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January 21, 2017

‘Sorority Row’ offers stab at legitimacy for talentless Hollywood offspring

 It starts with an accidental death, followed by threats, gory deaths and a disguised killer. Sound familiar? These traits can be attributed to countless horror films made in the last two decades. Yet Stewart Hendler’s “Sorority Row” brings a few new elements into the mix, namely comedic timing and a strong (if unknown) female cast.

While many college students can understand the implications of a drunken prank gone wrong, it becomes a living nightmare for the sisters of Theta Pi. After a party, they aid their sister Megan (Audrina Patridge) in planning a prank on her cheating boyfriend, who ends up stabbing her, thinking she was already dead. Rather than risking prison, broken reputations and disappointed family members, the rest of group plans to cover up the gory act. They get away with the crime for months, until they start getting text messages from Megan’s phone. Hendler caters to his college-age audience, featuring numerous scenes of half-naked women, drugs, sex and heavy alcohol consumption. Upon further examination, maybe “Sorority Row” isn’t just another brainless horror movie filled with cheap and often cringe-worthy tricks.

 The cast is comprised of gorgeous young women and equally attractive male counterparts. The main characters are well-developed and easy to pick out in a typical campus setting. There’s Ellie (Rumer Willis), the weak nerd; Claire (Jamie Chung), the ditzy follower; Chugs (Margo Harshman), the hard partier and Cassidy (Briana Evigan), the good girl. One by one, the sisters are murdered in exceedingly gruesome circumstances. It’s up to the remaining girls to band together to protect one another’s reputations, relationships and lives. This must be accomplished while upholding Theta Pi’s values of “Trust, respect, honor, secrecy and solidarity,” creating a very potent sense of female empowerment.

Carrie Fisher, of “Star Wars” fame, also stars as the housemother, an equally strong woman in her own right who gets her chance to protect her girls from the hooded killer. Fisher undoubtedly hands the title of “scream queen” over to Willis, who offers a constant soundtrack of grating, blood-curdling screams. Willis, as the offspring of former Hollywood power couple Bruce Willis and Demi Moore, doesn’t have much to offer in the thespian realm, but her sniveling character provides a worthy foil for the film’s de facto villain, Jessica (Leah Pipes).

Along with Evigan, Pipes steals the show. She provides a critical comedic element that helps set “Sorority Row” apart from its peers. Her cutting remarks and witticisms drift from the genre’s often dark and humorless overtones. Whether humor is a coping mechanism or something even darker on her part, Jessica succeeds in making light of the situation at hand. Throughout, she’s always looking for number one – a trait indicative of her status as the typical shrewish sorority girl.

Contrasting with Pipes is Evigan, who is depicted – more or less – as the group’s moral compass. She shows tenacity as her character struggles with the situation and takes on the role as the group’s level-headed leader. Cassidy must put others ahead of herself and grapple with the consequences of her actions, a trait that everyone must someday come to acquire.

Overall, “Sorority Row” is predictable. As a remake of the 1983 gorefest “House on Sorority Row,” the film follows in the trend of other remakes from the golden age of slashers, such as 2008’s “Prom Night.” It becomes evident quickly which of the characters are the “good guys” and which are not. Otherwise,Hendler (whose 2003 film, “One,” captured plenty of audience acclaim at the Sundance Film Festival) keeps the audience guessing about the identity of the killer until the very end. At alternating moments in the film, many of the characters are implicated in the horrendous slayings.

The plot of “Sorority Row” is not hard to follow, nor is it very deep; at times (especially in the opening scenes) the camera work even seems downright shoddy. But, it is at least an entertaining movie and one that’s not overly serious.

The banter between the sisters keeps the movie flowing comfortably and makes it easy to relate to. Hendler tells a story that could happen to anyone, anywhere (within reason). There are many aspects of “Sorority Row” that, if further expanded on, could have added depth to the sisters’ individual story archs. However, there are too many subplots at once or some smaller plots left without resolution to lend “Sorority Row” any reassuring measure of dramatic catharsis.

As it is, “Sorority Row” is not a serious contender for the title of world’s greatest horror film, but, if truly considered, it is a movie that shows both the weaknesses and redeeming qualities of human character. If all else fails, it’s also a flick with just enough gore and comedy to keep its audience fairly entertained for just under two hours.

 Kate MacDonald can be reached at kaitlynm@student.umass.edu

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