The Initiation of Sarah Blu-ray Review (Arrow Video)

Like Carrie, but in college

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3.7

The Initiation of Sarah is a made-for-TV movie from 1978 directed by Robert Day, who was no stranger to the ABC movie of the week special; he directed series and movies alike throughout the ’60s and ’70s, and even helmed a few episodes of Ghost Story/Circle of Fear. Here, the teleplay by Don Ingalls, Kennette Gfeller, and Carol Saraceno certainly has all the tropes of the watered down TV special, essentially reimagining Stephen King’s Carrie in a college atmosphere with an emphasis on sorority antics. Our beleaguered protagonist Sarah (Kay Lenz) attends a new college with her step-sister Patty (Morgan Brittany) but misses out on joining the family sorority Alpha Nu Sigma full of mean girls; she’s just too quiet and shy for head sister Jennifer (Morgan Fairchild), who instantly takes a disliking to Sarah if only because of these qualities. Unfortunately for Jennifer, Sarah has latent telekinetic abilities, and her sorority of misfit girls has a housemother (Shelley Winters) who wants to harvest those powers for a special Satanic ritual.

As stated previously, The Initiation of Sarah quickly resembles a Carrie knockoff, but Day does enough here to differentiate it slightly. Of course, the college atmosphere and focus on Greek life gives the film a noticeably different theme; in fact, Sarah is particularly more accepted in this film thanks to her clique of sorority sisters and close friend Mouse (Tisa Farrow), which bolsters the themes of sisterhood running rampant throughout the film. Sarah may get mocked and bullied by the girls of Alpha Nu Sigma, but she has the support of the rest of her sorority to give her a step up, even increasing her power and showcasing the confidence that she could have.

Since it’s made for TV, this is a noticeably bloodless affair, with the bulk of the psychic events being relegated to near-misses or “slightly more dangerous than falling down the stairs” events, like a scalding shower sequence that apparently forced Fairchild to go topless during shooting (and Day seems to have had a thing for Fairchild, as she also gets a fountain dunking in a skintight sweater that does not leave much of her bounty to the imagination). Still, The Initiation of Sarah has its share of cringeworthy moments at Sarah’s expense; there’s a devastating moment where Sarah gets eggs and mud thrown at her after thinking she’s going to a party with a hunky guy, and a brutal heckling by Jennifer early on where Patty has to swear she won’t associate with anyone at Sarah’s sorority. What it lacks in physical terror, The Initiation of Sarah makes up for in its psychological assault on Sarah.

Ultimately, it’s not hard to figure out where the film’s heading, and its somewhat slow pacing might feel like a slog (complete with the obvious commercial breaks to segment the acts). However, the climax offers a rather intriguing event where Winters’ housemother attempts to force Sarah to murder Mouse in a ritual that would exact revenge on the Alpha Nu Sigma house; Winters absolutely chews scenery, offering up something akin to Black Christmas’ Mrs. Mac except trying harder to hide the drinking problem. Even if viewers don’t love the tamer subject matter, Winters should give at least some level of enjoyment.

While The Initiation of Sarah has all the trappings of a TV movie, its successful ventures aren’t hampered by the enforced censorship. It still has a pretty good story and a number of great actors, and it makes for a fun viewing experience much like some of the classic horror TV shows of the time.

Blu-ray

Arrow Video has released The Initiation of Sarah on Blu-ray with a new 2K restoration from a 4K scan of the original camera negative, with its original aspect ratio of 1.33:1 framed for TV. The results are quite good, featuring strong detail even for fine textures and a fairly consistent color grading. Grain is medium-bodied, and there is almost no damage to the original negative. Occasionally there is some softness and color discrepancy in particular shots, but overall these are quite minimal and have little impact on the otherwise remarkable transfer. The film features few dark scenes, but any blacks are well-delineated. The Initiation of Sarah looks great on this Blu-ray, and there are no real quibbles with this transfer.

Audio is presented with a DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 mono track. The dialogue is strong and the orchestral score swells; the track is otherwise unremarkable, with no issues of note. English subtitles are also included.

Extra features include several new visual essays and appreciations of the film. Stacie Ponder (of the fantastic Final Girl blog) and Queer Horror programmer Anthony Hudson provide a fabulous appreciation of the TV movie with a smartly-edited 16 minute video companion; it’s a fun and funny look at the gay subtext in the movie, with tons of puns and genre references. A new visual essay from Alexandra Heller-Nicholas tackles feminism and sisterhood in the film’s sorority themes, particularly how it fits into the context of the Second Wave of feminism and its relation to the exploration of womanhood in the late ’70s. An interview with film critic Samantha McLaren examines the rise of TV films and The Initiation of Sarah‘s context within it, particularly with its relation to Carrie, its Satanic elements, its risque elements, and the queer-coding of Mouse. Tom Holland provides a brief interview about his initial treatment of the film’s story, which he admits is mostly not present in the final film except for the overall structure of the plot. Finally, a new audio commentary with self-professed TV film lover and expert Amanda Reyes adds some great critical analysis of the film and its importance to TV cinema as well as documenting her personal love for various elements of the movie. An image gallery (of rough quality) rounds out the extras on the disc.

Interestingly, there are no interviews with the cast of the film, which feels like a missed opportunity. Presumably none of the surviving cast was available for interviews; however, given the fact that both Lenz and Fairchild have previously appeared in other Blu-ray extras, it is a noticeable absence.

A booklet featuring two new essays is included in the packaging. The first is another look at the element of sisterhood at play in the film by Lindsay Hallam; the second focuses on the “outsider” trope and Sarah’s rise to power by Alexandra West. Reversible cover art is also included with a gaudy alternative design featured on the VHS.

Extra Features

  • NEW 2K restoration from the original camera negative by Arrow Films
  • High Definition (1080p) Blu-ray presentation
  • Original lossless mono audio
  • Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
  • NEW audio commentary by TV Movie expert Amanda Reyes
  • NEW Welcome to Hell Week: A Pledge’s Guide to the Initiation of Sarah, an appreciation by film critic Stacie Ponder and Queer Horror programmer Anthony Hudson, co-hosts of the Gaylords of Darkness podcast, celebrating the film through a queer feminist lens (1080p; 16:33)
  • NEW Cracks in the Sisterhood: Second Wave Feminism and The Initiation of Sarah, a visual essay by film critic and historian Alexandra Heller-Nicholas (1080p; 14:48)
  • NEW The Intimations of Sarah, an interview with film critic Samantha McLaren looking at witchcraft, empowerment, TV movies, and telekinetic shy girls post Carrie (1080p; 16:19)
  • NEW The Initiation of Tom, an interview with Tom Holland on this his first film writing credit (1080p; 8:58)
  • Image gallery (chapter breaks; 0:06)
  • NEW Reversible sleeve featuring commissioned artwork by Luke Insect
  • NEW FIRST PRESSING ONLY fully illustrated collector’s booklet featuring writing by Lindsay Hallam and Alexandra West

Verdict

The Initiation of Sarah is a perfectly fine TV movie that, in this reviewer’s opinion, is entertaining but does not rise to the level that some of the essays included on this release suggest. However, this Blu-ray from Arrow Video is certainly a great offering with a glorious new transfer and a bevy of additional content. If you’re a fan of TV movies or telekinetic thrillers, grab this one.

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