Other than pastels, Ronald Reagan, and some unfortunate hair styles, if there was one aspect of the ’80s which ended up signifying the decade as a whole, it was the slasher film. It seemed that every other weekend there was at least one title opening up at the box office which featured a collection of dimwitted youngsters being tormented by a masked killer out for some form of tortuous revenge. Certain titles, such as A Nightmare on Elm Street, became instant genre classics, establishing a blueprint and setting a standard which so many others would so desperately try, but fail, to meet. At the same time, others came and went without much notice thanks to a lack of originality in a crowded field. Anybody remember Pieces or Curtains? And then there were those, such as The Initiation, which befell the same fate despite a number of elements which, although unnoticed at the time, greatly set it apart from the bloody pack.
In The Initiation, Daphne Zuniga plays Kelly Fairchild, a college coed from a wealthy family who is in the final stages of pledging the sorority she plans on joining. Kelly comes from a wealthy family and has a good relationship with parents Frances (Vera Miles) and Dwight (Clu Gulager). However she can’t escape a recurring nightmare from childhood involving her, her parents, and a mysterious intruder. She recruits the handsome and caring doctoral student Peter (James Read) to help her sort out her predicament, but someone from the past seems intent on seeking revenge against Kelly by any means possible.
While it wasn’t paid much attention when first released, The Initiation offers far more than the average ’80s slasher did. One of the more surprising ways it managed this was in giving its side characters some surprising backstory elements. Any fan of these films knows that the boys and girls of these kinds of movies are meant to be fairly colorless with no discernible traits or purpose other than to have sex and die. Here, we have characters who are given some humanity, with one girl revealing how an early case of sexual assault made her apprehensive about having sex and the random class clown stating this his mother’s abandonment led his reliance on humor. Applause must also be given to the clever, if somewhat base, use of psychoanalysis as a background for much of the film’s central plot, which is a refreshing alternative to the typical killing for revenge motif. Additionally, the empty, sprawling department store after dark as the setting for the film’s third act proves a great setting for the majority of the murders to take place. Finally, it’s incredibly brave how The Initiation made the decision to feature a hero who comes to the rescue in the end, yet it ends up not being him who saves the day.
Where The Initiation truly gets things right is in its main character. Most lovers of slashers feel that the heroine is the actual centerpiece of the film. While the majority of these efforts usually present some pretty, usually unspectacular girl who’s presented as less carefree than her friends and therefore should be seen as worth rooting for. The Initiation’s Kelly is different and defies such stereotypes in a number of ways. To begin with, not many slasher movie heroines are interested in psychoanalysis. While some may roll their eyes and look at this as nothing other than a convenient factor in the script, it actually says a great deal more. The move shows that Kelly is far more active than most slasher movie heroines in that she is seeking to try and uncover what’s wrong with her. Despite being very wealthy, she’s incredibly down to earth and she also takes great initiative, going after what she wants instead of just waiting around and letting things happen to her. She’s well-matched with Peter, who also avoids being run of the mill by coming off as both smart and invested in Kelly as a person. Rather than being some dumb jock who wants to get into her pants, Peter is a caring man who genuinely wants to help Kelly with her plight.
Zuniga, in her film debut, brings the right kind of warmth and kindness to Kelly. The actress makes sure that she brings to life all the right qualities necessary of a slasher movie heroine, and as a result, the audience remains firmly by her side. Likewise, Read makes for a great love interest and makes it known that his character is drawn to Kelly not just for scientific or hormonal reasons, but because he genuinely cares about her. Miles’s character isn’t really given much to do other than sit around her mansion and drink, but she does it pretty well, while the always-underrated Gulager is once again underused.
After doing so much right, The Initiation opts for a twist ending that is something of a cop out considering it deviated almost entirely from what came before. That’s not to say that as an ending, it wasn’t fun and creative, especially for the day. It was. It just wasn’t the right ending for THIS film. Still, the tacked on conclusion doesn’t diminish the fun spirit of The Initiation and how it so valiantly tried to separate itself from the pack of ’80s slashers.
Besides the stunning transfer which truly enhances the viewing pleasure as well as the film’s original trailer, there are a pair of new interviews with a couple of the film’s supporting players as well as a commentary track from The Hysteria Continues.
The ’80s slasher classic that should have been, The Initiation is finally given its proper due.
The Initiation is now available on Blu-ray from Arrow Films.