(This review of The Initiation was written to participate in the Final Girl Film Club! Do yourself a solid; go to Stacie Ponder’s Final Girl blog and check out what she and other smart and funny posters have to say!)
Today we’re going to take a hugely spoiler-iffic look at The Initiation, a 1984 slasher starring Daphne Zuniga before she got famous. I had a hard time deciding whether to go spoiler-iffic or spoiler-free for this review, but I’ve seen it three times now and each time I just like it even more, so I don’t think I’m going to ruin anyone’s viewing enjoyment too much by going into detail about the movie. All the same, if you don’t want any major plot points given away before you watch the movie, well, then, you may want to go watch the film on Netflix streaming first and then come back to the review.
The movie starts with a thunderstorm, and a pan across a little girl’s toys. Mutilated toys, to be specific; the dolls and teddy bears either have no heads, or are heads alone ripped from the bodies. So obviously, we know we’re in for a story with only perfectly normal, healthy people, with absolutely no characters who are violent psychopaths, right? Haha, just kidding! You know we’re in for the crazy! And what we watch next sure seems to bear this out: the little girl in the bed next to the toys wakes up and wanders down the hall, following the sounds of gasping and groaning to a room with a fireplace where a man and woman are making love on a big bed. Little girl watches the cavorting couple and their reflection in a mirror for a while, and then when they notice her, she’s stabbing the man with a knife that’s suddenly in her hand. Strangely, it doesn’t really seem to slow him down, as he gets out of the bed, struggles into his pants, and then wrestles with another man, this one fully dressed, who’s just come into the room. Stabbed Guy empties some sort of bottle of liquid onto Dressed Guy, which I guess is flammable, because when Dressed Guy staggers too close to the fireplace, he becomes Ignited Guy, while Stabbed Guy runs from the room. Little Miss Stabshine has apparently gotten the stabby out of her system; she whines “Mommy” and the woman picks her up and carries her hurriedly out of the room, just as the dream ends.
’Cause yeah, you knew it was a dream, right? Of course it is; it’s a classic way to set up important exposition in a movie while leaving important details unexplained or highly misinterpretable. Plus, the fact that it’s a dream means the filmmakers can get all trippy and surreal, which you know they love to do. Of course, what Kelly the dreamer wakes up to is also pretty surreal: her bed is surrounded by women in lingerie and makeup carrying candles and chanting “Delta Rho Chi, never will die!” (You will hear this more times in the next five minutes than you will hear the lyrics “Born in the USA” in Springsteen’s song of the same name, just to warn you.)
There’s a lot of exposition packed in here, so let’s go over it quickly: Kelly and her friends Beth, Marcia and Alison are pledging the sorority Delta Rho Chi. Beth is the practical one, Marcia is the virginal one, and Alison is the slutty one. Kelly Fairchild is our heroine whose father happens to be a department store magnate, which fits right into the plans of the sorority’s bitch “pledge trainer” Megan, whose plan for the sorority’s Prank Night is for the pledges to get into the big department store her father owns in town and steal the night watchman’s uniform, all the way down to his skivvies. Megan’s jealous of Kelly, you see, because Andy O’Connell is paying too much attention to Kelly (“sniffing around like you were a bitch in heat” is how self-described nymphomaniac Alison puts it) despite her not wanting or encouraging his affections. Be that as it may, Kelly agrees to get the keys to the building for the night in question, which Alison approves as “I hear that night watchman’s hung like a horse!” (Seriously? I could buy her being well-informed on the dimensions of the campus studs, but seriously, she knows what to expect of a randomly selected blue-collar worker? That’s some seriously close town-gown relationships there.) Just as the girls are falling asleep, Kelly confesses to Marcia that she had “that dream” again, so we know this isn’t a one-time thing.
For the next installment of exposition, the movie goes to Fireside Sanatorium, a mental institution that apparently uses One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest as a training film for its employees. The nurse threatens an old lady with loss of her dayroom privileges if she doesn’t stop vomiting in her trashcan, and makes a general announcement that patients who refuse their medication when the kitchen tries to give it to them (!) will be forced to receive their injections directly from her. Oh, and to complete the Bad Judgment trifecta, the nurse yells out the window at an inmate who’s tending to the garden… an inmate with a fire-scarred face, who stares up at her and stabs at the dirt with a three-tined hand fork. Nursie beats a retreat after the crazy folk ignore her demands to stop their noisy beating on the metal mesh walls. Of course, she won’t have to worry about getting bad marks on her next performance review; when she goes out to her car that night, someone has let out all those crazy patients – probably the same someone who stabs her repeatedly with the hand fork when she gets in her car to get away from the patients.
Over at the palatial Fairchild estate, Papa Fairchild (a.k.a. Stabbed Guy from Kelly’s dream) and Mama Fairchild (the woman from the dream) have just gotten the news of the inmate escape by telephone when Kelly comes visiting, forcing them to drop their elliptical conversation about it.
Then it’s back to the college campus for the introduction of a new major character and for more exposition. The new major character is Peter Adams, a handsome TA for Kelly’s psych class who’s doing his doctorate on dreams. See where this is going? Peter is just fascinated by Kelly’s … issues. Seems Kelly doesn’t just have a recurring dream, she has traumatic amnesia, from a fall from her treehouse when she was nine. Or at least that’s what Mommy and Daddy said, and they couldn’t be covering up something, could they? Peter and his bespectacled grad student Heidi can’t wait to hook Kelly up to the conglomeration of monitoring equipment they call “the Dream Factory” and measure her brainwaves during the next recurrence of her dream. (Though if I were Kelly, I’m not sure I’d trust Peter so much; a lot of his supposedly “profound” pronouncements on psychological matters are just vapid, or don’t even make sense. For instance, at the big frat party Kelly brings him to, later in the film, Peter says he wishes he’d known it was a “come as your favorite suppressed desire” costume party, because “I could have come as Freud, or Jung!” … Freud and Jung are suppressed desires now? Okay, his hypothesis that Kelly is always looking in mirrors in her dream because it allows her to manifest a desire, but observe it without actively participating, is pretty clever… but then when Kelly looks into a mirror, spookychicks (yes, that’s a verb now) and runs away, Peter’s response is to look into the mirror himself and pronounce pensively, “Mother … Father … mirrors.” Uh, yeah, Pete. That’s real profound insight, there.)
Speaking of Mother and Father, Kelly’s visiting them again, and they’re not so happy that she’s seeing Peter and doing these dream experiments. Or at least Mother isn’t; Father’s preparing for a business trip (in reality, it’s a trip to see a secret lover.) Kelly gets pissed off at her mom when Mom keeps putting down Peter, trying to make him seem unreliable and dubious, and then she gets deeply disappointed when she overhears her father on the phone with his illicit lover. Mr. Fairchild doesn’t have to worry about the damage his affair will do to his family relationships, however… because a stranger wielding a very familiar three-tined hand fork attacks him as he’s packing up the car, and if that isn’t what kills him, well, the foot-long chopping blade the stranger produces next surely is. Mrs. Fairchild, finding that her husband left his glasses behind, goes out the door just in time to see his car driving off the estate. “I swear,” she sighs, “that man would forget his head if it wasn’t attached.” Zing!!
Did I mention that out of the four sorority pledges, Alison is the nymphomaniac? Well, she’s a nymphomaniac. Her actress is also quite obviously the only one whose contract called for nudity, and they really do make the most of it: we get a pretty complete full-frontal view of her in the shower, and then again when she’s getting out of the shower and talking about the big frat party. On hearing that Kelly is bringing Peter as a date, and that she hooked him in with “a nightmare,” Alison exclaims “Interesting approach! I would have tried nymphomania!” Did I mention that Alison is a nymphomaniac?
The frat party is mostly an excuse to listen to some 80s rock by a band called Refugee, introduce a few more characters, and push forward a subplot or two. Marcia, Kelly’s sex-shy friend, actually has a date for the party… but it’s with Ralph “The Boner” Bonner, a would-be comedian wearing a head-to-foot penis costume. Despite telling him that he’s disgusting when he explains to her that he believes any girl who’s aggressive and enthusiastic in bed must be insincere and therefore a turn-off to him, Marcia seems to be having a good time… until he brings up the rumors he’s heard of her virginity, and offers to help her with the “problem.” That doesn’t go over quite as well. Kelly and Peter end up leaving the party early, talking about Kelly trying to make the most of her life by remembering everything that happens to her (get the irony? You know, with the amnesia and all?) and she and Peter end up liplocking.
Of course, movie ethics don’t prevent Peter from having Kelly as both a make-out partner and a research subject, and so soon she’s hooked up to the Dream Factory under hypnosis, and though Peter tries to prime her to talk about the fall from the treehouse, she starts talking about what really happened that night. Or, at any rate, throwing out disconnected words and phrases related to what happened that night: “Houston! Storm! My dolls – broken!” She denies breaking the dolls, but just as her story’s reaching the good part, in its own disjointed fashion – “Mommy! Daddy! Fire! Smoke, can’t breathe!” Mama Fairchild stomps in and demands the session stop immediately. Peter has no success in telling “Kelly Fairchild” to come out of hypnosis, but when he follows Mrs. Fairchild’s directive to call her “Kelly Randall,” it succeeds. Mama Fairchild shoos Kelly Whateverhernameis out, threatens Peter with arrest and/or dismissal from the school, but leaves rather than explain just what Kelly was talking about. Peter and Heidi think they know: they think Kelly actually did try to kill her father that night, and the Fairchilds are covering it up to protect the Fairchild name.
Finally, we’re at Prank Night. Kelly goes on ahead to case the building and make sure it’s possible to get in without everyone being arrested (“If anyone’s arrested, I want it to be you,” explains the ever-so-friendly Megan) and the rest are about to follow. At the last minute, Beth (remember her?) decides she’s not going through with Megan’s crazy plan. Sadly, her impassioned speech explaining why not seems a little off: she says she didn’t sign up for this “Girl Scout shit,” which doesn’t seem to describe anything we’ve seen this sorority do, and “pre-pubescent songs,” of which we’ve heard nothing unless it’s that “Delta Rho Chi will never die” chant from forty-five minutes ago … and then protests “We should be doing something instructive, something positive! Not breaking into a stupid department store!” which, while eminently sensible, sounds a whole lot more Girl Scout than what she’s protesting.
Anyways, Beth is out, but Marcia and Alison are still game, so off they go with Megan to the Fairchild Building… where unbeknownst to them, the fabled-ly hung night watchman with his pencil-style pornstache has already been stabbed to death with a familiar garden tool. Also waiting in the shadows in a car for the pledges to arrive are three fraternity boys: Andy (the one who’s been pursuing Kelly), Ralph of the giant penis costume, and Chad. They’re passing the time with a little drinking (“I really like paper bags around my booze… it just adds a certain je ne sais quoi” was a line from Ralph I found extremely amusing for some reason) and waiting to put into action Megan’s plans for scaring the shit out of each one of the pledges (Okay, I also found amusing the part where the three boys just stand around earnestly repeating the phrase “shit scared out of her” to each other.)
Kelly and the other two pledges have their own plan. Rather than trying to steal the uniform the night watchman’s wearing, they’ll simply get a spare from the guards’ lounge and Megan will never know the difference. This plan involves Alison deliberately getting Todd the night watchman’s attention (I’m not sure why, exactly, this is a good idea, but since Todd’s already dead the point seems moot.) This leads to some nice moments, and I’m not just talking about yet another bit of nudity from Alison as she changes tank tops with one of the mannequins; I’m referring to the display case of nasty, sharp knives she passes going one way… which we then see broken, with most of its contents taken by the killer, when she rollerskates by in the other direction a few minutes later.
Megan and her on-again off-again beau Andy, meanwhile, are on again, specifically, getting frisky on a stack of rugs. At least until Megan, teasing him, gets him all worked up and ready and then jumps off and runs away, leaving him to chase her with his pants around his ankles. Naturally, when Andy catches up with who he thinks is Megan, it’s actually the killer, who plants an ax down the center of his forehead. When Megan goes looking for Andy, she seems to recognize the figure she finds instead, who shoots her with a bow and arrow. (I appreciate that the department store is giving the killer a lot of opportunity to keep things fresh, killing with new weapons after making do with that garden tool for so long, but I can’t help but wonder: how is the killer carrying around all these weapons? Is there a shopping cart hidden just out of sight at each kill location containing the current arsenal?)
Kelly meets up again with Marcia, but even though they have the uniform, the door’s locked and it’s Megan who has the key, so they can’t get out. Instead, spotting Chad and Ralph disappearing into the shadows, they decide to try and sneak up on them and turn the tables with a good scare. Well, thanks to some pretty ugly rubber masks, it’s still the boys who do the scaring, but then they seem to regard their “scare the shit out of the pledges” obligation as fulfilled, and admit they’d rather join up with the girls now as they’re getting a bit spooked themselves.
Back at the campus, Heidi bursts in on Peter with several photocopied stories from back issues of The Exposition Times. From them they piece together what seems to be the true story: Kelly’s mother was the wife of one of Dwight Fairchild’s employees, Jason Randall, but she was having an affair with Dwight Fairchild – until the night Kelly tried to stab Fairchild and he accidentally burned her father while trying to get away. Randall, burned over 40 percent of his body, went insane and was put in the sanitorium, after which Frances Randall married Dwight Fairchild, but now Jason Randall is one of the seven inmates missing after the escape, and is being sought in connection with the death of the nurse. Peter, fearing Kelly is in danger and unable to reach her at the sorority house or at her family home, goes roaring off in his car.
Back inside the store, Alison has joined up again with the group, and everyone’s getting a bit toasted on the wine she’s brought with her. Alison makes a toast to “being young, staying young … and dying young.” Yeah, there’s nothing like a nice bit of subtle irony – and that there was nothing like a nice bit of subtle irony. Marcia then tries to make a toast which she messes up due to being tipsy, but when Alison makes some catty remark about it, Marcia takes offense and tells everyone the real reason she’s so sex-shy: she was molested and raped at the age of 12 by her violin teacher. Understandably, this rather kills the mood, and Marcia runs off.
I … have mixed feelings about this development. On the one hand, I applaud the filmmakers for trying to give these characters a depth beyond typical slasher movie machete-fodder. I respect that they’re doing something more sophisticated with their attitude to sexuality than the usual paradoxical “sex will get you killed but if you’re young and not trying to get it anyway, you’re either the final girl or something’s wrong with you” attitude of slashers.
But … Marcia’s revelation seems tonally out-of-place to me. Yes, we’re talking about a film where a lot of bad things have already happened and more are to come, but those bad things – being burned, going insane, being stabbed, beheaded or pierced through with an arrow – these are big, operatic bad things. Chances are, if you’re coming to this film to have a good time, you’re not going to be badly bothered by any of those operatic bad things, because chances are, it’s not very close to anything you or anyone close to you has actually experienced. The same really can’t be said for Marcia’s sad story of sexual assault.
(I can’t even rule out the possibility that the development might have worked, if it had just been directed and acted more believably. If someone else found the performance very believable, they may be offended that I didn’t – but I didn’t, and I can’t lie and say I did. As I watched Marcia staring off into space, her voice thin and trembling, choking on her words, I remained painfully aware at all times that I was watching a performance by an actress who had practiced these lines over and over, calculating how to deliver them for maximum effect. In fact, what I kept flashing back to was the “Oscar clip” scene in the movie Wayne’s World, which mocks the very tendency of movies to include such set piece performances. I just did not find Marcia’s speech as it was written or as her actress performed it to be believable as someone who’s truly telling a secret of this type for the first time, and I wish I didn’t have a basis for comparison, but there it is. Let’s just take it as read for now and move on.)
Anyways, we are after all in a slasher movie, so naturally, the group splits up. Ralph goes after Marcia, Alison and Chad go off to find the bathroom, and Kelly goes down to the guard console, telling Megan that they’re getting sick of waiting around all night and will she please just show up with the key so they can all go home already? Of course, we know that Megan’s been dead for a while, and pretty soon Alison finds the bodies of both the dead night watchman and Chad, who was with her just minutes ago, so understandably, she freaks out big-time. It doesn’t make it less stupid that, rather than sticking to Kelly like glue when she meets up with her again, Alison says she can’t face seeing the bodies again and stays at the guard console while Kelly goes to see the bodies for herself. But it’s at least a little understandable and hey, it does set up two very nice moments in quick succession, where Kelly finds in the bathroom not just Chad’s bloody body but “KELLY” written in blood on the mirror, and at about the same time, the killer finds Alison at the guard console and dispatches her with a knife. Alison’s helpless struggles turn on the PA system and broadcast her death screams through the building; ironically, the only people alive and not aware of the danger are Ralph and Marcia, who don’t hear it because they’ve found a bed and are at a Crucial Moment.
Peter makes it to the Fairchild estate, where he finds Mrs. Fairchild in shock; the police discovered her husband dead, two blocks from the department store. Peter tries calling the sorority again, and this time reaches Beth, who tells him that same building is where Kelly and the other pledges are. Peter tells Mrs. Fairchild to call the police and drives off after Kelly himself.
Ralph and Marcia are enjoying the afterglow of their lovemaking, and Ralph tells her a bit about why he feels compelled to always clown around so much and why his mother named him “Ralph.” He’s just talked her into a second round of horizontal tango, against not very much resistance, when the killer, wielding a speargun (boy, this is one really well-stocked department store!) shoots him in the back, killing him near-instantly. Marcia screams, and runs, and meets up with Kelly; the two of them manage to get into a freight elevator to get away from the killer, but it stops between floors. Kelly thinks they’ll be all right, that they can just wait out the killer until the morning, but then the killer drops in through the access panel in the roof of the car. Kelly manages to get the door open, but only she manages to get away; the still-unseen killer pulls Marcia back in just before the doors close, and while Kelly pries helplessly at the doors, she can’t open them with her bare hands, even to save poor Marcia screaming on the other side.
Kelly’s now the only one we know of left alive in the building with the killer – while trying not to be spotted, she spots the badly burned man from her “dream,” Jason Randall, dragging Marcia’s body along the floor. She climbs a ladder up to the roof, but he spots the movement and comes up after her, calling her name in a hoarse voice; she gets the drop on him and clubs him with a length of pipe, knocking him off the roof and several stories down to the pavement. Boy, is she going to be embarrassed when she finds out she’s his daughter!
Peter shows up, finds and recognizes the dying Jason Randall, and runs into the building, finding Kelly near the guard console. He embraces her and reassures her that although he knows she doesn’t understand, everything’s going to be okay. And it really does seem that way – until she pulls out a knife and drives it into his back! And holy smokes, that’s when the real Kelly shows up, having just come down from the roof! “Like looking in a mirror, isn’t it?” taunts Kelly’s double.
Terry (for so she is, though we only find out the name in the credits) is Kelly’s twin sister, and the one who really did the stabbing on the night of the storm. For that (and, one infers, for a general pattern of violent dipsy-doodleness manifested in all those mutilated dolls) she was locked away in the same sanitarium as her father, where her jealousy of her still-free sister grew and grew and grew. Jason Randall wasn’t the one who engineered the breakout from the sanitorium and killed all those people; he just concealed the bodies, trying to protect his crazy daughter. Now, Terry exults, he’ll be blamed for all the killings, and Terry will kill Kelly and take her place! “Now I’ll become you!” Terry exclaims in triumph, knife raised for the kill – which is when a bullet slams through Terry’s back, and she falls over. Mrs. Fairchild stands there, having just shot one daughter to save the other.
There’s not much to wrap up after that. We see Peter still alive on an ambulance gurney; I’d personally be trying to get him to the hospital right away to treat the knife wound in his back, but everyone knows the survivors in slasher movies need closure way more than medical care. Peter and Kelly gaze over at Mrs. Fairchild, until the police announce “It’s time to go,” and make her get in the back of the patrol car. Uh, what the heck?? That shooting was totally justified, seeing as it stopped an imminent murder! Kelly is the one who killed someone who actually wasn’t trying to harm anyone; if Mrs. Fairchild should go into the patrol car until the full circumstances are known, surely Kelly should too. But Kelly’s our heroine, so I guess that’s not happening. The credits roll to the tune of some of the least appropriate sax music I’ve ever heard; it sounds like someone took a love theme written for another instrument and transposed it without knowing a key change would be needed.
So how did I feel about The Initiation? I’ll be honest, I hugged it to my little heart. As someone who grew up during the big slasher boom of the 80s and for whom those films and their comforting ritual patterns will always hold nostalgia, I found that watching The Initiation was like coming home to a home I’d never been in before but knew anyways. Even looked out outside of the slasher tradition, it’s a well-constructed movie; each time I watched it, I saw more of how cleverly minor details point to things that have yet to be revealed.
And even more unusual for a movie like this: I liked the characters. Many slashers seem to operate on the theory that you’ll enjoy the movie more if the characters are unlikeable people whose deaths you can cheer for, and you’d think frat boys and sorority sisters would be easy to put in that zone of unlikeability. But even the worst of them, Andy and Megan, are really just sort of obnoxious at worst; even their awfulness is muted by an impression that they don’t mean to be terrible, they just don’t really think about how they affect others (and let’s be honest, is that really rare among kids of that age?) As for the others, I really quite liked them; I’d gladly have watched a whole movie about just Ralph and Marcia. Seriously, the movie made me like a guy who proudly carries the nickname “the Boner” and dresses in a giant penis costume. That’s some sort of accomplishment.
Ironically, one of the few characters who I don’t feel much affection for … is Kelly. It’s as if the movie said “She’s the heroine, so of course people are going to side with her,” and didn’t bother to give us any real reason to. Of course, part of why she doesn’t come across so well is that she wants the answers to her past, and her mother and (step-)father have to oppose that… and Kelly doesn’t really have any ammunition with which to fight that battle other than stubbornness and petulance. She comes across much better once they’re inside the building, and she’s actually able to do things like make a sane plan for getting the watchman’s uniform – she’s actually taking steps to affect her own destiny, not just complaining that things aren’t going as she wants them to. All the same, I laughed out loud when Kelly, confronted by Terry at the climax, whines at her “Leave me alone!!” Uh, Kelly? You may not know who this person is yet, but you just saw her knife your boyfriend in the back. I think you’ll get more good out of running from her than from whining to her.
So there you have it: The Initiation. If you need something to tickle your slasher bone and you haven’t seen this one yet, what are you waiting for? Try it out, and remember: Delta Rho Chi, will never die!