Film Reviews

The Initiation of Sarah (1978) – Blu-ray Review

Originally produced to air on network television, The Initiation of Sarah is a somewhat cheap, quickly produced horror film that was never intended to receive any kind of home release, but has somehow gathered a small cult following over the decades. And now it’s received a new Blu-ray release from Arrow Video, allowing a whole new audience to discover this strange movie.

The Initiation of Sarah begins with Sarah (Kay Lenz) and her adoptive sister Patty (Morgan Brittany) at the beach, enjoying some of their last moments together at home before heading off to college to start their next big step in life. However, when Patty is approached by a man who makes unwanted advances on her, and tries to force himself on her, he’s thrown into the sea by some unseen force, hinting that Sarah has some kind of powers. It’s at this point it becomes clear that this film is very much going to be cashing in on the popularity of Carrie, which came out just two years before.

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After this we watch as the two girls head off to start college, and we see that the two of them are very different. Patty is outgoing and determined, much like her mother, and has plans to join the Alpha Nu Sigma sorority like her mother did before her. Sarah, on the other hand, is a much more shy and withdrawn person. She dresses down, doesn’t feel comfortable around others, and tries to blend into the background rather than stand out. Despite these differences, Patty adores her sister, and tries to get them both into Alpha Nu Sigma. Unfortunately, the president of Alpha Nu Sigma, Jennifer Lawrence (Morgan Fairchild) only wants Patty, and rejects Sarah.

Luckily for Sarah, she finds a home in the Phi Epsilon Delta sorority house, which seems to be filled with other misfits and wallflowers. What Sarah doesn’t realise, however, is that Phi Epsilon Delta has a historic rivalry with Alpha Nu Sigma, and that Jennifer Lawrence has decided to use Sarah as her target. Jennifer wants to use Sarah as a tool to score points against the other sorority, as well as to break Patty and force her to toe the line. But when Sarah becomes the target of this bullying it begins to awaken her psychic powers.

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There’s no real way to talk about The Initiation of Sarah without comparing it to Carrie, and it is very much a ‘Carrie but in college’ story. It’s not hard to see why, as the 1976 movie was a huge hit at the time, and as with any hit there will be imitators close behind hoping to cash in on that success. However, where the Brian De Palma movie had some decent production values behind it, a solid script, and a big set piece to end on, The Initiation of Sarah seems to lack all of those things.

This is in large part down to the fact that this was not a major motion picture. It was not produced to appear on the big screen, nor was it a project that was given much time or money. The Initiation of Sarah was one of the many ‘movies of the week’ productions made by the ABC network, designed to fit into a free time-slot in order to fill gaps n schedules and perhaps draw in some viewers as the only time the film could be seen.

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And the film really does feel like a cheap TV movie because of this. The script is slow and meanders at times, there’s nothing different or interesting to look at as the film plays it safe visually, and it is filled with nobodies and TV personalities (with the biggest stars in the film featuring here before they actually became big names). It wasn’t until I was watching through the special features on the new release and they said that it was a made for TV movie that the poor quality of the film suddenly made much more sense to me.

Despite the less than stellar quality, there is some fun to be had with The Initiation of Sarah. The acting is decent enough, and you can tell that some of the folks here went on to do well in soap operas, thanks in part to how cheesy some of the scenes were. Morgan Fairchild, who plays villain Jennifer Lawrence, spends much of the film being arch and over-the-top, almost chewing the scenery when she’s being openly cruel, and it’s easy to see how she’d go on to flourish and become a star working on shows like Dallas. And whilst the script isn’t perfect there are some good moments, particularly one where Sarah calls out Jennifer’s actions. But, these are small moments of entertainment in an otherwise fairly lacklustre film.

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There are some special features on the disc, alongside the film, that make this an interesting watch. There’s a full length audio commentary from TV Movie historian and expert Amanda Reyes, who gives further insight into the film, as well as other TV movies and theatrical releases from the time and how The Initiation of Sarah was influenced by them. There are also a few special features that look at the movie from a queer and feminist perspective, a visual essay about the movie, and an interview with film critic Samantha McLaren, who looks at witchcraft, empowerment, and films influenced by Carrie. There’s also an interview with the film’s writer Tom Holland.

The Initiation of Sarah is a movie that will interest those who enjoy horror and don’t mind a bit of cheese to sit through. It will appeal to those who are interested in film history, and want to learn a little more about television movies and what place they had in cinema. However, casual viewers looking for a decent horror film to watch might be left wanting a little more.

The Initiation of Sarah is out on Blu-ray on 20th June from Arrow Video.

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