Saturday, October 29, 2016

Census Bloodbath: A dangerous method

October's end draws near—and so once again it's time to pull the old switcheroo with Brennan Klein, the finest human being I know not related to me by blood or sexual intercourse!  And so shall it ever be: while Brennan reviews three wonderful Cardboard Science classics over at Popcorn Culture, handpicked by yours truly for their moral uprightness and fine craftsmanship, we intend to wallow in whatever sleaze and gore that Brennan's deemed fit for me to review, in the form of three entries from Brennan's centerpiece feature, the increasingly-complete encyclopedia of the 1980s' slasher phenomenon that he calls Census Bloodbath.  But we take our duties seriously here, and, as usual, I'm having a blast.


Directed by Larry Stewart
Written by Charles Pratt, Jr.
With Daphne Zuniga (Kelly Fairchild), Marilyn Kagan (Marcia), Hunter Tylo (Alison), Paula Knowles (Beth), James Read (Peter Adams), Joy Jones (Heidi), Frances Peterson (Megan), Robert Dowdell (Jason Randall), Clu Galager (Dwight Fairchild), and Vera Miles (Frances Fairchild)

Spoiler alert: moderate

Without meaning to sound too down on the thing, The Initiation is possibly the tritest slasher film I've ever seen, doing nothing very well and (almost) nothing very poorly, merely managing to put all the constituent parts together with something like workmanlike competence.  And so: there is the madman on the loose; there are the stagey killings; there is the sorority house, that provides ample opportunities for its inhabitants to semi-plausibly disrobe; there is the bullshit psychology, piled atop even more bullshit psychology; and there is, of course, the great big Dumbassed Twist, foreshadowed with oddly-lazy hectoring on the part of director Larry Stewart, by way of a single lingering shot right near the beginning of the person who turns out to be the killer.  The other big clue we get is the protagonist's peculiar penchant for staring vacantly into every mirror she can find.  And even though I said up top that we'd be keeping this a mostly spoiler-free zone, I doubt you could miss the SUBTLE HINTS.  The Initiation really only has two possible endings.  Ultimately, it is the less stupid—and also the less satisfying—of the two possibilities which pans out.)

Meanwhile, it is not in any sense genuinely scary for more than a few early moments; nor is it especially well-mounted, outside of a few splendid shots of a fireplace and houses at night; nor is it even especially gory.  On the other hand, its objectification of women is typically pretty solid.  We can give it that.  And that must be why it's a plum shame that it has to ruin its softcore constitution with an abominably-misjudged two-minute speech, very late in the game, which is about rape, and which also suddenly brings the whole movie perilously close to ruin, by destroying all the fun of what, previously, had seemed like not much more than a lot of mostly-harmless male gazing, bookended by the film's admirably equal-opportunity death scenes.

It does survive that one terrible moment, however, thanks to the momentum of the ongoing murder plot in progress.  And despite its run-of-the-mill quality, The Initiation remains a key piece of evidence for the case that slasher movies don't actually have to be "good," in order to be good.

It's called "genre filmmaking," pal.  Like it or get out.

We begin with what turns out to be (by far) the picture's single strongest gesture, an opening that takes the old childhood bogey of walking in on your parents having sex, and kicks it up at least one billion notches.  (Well, speaking technically, it begins with its blunt credits sequence—a no-nonsense white-on-black affair that has the rather good fortune to be accompanied by some fittingly-ominous music from composers Gabriel Black and Lance Ong.  Theirs is a score that we shall soon find totally Howarthing up the whole affair, and you may find this to be good, or bad, or both, depending wholly upon what pleases your own individual eardrums.)  Anyway, once those credits establish The Initiation's scary-fun mood, we arrive upon a scene which proudly announces itself, with its soft-as-a-feather cinematography, as a hallucinatory vision of The Sins of the Past—such as we almost always find undergirding our slasher film narratives.

Mommy is in bed with Daddy; the Little Girl, awakened by thunder, has traveled down the hallway to witness the deed in the raw, and she finds it lit with nightmarish chaos by the roaring fire in the fireplace.  Confronted with these facts of life, she does what comes naturally—according to our finest Hitchcockian scholars, anyway—and begins stabbing madly with a pair of scissors, slashing at the man in her mother's bed.  But that's when the scene gets even weirder than it already was, as another man (this one in a three-piece suit) bursts right into the room, apparently ready to grapple with his naked competitor for this woman's affections.  In the melee that ensues, the man in the suit is doused with flammable booze—and that bedroom fireplace turns out to be much more than just a nicely evocative piece of scene-setting.

Now let us smash-cut right back to the present day, where we find Kelly Fairchild awakened from her recurring nightly torment by another brand of torture: life as a ΔPX pledge.

Where once there were a dozen pledges, now there are only four: Kelly herself, Marcia, Alison, and Beth.  The last three can be described (succinctly enough) as the Neurotic Virgin, the Egregious Slut, and the Stick-in-the-Mud Without Much of a Personality and Only One Laughably-Minor Plot Function Late In the Third Act, respecitvely.  Kelly, however, is the lynchpin of the sorority's master plan for Prank Week, because Kelly is the scion of the Fairchild real estate empire, and therefore has access to the keys to her dad's new shopping center.  The pledges' mission, should they choose to accept it, shall be to make ingress into Fairchild's new mall, and abscond with the security guard's uniform—by whatever means turn out to be necessary.

Well, between the four of them, they shouldn't even walk away from this simple transaction with so much as a sore wrist.  Unfortunately for our doomed teenagers, however, the local mental ward has suffered a massive security failure, and the gang of lunatics now prowling around includes a certain older gentleman with burn scars covering his face.  (But it also includes, although I'm totally sure that this can't be important, a woman with long, scraggly brown hair, whom the director has been extremely, even conspicuously careful to only ever photograph from behind.)  Well, either way, now that our gallant kids have trapped themselves in Kelly's dad's cavernous high-rise of a shopping center, they find themselves picked off one-by-one, and sometimes two-by-two, by a shadowy figure that is clearly saving Kelly for last.

But before we move on, we should at least mention Peter Adams, Kelly's stalwart TA (a job which writer Charles Pratt keeps confusing with "actual professor," suggesting, along with a lot of other things, that he never went to college).  As The Initiation's obvious and differently-ethical romantic foil, Peter's been putting both the moves and his super-scientific electrodes on Kelly, in an attempt to get to the bottom of her recurring nightmare.  But when he and his loopy research assistant Heidi finally put all the pieces together, they realize what we've known pretty much all along: it's not a dream, it's a memory.

And the past just never leaves you alone in these movies.

It looks like we have a "mystery" on our hands, then, but while nothing about it is very surprising, it's good enough to serve as the backbone of a slasher film, and you can at least suspend your disbelief enough to accept that its resolution might come as a surprise to its characters.  (It "helps"—I suppose—that Kelly suffers convenient movie amnesia, leaving everything that's happened to her before the age of nine a complete blank.)

Still: "good enough" isn't exactly what you mean when you say "good," though I have averred that The Initiation is (at least) a good time.

It's not the blood that elevates it: although far from the dryest slasher, it's also a film where the kills tend to be delivered as close-ups of sharp implements piercing cloth-covered bloodpacks.  Even then, there is something in Stewart's direction—maybe just the barbarically simple trick of using a distorted wide-angle lens for his killer POV sequences—that gives it a frisson of tension.  And the death of the nurse at the hospital, swarmed in her car by madpeople and fatally pierced by gardening tools, gets a deliriously creepy grace note, so that even when nothing else about it is especially novel or even especially effective, it manages to get a little bit under your skin: when the nurse pitifully reaches up with her bloodstained hand, smearing the window red, an anonymous inmate outside licks at his chops, superimposing his ravenous tongue upon the streaks.

But that's the high point in a slasher where the subsequent kills are sometimes perfectly fun, sometimes perfectly perfunctory, and sometimes offscreened altogether.  So what is it that really rescues The Initiation?  It can't be the acting, right?

It can—and while no one should ever confuse The Initiation's enjoyable performances with technically-competent ones, by the same token, it would be pretty rude to spit in the face of anything that manages to be entertaining.  The Initiation has the fortune to be headlined by one Daphne Zuniga, whose preposterous self-possession and breathless line reads would turn out to be much better suited for avowed comedy, which is indeed where she would soon wind up—starring opposite John Cusack as the stolid, fun-hating Good Girl who nevertheless had a mature and schoolmarmish appeal in The Sure Thing.  And that was right before she hit the very top of her niche, as a certain Druish princess in Mel Brooks' Spaceballs.  But Zuniga had a way of turning what amounts to bratty whininess into something funny and engaging, even in these surroundings.  (As for how this style held up when she got to her ultimate destination, Melrose Place, I leave up to you, the 1990s soap opera enthusiast.)

Still, although it's what gets the most screentime, Zuniga's performance might not be even the battiest, broadest thing on display here; for we could, if we wanted, award that title to Joy Jones' Heidi, who, with her capability of responding to questions like "What do you think it is?" with a blurted-out "PSYCHIC PHENOMENA!" without missing a beat, appears to be already be trying to get a spot in the Ghostbusters remake only six months after the first one opened.  Finally, we have Vera Miles, of Psycho sub-fame (she was the one who wasn't Janet Leigh), as our mother with a Freudian secret.  Miles gets the actual top billing in The Initiation, and in return manages to impart the slightest whiff of class to the proceedings.

Ah, but that means I'm forgetting Hunter Tylo, playing Alison under the nomme de slash, Deborah Moreheart.  Honestly, pretty much everybody here is well aware of what kind of movie they're in, and Tylo is no exception to that rule.  But I was amused to find the supermodel here at all, not solely because the film presents her in all her full-frontal, no-merkin-required glory—although this surely isn't nothing—but also because I suddenly recalled that when I was a (very young) child, I thought it'd be hilarious if she and I got married.

I guess she didn't see the joke, inasmuch as she never answered any of my letters.

The end result of all this bad-but-knowing acting is a minor camp spectacle, better as an 80s kollege komedy than it ever is as a slasher, and it keeps The Initiation from being even the slightest bit unlikeable, despite its been-there-done-that kills and all its shabby, shabby thrills.  We could profitably compare it to The House on Sorority Row, a similarish sorority-based slasher that likewise revolved around dark pasts, and which is also a recognizably better piece of cinema—but which also has a fair amount of trouble keeping your interest until its bravura Final Girl scene.  Wearing its goofiness on its sleeve, The Initiation keeps you, the viewer, in a pretty lighthearted mood, too, and always eager to see what silliness comes next.

...Or it does, anyway, right up until that seismic moment when the screenplay decides to vomit out the worst of all possible resolutions to Marcia's dumb virginity subplot; whereupon Kelly's poor, put-upon sidekick reveals, apropos of not too fucking much, her tragic backstory of violent childhood molestation.  This almost immediately leads to her losing her real, consensual virginity, too, because why not.  Gotta love those 1980s!  Jesus Christ.

Killer: [Terry Randall]
Final Girl: Kelly Fairchild
Best Kill: The nurse's death is the most affecting, so I'll go with that one
Sign of the Times: The mustache on the blond security guard, that's pretty much Core 80s
Scariest Moment: Possibly when two of the frat brothers, tasked by Megan to prank the pledges, jump out of a changing booth with Halloween masks on (I think I already mentioned that this movie wasn't very scary); alternatively, it was when I realized halfway through the movie that the Census Bloodbath format obliges me to take notes, which I never seem to recall until half the cast is already dead and I haven't bothered learning any of their names
Weirdest Moment: Marcia's tearful confession regarding being raped at age 12, which seems to get her paramour hard, and which apparently seems to have much the same effect on her—you are gross, movie
Champion Dialogue: "AHHHHH!" (screamed over the mall's PA in the second best kill; it's pretty cool)
Body Count: 10
1. Nurse Higgins, garden tool massacred in the parking lot of the church or whatever it is that the filmmakers are pretending is supposed to be a mental asylum
2.  Dwight Fairchild, stabbed with the same trowel that did Nurse Higgins in, then beheaded for good measure
3.  Todd, the security guard, stabbed with a trowel, again
4.  Andy, ax to the skull
5.  Megan, shot with an arrow in a lamp store
6.  Chad, throat slit (not seen)
7.  Alison, stabbed
8.  Ralph, harpooned
9.  Marcia, dragged to hell for the sin of having legitimate, consensual sex for the first time
10. [Terry Randall], shot in the back
TL;DR: A mostly pleasant diversion, you could certainly do worse if you wanted to watch a slasher flick.


  1. Is Heidi the best character ever put on a movie screen? Probably.

    One of the reasons I dig The Initiation is that it's not only a slasher flick, but a demented soap opera as well. You're right that the molestation speech comes very close to derailing the entire project, but it's so ludicrously out of place that it kind of heightens the absurdity of it all.

    Also I love that one girl who gives up early, goes home to take a shower, and totally survives the movie. That's the kind of horror heroine I'm looking for.

    1. You know, when you put it that way, it seems slightly more of a piece. But it's also just about the last thing you want to see in your goofy slasher movie.

      Especially right after you've told the person you're watching it with, who holds films like this in pretty much total contempt, "Hey, at least it's not morally suspect!"