Review: Sorority House Massacre II (1990)

Sorority House Massacre II

Directed by Jim Wynorski
Starring Gail Harris, Melissa Moore, Stacia Zhivago, Dana Bentley, Peter Spellos

Film scholar Carol Clover, in “Her Body, Himself,” makes quite a few generalizations about the stock characters who routinely inhabit slasher movies, defining the “Final Girl” (the lone female survivor) as “boyish, in a word.” She points out their masculine names (Laurie from Halloween and Stretch from Texas Chainsaw Massacre II are offered as examples) and their “apartness” – the way they seem to fall out of step with their peers by wearing masculine clothes and abstaining from sexual activity.  She writes that the Final Girl is “a congenial double for the adolescent male […] the male viewer may be willing to enter into the vicarious experience of defending himself from the possibility of symbolic penetration on the part of the killer, but real vaginal penetration on the diegetic level is evidently more femaleness than he can bear.” She states: “[Final Girls] are transformed males.”

There are a few problems with this point of view (the most obvious being the assumption that men cannot identify with female characters) but for the most part, she’s spot on. The Final Girl is frequently a boyish outsider who proves to be hardier than her female peers and less impulsive and irrational than her male ones, often dispatching the killer by “phallicizing” (in Carol Clover’s words) herself and stabbing him with a sharp weapon of some kind (a kitchen knife in Halloween, a machete in Friday the 13th Part II).

Slumber Party Massacre (written by Rita Mae Brown and directed by Amy Jones) is one of the first slasher films to make an attempt at feminist criticism, featuring a final girl who never once phallicizes herself and a memorable shot of the killer’s impossibly lengthy power drill descending between his legs. But while it succeeds in pointing out the misogyny and sexism inherent in popular slasher films, it never succeeds in transcending the genre, instead becoming another clichéd retread: male slasher stalks women, male slasher kills women, Final Girl defeats male slasher. Sorority House Massacre, written and directed by Carol Frank (assistant to the director on Slumber Party Massacre), is another attempt at feminist criticism, this time focusing on the phallic symbolism associated with knives and the easy adaptability of the male gaze. Once again, the film succeeds in referencing a few feminist critiques and concepts, but never comes close to being a feminist work (or even a remotely watchable one).

Sorority House Massacre II, on the other hand, never once allows itself to be mistaken for a serious slasher film, succeeding in achieving a level of ridiculousness so intense that it transcends the genre and manages to become metacommentary. Unlike Slumber Party Massacre or Sorority House Massacre, it manages to send up the genre while continuing to serve as titillation for its mostly-male audience. Its female characters spend most of the running time either nude or nearly so, and the screenplay never forgets this fact, making them race up and down stairs or get caught in heavy rain, providing such obvious objectification that it’s no surprise when one of them finds themselves stepping into a bear trap, effectively forcing viewers to make the connection between the treatment of slasher film actresses and the treatment of animals. A lengthy shower scene makes no attempt to hide its intentions: the camera pans up and down a young woman’s naked body for an uncomfortably long amount of time, effectively interrupting the film’s pace and forcing viewers to accept that this scene, like most shower scenes in popular film, serves no purpose to the advancement of plot or development of character.

In a recent interview, writer/director Jim Wynorski stated, “I was sitting around the studio with vacant sets and decided to write a picture around them […] Sorority House II was produced by Julie Corman and was done in seven days with no producer supervision. […] [I] wrote the script at a furious pace (a record for me – 33 pages a day over Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday), cast the movie on Friday (where I first met Peter Spellos, a recently arrived actor from New York), and started shooting on Monday for just six days while the Cormans were gone [on vacation in Europe]. […] The whole thing was so much fun because it was almost half improv. Peter and the girls added so much to the proceedings.” The use of leftover sets and ad-libs gives Sorority House Massare II a hurried, off-the-cuff feel, complete with mismatched outfits and very minimal set dressing and props. This unintentionally provides the film with a sense of unreality – it’s nearly impossible to immerse oneself in its characters when they’re obviously inhabiting an unfurnished movie set. This furthers the parody, allowing the film to refuse to take part in the “horror” aspect of the slasher genre.

But the film remains a slasher, mostly because Wynorski purposefully hits every beat of the formula, allowing the dialogue to wallow in unending clichés. The plot concerns itself with five sorority sisters and their first night spent in their recently-bought sorority house. A thunderstorm develops during the night, trapping them inside as their impossibly creepy neighbor, Orville Ketchum, appears to terrorize and murder them one by one. A flashback scene utilizes footage from Slumber Party Massacre to illustrate an incident that occurred in the house years before, effectively lampooning that film and its uneven feminist bent by making it painfully obvious that slasher films are all incredibly similar. Footage from one can be used to tell the story of another because the story, at its core, never changes. Wynorski becomes so bored with the ins and outs of the slasher formula that dialogue in the middle of SHM II is reduced to simple statements and commands, often utilizing tired, familiar phrases to move the plot ahead.

It’s between these moments of plot that SHM II shines. Sight gags abound as Orville Ketchum is presented as a walking stereotype, complete with an odd collection of bunny figurines and a habit of enjoying raw meat as a midnight snack. While the girls are being terrorized, two cookie-cutter detectives wander the city discussing the past murders committed at the house, but never elect to check out the scene. Instead, they visit a strip club to interrogate one of the survivors of the original massacre. The idea of a slasher film survivor working as a stripper is either a very pointed jab at the entire genre or simply an excuse to feature a few more naked women. Either way, one of the working dancers is mentioned to have starred in a film titled “Strip to Kill VII,” a reference to Slumber Party Massacre II itself –  a slasher-film-within-a-slasher-film six years before Scream would do the same with Stab, its own fictional movie.

Much like Sleepaway Camp II did a year earlier, SHM II manages to lampoon the genre while never losing sight of what makes it so popular – and effectively prompting its audience to wonder if movies like this are worth watching at all. Sleepaway Camp II‘s antagonist is a good-natured camp counselor who gleefully dispatches teenagers until there’s no one left to kill – an obvious parody of the Friday the 13th films and their neverending glut of decapitation and dismemberment. SHM II focuses on the offensive presentation of female protagonists with its over-the-top sexualization (at one point, a girl runs up a staircase, her nearly-naked behind pointedly illuminated by another girl’s flashlight) and stereotypical female characterization (the girls constantly bicker and fantasize about boys).

Of course, this could all be unintentional. Jim Wynorski has never shied away from the fact that he makes a living directing sleaze. SHM II, obvious surface-level parodic elements aside, may simply have been an excuse to film scantily-clad girls run up and down staircases.

But one observation sticks with me: Linda, the Final Girl, is the most feminine of the sorority sisters. Her name, wardrobe, and fear of scary movies, dark basements and Ouija boards firmly identify her as (stereotypically) female. Jim Wynorski (perhaps unwittingly) has bucked slasher movie trends, offering a deeply-layered critique of the genre simply by greatly exaggerating its base elements and ignoring its tendency to feature “transformed males.”

Sorority House Massacre II doesn’t revolutionize the slasher movie, but it manages to intelligently lampoon the genre and offer a few thoughts on the role of feminism in contemporary horror films. Its surface-level sense of humor hides much deeper ruminations on gender, phallicization, and the male gaze.

Links:

Netflix – Sorority House Massacre II
YouTube – Original Theatrical Trailer
YouTube – Complete Movie
Jim Wynorski Interview
Carol Clover’s “Her Body, Himself”

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