The Initiation of Sarah (1978)
directed by Robert Day
starring Morgan Fairchild, Tisa Farrow, Shelly Winters
Few things seem to haunt the collective psyche of Generation X quite like the made-for-TV horror film. Movies like Salem’s Lot (1979), Trilogy of Terror (1975), Gargoyles (1972), and The Initiation of Sarah (1978) hold a special place in the hearts of horror fans. Much made-for-TV horror is fondly remembered because it was a kid’s gateway to the genre, but there was also an unease, as these films looked like television, not theatrical movies, and that upset the familiar notions of what you could expect to see on the screen. They often pushed the boundaries of permissibility on network TV, and millions of American parents who would never allow their kids to watch theatrical horror films, even edited for television, blissfully played canasta at the kitchen table while the kids gorged themselves on TV horror. One of the more infamous of these films is The Initiation of Sarah (1978), which not only became a TV movie, but lurked on the shelves of video stores and cable TV channels, further blurring the line between TV and “real” horror films.
Sisters Patty (Morgan Brittany) and Sarah (Kay Lenz) are off to college where they hope to pledge their mother’s sorority, Alpha Nu Sigma. The Alphas are the “best” house on campus led by queen bee Jennifer (Morgan Fairchild). Jennifer and her sisters see Patty as one of them, but abandon her shy sister Sarah at the refreshment table. Sarah finds her people in the brains of beauty house Phi Epsilon Delta. As Greek life progresses, Patty is forbidden to associate with her sister. The isolation from Patty forces the reclusive Sarah to bond with her sorority sisters, especially the even more timid Mouse (Tisa Farrow). Sarah has a dark secret: when she is angry or frightened she has telekinetic abilities which she begins to use to defend herself against Jennifer and the Alphas. Mrs. Hunter (Shelly Winters) has a secret of her own: she is actually a satanist and wants to mold Sarah into an instrument for her own revenge with deadly consequences.
Though quite tame in comparison to the theatrical horror films of the late ’70s, The Initiation of Sarah still manages to get some effective scares and be a quite entertaining watch with a cast full of familiar names and faces. Oscar winner Shelly Winters was the biggest name at the time, but Morgan Fairchild and Morgan Brittany would both become stars on the prime time soap opera Dallas. Kay Lenz, who was already an established working actress, would make a number of genre films including House (1986) and Stripped to Kill (1987). Tisa Farrow, Mia’s little sister, would have a short but memorable career, and is best remembered for Lucio Fulci’s Zombie (1979). And of course Robert Hays will forever be known as Ted Stryker, the ex pilot with a drinking problem in Airplane (1980). It is the actors that have to sell this thing, because there are minimal effects and the script is pretty pedestrian and derivative. Kay Lenz and Tisa Farrow have nice chemistry together, although they could have swapped roles with no problem, and Farrow may have been even better as Sarah, as Lenz doesn’t always feel as meek as she is supposed to be. As the satanic house mother (mother in more ways than one), Shelly Winters chews every bit of scenery she can find, and Morgan Fairchild plays Jennifer just over the top enough to make her a great villain without being unbelievable as a snotty sorority babe. She needs to be arch, because Sarah’s ultimate revenge is not pretty.
Arrow Video has given The Initiation of Sarah a Blu-ray release far above what one would expect for a made-for-TV horror with an impressive slate of extras.
Amanda Reyes, author of the definitive book on American telefilms Are You In The House Alone: A TV Movie Compendium 1964-1999, gives an exhaustive and thoroughly entertaining audio commentary on the film. Her tone is fun and conversational, and she does a terrific job of placing the film in context and giving all the great info on production, cast, and creators without it ever feeling like an information dump.
It is a tricky feat to be simultaneously silly and reverent, but the Gaylords of Darkness, Stacie Ponder and Anthony Hudson, manage this feat with the delightful celebration of the film on “Welcome to Hell Week: A Pledge’s Guide to the Initiation of Sarah.” The duo play up the campy elements of the film while also examining the lesbian subtext coursing through the relationship between Sarah (Kay Lenz) and Mouse (Tisa Farrow).
Australian film critic and author Alexandra Heller-Nicholas (The Giallo Canvas) gives us another thought provoking video essay with “Cracks in the Sisterhood: Second Wave Feminism and The Initiation of Sarah,” proving that even films as seemingly disposable as a TV movie attempting to cash in on the fad of satanic panic and the success of Carrie (1976) can still bristle with subtext when time is taken to explore beneath the surface.
“The Intimations of Sarah” is an interview with film critic Samantha McLaren (terrorintartan.com). She examines The Initiation of Sarah in the canon of telefilms, and as a Carrie knock-off born out of the success of the Brian De Palma screen adaptation of the Stephen King novel and its ratings impact when broadcast on CBS in 1978.
The Initiation of Sarah screenwriter Tom Holland (no, not that Tom Holland, this is the future director of Fright Night 1985, Tom Holland) discusses his early career as a struggling actor and screenplay writer who picked up The Initiation of Sarah script job after a failed treatment for V.C. Andrews’ Flowers in the Attic. He also touches on his post-_Sarah_ career, including writing the scripts for The Beast Within and Psycho II.
The disc also comes with an illustrated booklet featuring essays by Lindsay Hallam and Alexandra West, an image gallery, and reversible case with artwork by Luke Insect.
Although they were cheap, disposable time fillers for the networks, made to be consumed and forgotten, some made-for-TV films rose above their humble origins and have cult followings. It is great to see a film like The Initiation of Sarah get the respect it deserves on Blu-ray, especially when you figure in the three-network days of 1978. It was probably seen by more people than many a drive-in or grindhouse classic was ever seen on original release, so the notion of it being a cult film worthy of preservation and acclaim isn’t as wild as it may seem, and Arrow nails it with this disc. The entire package is a love letter to The Initiation of Sarah and the entire period of made-for-TV horror.