when the ANS girls fling mud and vegetables at Sarah, who stands screaming rather than retreat into the house. But most likely, this was Robert Day's direction. A small mistake, in an overall fine job as director. (No, I don't buy that Sarah was "too shocked" to move -- just as I rarely buy that horror's legions of screaming women are too shocked to move whenever a monster lumbers toward them.)

The rest of the cast is competent-to-stellar. Tisa Farrow is best known to horror fans as the star of Zombie, yet her portrayal of Mouse is her best horror (or even non-horror) performance. In The Initiation of Sarah, Farrow is less spacey and distant than usual -- infusing Mouse with pain, insecurity, trepidation, despondency, and an occasionally distraught edge (Mouse had attempted suicide).

Morgan Fairchild's Jennifer is a proper bitch, more nuanced that most movie/TV bitches, shifting from girlish camaraderie, to coy flirtation, subtle slights, and raw cruelty. Shelley Winters gives a stammering, hyperactive, hammy performance, which is inappropriate against Lenz's realism, but is still mildly fun to watch. Perhaps the celebrated Winters did not think this horror TV-movie was worth a serious effort, but Lenz and Farrow demonstrate that it was.

To fully appreciate The Initiation of Sarah, one should compare it to The Craft (1996), an overrated and inferior film about four nerdy high school girls who employ witchcraft to take vengeance on their bitchy oppressors.

The Craft is a heavy-handed mess, overstated in every way that The Initiation of Sarah is subtle.  Both films have stereotypical WASPy blond bitches. Yet Morgan Fairchild's Jennifer knows when to withdraw and feign decency. (ANS girls call it "tact"). Conversely, The Craft's Laura Lizzie (Christine Taylor) is openly racist, brazenly calling a black nerd (Rachel True) "the N word" in public.

Sorry. Whatever she may say in private, I just don't buy that a sophisticated teenager would publicly shout "the N word" in an elite California school in 1996. Maybe in 1956, but not 1996.  Even Jennifer, whose film is set in 1978, knows better.

And although Jennifer (like Laura) is vicious, when publicly called on it, Jennifer immediately retreats and says it was "just a stupid joke." The Craft eschews such realism. It "tries too hard" to establish Laura's villainy (and subsequent reformation). The Craft's heavy-handedness, its stark blacks and whites, ring false. Not a problem in The Initiation of Sarah.

Now compare the nerds. The nerds of PED look like nerds. Dowdy, plain, or overweight. Even the pretty Lenz and Farrow manage, through costuming and body language, to portray proper nerds. Conversely, in The Craft, two of the four nerds (Robin Tunney and Rachel True) are way too attractive to be treated as nerds.

(Of the other two nerds, Fairuza Balk can be pretty, but is effectively distorted by her Goth makeup; and Neve Campbell's nerd passes because of her physical -- and resultant emotional -- injuries).

Despite its big studio theatrical budget, and 1990s special effects, The Craft fails in every way that The Initiation of Sarah succeeds.

(The Initiation of Sarah also compares favorably to The Spell, yet another TV movie about a tormented nerd girl with telekinetic powers, who is yet again tutored by an elder woman, played by an overbearing Lelia Goldoni, the mousy wife from The Unseen).

The Initiation of Sarah also surpasses the average TV-movie in every area. TV lighting (especially in older TV-movies) tends to be flatter than in cinema, as TV screens display a smaller color palette than does film stock. Despite this, The Initiation of Sarah is especially atmospheric (credit to cinematographer Ric Waite), especially in its murkily-lit photography of the PED sorority house.

The film has some plot holes, or at least raises issues that remain unaddressed (e.g., the fate of Sarah's birth mother; and where is Mr. Hunter?). The classrooms are underpopulated (trying to save money by hiring few extras?). Gore is limited, this being a TV-movie.

Even so, The Initiation of Sarah is an underrated horror gem. An engrossing (if familiar) story, performed by a talented cast. Kay Lenz's portrayal of the nerdy Sarah would alone be enough to make The Initiation of Sarah worth seeing.

Review copyright by Thomas M. Sipos


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