Wicked Wendesday

Wicked Wednesday: Crimes of Passion: Voice From the Grave (1996)

I love Unsolved Mysteries. I love the original episodes (Robert Stack is my MAN), the podcast, the Netflix reboot… All of it. I love it.

When I learnt that the show had turned some of its segments into TV movies, it was Christmas and my birthday all in one. Even better? They’re free on one of FilmRise’s YouTube channels. Typically I’d save this for Made for TV March, but I’ll be damned if I wait a year to watch these!

Voice from the Grave tells the sort-of true story of a young singer and nurse named Terry. One night she’s brutally murdered by an unseen man. The death is traumatic, and while it happens, one of her coworkers sees visions of the act. This coworker, Renee, soon finds herself at the centre of a series of unexplained events.

Following Terry’s death, Renee sees further visions of what happened that night. They unsettle both her and her husband, Bill. One day, she eventually sees the killer’s face and realises the killer is Adam, who works at the same hospital as Renee, Terry and Bill.

Renee accidentally gives away that she knows that Terry is the killer. He’s astounded that she knows but tries his best to make her look incompetent and ‘crazy’.

Through Renee, Terry conveys a message to Bill that she wants the couple to go to the police. Bill seems certain that his wife is mentally sound, but is clearly reluctant to let other people judge her for it.

Eventually, they decide to the police. Detective Stachula isn’t entirely convinced by their story until Renee reveals a vital clue kept from the public: Terry wasn’t sexually assaulted during the crime. He looks into Adam and learns that the man both had a rap sheet and lived close to Terry.

When Renee reveals another important clue, it’s up to the police to handle it in a way that will get Adam prison time. But can they do it? Will Adam walk free or will Renee’s story and Terry’s words mean more?

This case reminded me of Arne Cheyenne Johnson case in some ways. Can the spiritual world provide compelling evidence in a court of law? It turns out it can.

The movie itself is okay. What sets it apart is the fact that it’s based on a truly unusual and unexplained case. It remains mostly faithful to the facts of the case. What really happened that led to ‘Renee’ knowing the facts of ‘Terry’s’ murder?

Sometimes the film tries to utilise a faux documentary style where some of the characters speak to the camera as if being interviewed. It’s used too infrequently that it’s jarring and not at all successful.

There were changes made from the original story, perhaps to protect the people involved, but more than likely to just get a white cast. Victim Teresita Basa was originally from the Philippines, as was Remy Chua, who helped solve the case. It was a shame that their stories were whitewashed. Many of the details, however, remained the same. Allan Showery moonlighted as a TV repair man and was eventually caught thanks to the tips from Remy Chua.

There are books that cover this case, and they’re probably (hopefully) a bit more faithful to the true story than this film. TV movies ultimately have to be entertaining, which therein lies the problem of making someone’s pain and grief “entertainment”.

A personal ranking of Dario Argento’s films

Dario Argento has to be one of my top favourite directors of all time. His blending of the horror, fantasy, mystery and thriller genres is exactly what I love.

In the month of May, the BFI has been screening Dario Argento’s films. I’d seen quite a few of his films in cinemas before, but this was a great chance for me to see some more of his films on the big screen. What made this season particularly exciting was that they included some of his movies that usually don’t get the same amount of love as his classics.

I’ve not seen all of the maestro’s work. He’s consistently worked for much of his life. Though I now feel like I’ve seen enough of them for a ranked list. Because who doesn’t love a good list? I look forward to revisiting this list in a couple years’ time and being embarrassed by it.

13 Due occhi diabolic (Two Evil Eyes) (1990) co. directed by George Romero

It seems wrong to list a film made by two of my favourite directors so low, but Two Evil Eyes doesn’t work for me. I love Poe deeply and have watched many adaptations of his stories. Roger Corman’s Poe Cycle is near perfect to me, so I’m biased here. While this might not technically be the worst film on the list, it didn’t make me feel anything. That’s a pretty big sin if you ask me.

George Romero and Argento collaborated before on Dawn of the Dead. That is easily the much better project.

12 Occhiali Neri (Dark Glasses) (2022)

An alright entry. The cinematography is so close, dark and claustrophobic, I couldn’t enjoy it. However, I saw this at FrightFest and got free sunglasses. So that’s a bonus. The excellent soundtrack from French musician Arnaud Rebotini gives it the edge over Due occhi.

Also, what’s with the Italians and eyes?

11 Phenomena (1985)

I know, I know. A controversial placing. The Jennifer Connelly-led supernatural horror is a hit amongst a majority of fans. However, I struggled to “get” this one. Hopefully one that I will come to understand in the future with repeated viewings.

10 La Sindrome di Stendhal (The Stendhal Syndrome) (1996)

For years, bad reviews made me reluctant to watch Argento’s later work. I took a gamble and bought tickets at the BFI to watch this. What I saw was both a pleasant surprise and a bit of a mess.

The film begins with a young police officer who suffers from Stendhal Syndrome, a disorder where a person experiences intense symptoms while looking at a piece of art. Following an assault, the officer’s personality begins to change, and she becomes determined to find her attacker.

It’s a very solid film in the first two acts (very dated CGI aside). However, it begins to feel long towards the end, which makes the reveals less surprising and impactful. The viewer has too much time to figure out where we’re going.

9 Non ho sonno (Sleepless) (2001)

As with The Stendhal Syndrome, I was cautious to watch this turn-of-the-millenium giallo. I was pleasantly surprised at how solid it is. It certainly doesn’t do anything new, and some of the reveals feel a little too familiar, but for anyone not overly-familiar with Argento’s work, there’s no way you could tell.

Call me a sucker for good set pieces, but his one has some of Argento’s best. It’s worth turning this one on just to watch the opening sequence involving a train. Goblin’s soundtrack is also VERY, very good.

9 Il gatto a nove code (The Cat o’ Nine Tails) (1971)

This is one of Argento’s messier gialli. The mystery isn’t my particular favourite. But it does have my favourite character.


7 Inferno (1980)

I really enjoy this weird little film. Visually and thematically, this is the follow-up to Suspiria in the director’s Mother of Tears trilogy. They’re some of his most mystical films, and I love them for that.

The scene where she’s in the water looking for her keys? Will haunt me for life.

6 Opera (1987)

Opera is a stunning film. The sets used in the opera are fantastic. Apparently Argento was meant to be directing his own version of the Macbeth opera in real life, but it never came to fruition. This is clearly where he got to live out his dreams.

The film is tense and wicked. If you’d have asked me a month ago, I’d have listed this in my top four. However, having watched it at the BFI, I found issues with it that I hadn’t before. The ending is surreal, but it’s another where I feel like it goes on for a little bit too long.

Those death scenes though…utter perfection.

5 4 mosche di velluto grigio (Four Flies on Grey Velvet) (1971)

A very solid giallo, but one that doesn’t stick with me as much as Argento’s other masterpieces. There’s a great cast of characters here, though, which I think is one of its strengths.

4 Tenebrae (1982)

A bananas, bananas film. This is maybe the third most rewatched out of his films, and I continue to be thrilled by it. The ending is the most iconic out of any film on this list.

3 L’uccello dalle piume di cristallo (The Bird with the Crystal Plumage) (1970)

Dario’s directorial debut would introduce viewers to what would become some of his signature themes: forgotten memories, trauma, and madness. There are hints of Mario Bava in it, which helps elevate it to a stylish level. The fact that this was his first film is astounding. Perfection.

2 Suspiria (1977)

There’s nothing I can add to the discussion around this film. It’s stunning, surreal, evil, magic, THE ABSOLUTE BEST (well, minus my number 1 pick). I’ve seen this movie about half a million times, and I could never tire of it. A dance school with witches? The best idea Daria and Dario could have come up with.

Goblin’s score is God’s greatest gift to this earth.

1 Profundo Rosso (Deep Red) (1975)

The obvious choice. But I’m a girl who loves mystery, crazy reveals, hidden clues and blood. Sue me. And while Suspiria‘s soundtrack is perfect, I think some of Goblin’s pieces here beat it.

It lacks the technicolour magic of Suspiria, but it does have Daria Nicoldi. She and David Hemmings have charming chemistry on camera, and that shouldn’t be overlooked. When I first saw this movie, I couldn’t stop talking about it for days.

And when I say days, I mean years. I still can’t stop talking about it.

Wicked Wednesday: Beyond the Gates of Hell (2022)

My reluctance to watch any movie longer than 90 minutes really bites me in the ass sometimes.

This week, I really wanted to watch whatever jumped out to me that was short and free for streaming. Some of these new indie movies really have fantastic poster art. The work on Beyond the Gates of Hell‘s poster really drew me in.

I should have guessed by the title, but it turns out this 40-minute film is an attempted homage to the great Lucio Fulci and his Gates of Hell trilogy. Though, honestly, I’m not sure Fulci would be super flattered by this.

A couple arrives at their new home, and the real estate agent tries buying it back from them. They reject her offer, despite learning that it has been the site of several murders in their basement.

The guy isn’t bothered. The woman is. The woman wants the house blessed. Her daughter gets killed in the basement. The man meets a weird woman while in the shower. Some lady tells them that their house is built on one of the seven gates of hell.

It’s just a series of quick events that really aren’t well put together at all. Honestly, if you aren’t familiar with Fulci’s films, you’ll be doing a lot of guessing. (I mean, you’ll be doing that anyway because nothing is ever fully explained.)

The runtime is so short. Even bringing it to a full hour would have been helpful.

This just didn’t work for me. It’s one of those films with the faux film grain effect to make it look older. But it’s obviously set in the modern day and even references 1981 as being decades before. This tactic is used by filmmakers to give their movie any semblance of an aesthetic. It just doesn’t work for me anymore. It makes me feel cynical. I’ve over this attempt at nostalgia. I can’t like something just because it’s based on something I love!

It’s clear that this movie was made on a budget. I get that a lack of funding can really hamper you sometimes. But having seen what other, more imaginative kids have done in their own homes, I don’t buy this as an excuse anymore. You can create movie magic with nothing. The kills are so fast they’re literally just quick cuts. What’s the point in emulating a Fulci film if there is no blood?

The Beyond is a fantastic and mystical horror movie. Beyond the Gates of Hell is just a run-of-the-mill, forgettable blip. Watching this made me feel like a grouch. Sorry to anyone involved. I’m sure you had a good time! Almost every other review is much more pleased than I am. Perhaps I just need a drink…

Wicked Wednesday: Not of This Earth (1957)

A Roger Corman movie is like a warm hug. His early sci-fi and horror films are low-budget and often a bit kooky, but they contain a certain charm that is unique to him.

Not of This Earth is a late 50s sci-fi movie involving an alien in dark glasses who drinks the blood of his victims. Probably not what fits until most people’s description of something that is charming, and yet it is.

“Mr Johnson” is an alien from Davanna, a planet experiencing a strange blood disease that is killing them off. He’s been sent to Earth to find a cure for his people. Donning black glasses, a trilby and a briefcase, Mr Johnson isn’t exactly inconspicuous. But he has the powers of mind control on his side.

He arrives at a doctor’s office one day, demanding that he be given a blood transfusion while forgoing a blood test. The nurse, Nadine, insists it isn’t possible. However, after working his powers on Dr Rochelle, Mr Johnson gets the blood he needs. He also insists that Nadine come to live with him as his live-in nurse who can give him regular transfusions.

Nadine arrives at Mr Johnson’s house later, a bit bemused by her new working situation. She learns that Mr Johnson has employed a young ruffian named Jeremy as his chauffeur. Both kids are suspicious of their employer’s strange habits and rules, including not entering this cellar.

One day, Nadine gets the opportunity to break that rule. When Mr Johnson and Jeremy leave one day, she heads into the cellar. Little does she know that the furnace is burning a body alive. She quickly grabs a jar, which she later brings to Dr Rochelle.

Dr Rochelle studies the compound in the jar and realises it contains vitamins both known and unknown to humans on Earth. Realising that people are onto him, Mr Johnson knows he must go on the attack.

But his plans are interrupted by the arrival of another alien from Davanna. She tells him of the desperate situation back home, which he feels compassion for. He helps her get a blood transfusion. But he unwittingly gives her the blood of a rabid dog, and she soon dies.

Panicking, Mr Johnson sends an alien to kill Dr Rochelle. He also kills off Jeremy and forces Nadine under his control. He convinces her that she must send herself to Davanna as a subject for their blood tests. She’s nearly at the portal when Mr Johnson dies in a car crash during a chase.

During his funeral, Nadine and her boyfriend debate whether or not they feel any sympathy for the alien. And it’s the moral that viewers are left with. While something might seem horrific, who wouldn’t do anything to protect the ones they love?

One of the strengths of this B-movie is the actors. Leads Paul Birch and Beverly Garland are great. Birth doesn’t give a one-note alien, he allows us to feel sympathy for a villain. Garland is just a fantastic heroine to root for. Also, Dick Miller has a cameo (of course) as a door-to-door vacuum salesman that is just excellent. He can’t help but steal the show every time he’s on screen.

Of course, this isn’t a perfect movie. It shows its budget. The cheap effects don’t bother me. I love them, in fact. But certain areas of the editing are a bit clunky, like we’re watching an extended TV episode. But the runtime isn’t much longer than one, so it’s a good pairing with the film it was originally distributed with, Attack of the Crab Monsters.

Short film round-up (because I’m tired)

Whoo-ee. Keeping up with writing these days is the hardest thing. My brain has zero power left after work. Watching films for fun? Doesn’t really happen. Unless I’m getting my ass into a seat at the cinema, I’m too zonked to stay attentive.

However, short films have saved me.

I’ve really grown fond of finding indie horror filmmakers like Kane Parsons on YouTube. Just kids making magic with the little resources they have. It’s a right of passage to make movies with your pals, but these are miles better than the Jackass Juniors skits me and my pre-teen pals made. These movies are truly why the Internet is a Good Thing.

While browsing Letterboxd one night, I saw a poster for a short film that I knew I had to track down.

“What Did You Do?” (2022)

One evening, a young man, Jack, is watching TV when it’s interrupted by a strange series of strange images. Amongst them is a pair of people telling the viewers to praise Bob. Who’s Bob? Presumably the grinning bald man that flashes the peace sign.

After seeing the images, Jack goes online and sees that other people have also seen Bob’s message. Though it isn’t just a strange film or a momentary hijacking of the TV’s satellite. Soon after, a second set of images appear on the TV. This causes Jack to get up and fish out a knife.

When Jack’s pizza arrives, the poor essential worker gets the knife to the neck. But Jack is only carrying out what Bob said to do. When a friend arrives at his house, he learns that Bob has a lot more followers than just him.

The budget here is obviously minuscule, but the work done to create the unsettling series of images is really great. This very much reminded me of the Max Headroom incident, which equally makes me feel uncomfortable every time I watch it. At least in this short film, we get to know the true meaning of the messages.

We’re all glued to our screens all the time, but what messages are we really consuming?

“DON’T” (2022)

Scaring yourself can be fun. It’s also a double-edged sword once you realise the movie has got you so scared that you can’t even get up to turn on the light.

While sitting alone one night, Nick gets a call from his friend. There’s someone standing outside his friend’s window. In and of itself, probably not the worst thing to happen on a Friday night. Though it soon becomes clear that it’s making Nick’s friend really paranoid. Nick realises that there’s someone outside his house, too. His friend initially claims that the figure looks like Nick, but then it looks like the friend’s father.

When he hears his friend scream on the other end of the line, Nick begins to panic. He quickly closes everything up in his home.

Nick heads upstairs to where it should be safe, only to see a horrific figure waiting for him, calling his name. This part made my toes curl. It might just be a blanket and a phone, but ho-boy, it got straight under my skin.

“DON’T” parallels the story structure to “What Did You Do” in many ways, and they both end in a similar fashion: a news report of how the world has suddenly gone to hell.

I really enjoyed Ross’s short films. I 100% wouldn’t be surprised if he’s Midwestern. He’s just got that weirdo vibe about him that we all have. (And I mean this in the most affectionate way possible.) A side-effect of small towns and nothing to do. And if not? If not, he can be an honorary member of the club.

There’s something so magical about watching someone put something together with nothing more than a camera and good pals. Keep doing it, man. Thanks for giving my night great entertainment.

Wicked Wednesday: The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires (1974)

In 2022, one of my goals was to watch more Asian films. It’s been really rewarding, as I’ve been able to explore the wildly diverse genres of J-horror, Indian action films, Korean dramas and (most recently) Hong Kong martial arts films.

It’s really good luck that I have a coworker who enjoys films that are pure fun. He provided a recommendation that sounded absolutely up my alley: a Hammer and Shaw Brothers co-production on a vampire/martial arts film. I was just pleased that this movie even exists!

Both studios are iconic in their home country/region and actually share some similarities. For one, neither did many films set in the contemporary era. They instead both preferred historical settings: Hammer favouring the 19th and early 20th century, Shaw Brothers much further back to times such as Ancient China. And yet, it sounds like the entire exercise was a failed experiment. Unfortunately, that’s abundantly clear from the film, which is plenty “okay” but doesn’t deliver something as good as it should have been.

In 1804, a monk visits Castle Dracula. There he begs for the count’s help. The monk is a priest at the Temple of the Seven Golden Vampires. The vampires are slowly losing power, and he needs Dracula’s help to resurrect them. Dracula agrees, but he is unable to leave his castle. So he uses his powers to take over the monk’s body.

A hundred years later, Professor Van Helsing is lecturing at a university in China. He tells the story of seven vampires who raised an arm of the dead to terrorise the locals. Only one farmer managed to kill one of them with an amulet (presumably) blessed by Buddah. None of the professors in his audience seen interested in his tales of an unknown village being terrorised by vampires. All of them walk out bar one – Hsi Ching.

Ching believes Van Helsing’s tales because the village is his ancestral village and the farmer was his grandfather. He asks Van Helsing to go with him to the village and get rid of the vamps for good.

A crew is assembled including Van Helsing’s son, a wealthy Nordic widow and Ching’s seven siblings. They make their way to the village, where they face the (sort of) ultimate showdown between the vampires and Van Helsing’s old foe.

The plot is simple enough, but there’s just something missing in all of it. Not silly enough. Not enough martial arts. Not enough focus on what it’s trying to be. But I will say, the design for the vampires and their undead army was really good. The movie was made in Hong Kong and really benefits from the gorgeous sets and locations.

It wasn’t all too uncommon for films in this era to have different cuts and scenes depending on the market it was being released for. The States was particularly bad at cutting foreign films to bits. Dawn of the Dead, for example, has both a Romero cut AND an Argento cut. For 7 Golden Vampires, there are three known versions of the film: the British one at 90 minutes, a much shorter US version at 75 minutes, and the extended Hong Kong version. For the latter, director Chang Cheh was brought on to film additional martial arts scenes.

Honestly, it’s a bit shocking that no one from Shaw Brothers was on set to help with the initial fight scenes. They’re pretty average-to-messy. It’s really disappointing when you know talent like David Chiang is involved.

That being said, Hammer shows off some of their usual good tricks here. Peter Cushing remains fantastic in his reoccurring role of Van Helsing. The colours are an absolute dream to look at. They reminded me very much of Mario Bava’s 60s work.

The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires wasn’t as good or silly as I wanted it to be. I think that’s the case for everyone involved as well. That being said, I’m sort of desperate to see the extended Hong Kong version.

Wicked Wednesday: The Initiation of Sarah (2006)

The 2000s were obsessed with horror remakes. Almost no film left the decade unscathed. Some were successful both critically and financially (Dawn of the Dead) while others were…not (Pulse). But there was clearly an appetite for it with audiences – even if there were plenty of complaints from genre fans.

The 2006 remake of the TV movie The Initiation of Sarah comes off like TV pilot more than anything else. Though it treads new ground, it’s not exactly a place we wanted to go.

Like the original, the story is about two sisters who are going to college for their freshman year. In this version, however, we have biological twins. Sarah, the angsty Avril Lavigne type, and her mumbling, sweet twin Lindsay are both vying to get into the sorority their mother was in, Alpha Nu. Sarah isn’t into it, being catty towards the other initiates. Lindsay, on the other hand, is desperate to have a chance to make friends.

Both sisters receive invites to Pi Epsilon Delta, the Alpha Nu rivals, but Lindsay seems determined to follow in her mother’s footsteps.

In the meantime, Sarah meets Dr Hunter, the house mother (or something), of Pi Epsilon Delta. Dr Hunter reveals that both she and Sarah have powers. She’s willing to teach Sarah to use them. Oh and the two sororities are pitted against each other in a battle of good and evil. The Alpha Nus are life-stealing hags who possess the ability to live forever. And apparently, with everlasting life, they would just like to hang out at college, please.

Unlike the original film, which had a dash of paranormal powers a la Carrie, the supernatural is amped up to the nth degree. All the girls are basically witches, throwing spells at each other and throwing around magical daggers. It’s…something. Especially with some low-tier CGI thrown in. What their powers are or why they have them isn’t totally clear, but the Alph Nus definitely want “the One” – the girl they can sacrifice to retain their youthfulness.

There was so much random plot going on that I was checked out. While the original didn’t give enough, this remake gave too much. It really didn’t make complete sense to me, but I guess that’s what I get for thinking more about food during my viewing than the finer points of why Sarah had to have sex with that guy to save him from being sacrificed. (Like…are all virgins sacrificed? Why so many sacrifices? Why do they NEED sacrifices if the One is supposed to be, well, the One!)

Some of this was campier, but just not enough for it to be fun. I was bored. It wasn’t a good time. For god’s sake: Jennifer Tilly and Morgan Fairchild are in this! Why wasn’t there an ultimate bitch showdown between the two?? In general, I wasn’t buying any of the relationships in this story. The sisters had no chemistry. The sorority sisters had no chemistry. The love interest had no chemistry with Sarah. It was just all so…bland.

And there was a touch of character development in the original. The girls here are just blank stereotypes. While there was a clear “good vs evil” here, it felt like you couldn’t root for a single one of them.

But the biggest disappointment was the ending. It went out like a fart. The ending for the 1978 version made me gleeful. It was so horrible, yet fun in the most TV movie sort of way. Easily the highlight of the entire story. Here? Well, the girls form up a squad of sorority sister killers. What a gas! I’m glad the audio cut out on the version I was watching for I could bear no more…

Ultimately, while I didn’t love the original very much, it was more tolerable than this dated nonsense. I’m ready to just forget this one and move on to April, where the theatrical movies live.

Wicked Wednesday: No Place to Hide (1981)

I’m thinking it’s maybe time to hang up Made-for-TV March.

Obviously I’m not serious, but when I read the synopsis for No Place to Hide, I had major déjà vu. A young artist is stalked and hardly believed? That’s the plot to Are You in the House Alone? I was even more perplexed when I realised this also starred Kathleen Beller!

Alas, despite the surface similarities, the two films are hardly alike at all. Where Are You in the House Alone is quite a serious look at assault and the suffering of victims, No Place to Hide is campier with more of the hallmarks of light-hearted TV thrillers. The villains are more cartoonish and the story is sillier.

And I liked it.

Art student Amy has been dealing with a stalker for a while. She keeps seeing a man following her, but the police don’t believe her. In the opening scene, she sees a man in the back of her car. The man tells her, “Soon, Amy. Soon.” But when someone checks the car for her, it’s empty. The police chalk it up to her imagination again.

To help with Amy’s credibility, her stepmother Adele suggests Amy see a psychiatrist to get the all-clear. Amy reluctantly agrees and meets with the young Dr Letterman. Shortly after their first meeting, Amy receives a funeral wreath with a note that says, “Soon, Amy. Soon.”

When Amy and Adele go to the florist to question him, he insists that it was Amy who ordered the wreath. Amy becomes perplexed and uncertain of her own sanity, but she still feels convinced something else is going on. She’s right, though, and that night at school, she’s pursued by the shadowing man again.

Following a discussion with Dr Letterman, Amy decides to go to the cabin where her father died the year before. Though initially planning to go on her own, Adele joins. They have a nice time until Adele is called away. Lo and behold: while Amy is away, strange things begin to happen again.

Amy is eventually attacked and left to die on the river. But is she dead? Will her attackers ever be found guilty for their crimes?

That’s what the last thirty minutes or so of this film make you wonder. And this is when the momentum comes to a screeching halt. Without Amy, the story kind of meander. It really slows the pace and kills any sort of suspense. It definitely feels like they padded the wrong parts out. Let our villains get their comeuppance in 15 minutes or less, please.

However, I really did like this one. Beller is so magnetic on screen. While her character wasn’t as fleshed out as hers in Are You in the House Alone?, you still want to root for her. Some of the early gags (the car, the wreath, the chase sequence) are really good. Shame there wasn’t a bit more of that. You could question Amy’s sanity, but it’s almost too clear that it isn’t her minus the one incident with the wreath.

Kathleen Beller is a hero. Everyone else is just a bully.

Wicked Wednesday: The Initiation of Sarah (1978)

What makes a bond between sisters? Is it blood? Family? A sense of belonging? Horror movies love to explore the bond of sisterhood in sorority-set stories. Well… in only a way a TV movie directed by a man and mostly written by men can do. (Shout out to soap writer Carol Saraceno who gets her name in the credits here!)

Sisters Sarah and Patty are off to college together for their freshman year. Patty is the social type, determined to join their mother’s former sorority (or is it the “once your sorority, always your sorority” sort of deal?). Sarah is adopted and lacks her sister’s charms – a much more unlikely fit got Alpha Nu Sigma. But the two are determined to stick together in their new world.

When they head to Alpha Nu Sigma’s rush week party, Patty is immediately taken under the wings of Jennifer, one of the sorority’s sisters. Sarah is left to her own devices, watching from the sidelines. As a cruel joke, the sorority sisters recommend that Sarah rush for Phi Epsilon Delta (which they lovingly refer to as Pigs, Elephants and Dogs).

When Sarah and Patty arrive at Phi Epsilon Delta, they quickly realise that the place is much less popular. The girls are bored and disinterested in new members. But after rush week, Patty gets her dream of making Alpha Nu Sigma while Sarah gets into Phi Epsilon Delta.

The sisters are separated. Though they try to console themselves, evil queen Jennifer forces them apart. If Sarah wants to join her new sisterhood, she must leave her real sister behind.

But no one knows that Sarah has a secret: she has telekinetic powers. She can cause things to happen with her mind. Angry with Patty, she causes a piano to fall, but she decides to save her sister in time. They try their best to make amends, but the relationship remains strained.

At Phi Epsilon Delta, Sarah meets her new sorority sisters and her house mother, Mrs Hunter (played by the DELIGHTFUL Shelley Winters). The house mother quickly lets on that she knows Sarah’s powers, as she seemingly knows who Sarah’s birth mother is.

Sarah is encouraged to use her powers, and she does. The powers begin to make her new sorority a better place. The girls are friendlier not only to each other but to themselves. She finds new confidence in her new role as a leader, being (mostly) unphased by Jennifer’s bullying antics.

It isn’t until initiation night that Sarah realises her powers won’t always be used for good. She must make a decision: reach full success or save her loved ones.

The Initiation of Sarah is one of the best TV movies I’ve seen. It has the classic tropes (sororities, telekinetic powers, crappy moms), but it still makes for an enjoyable watch. The cast is very good. Morgan Fairchild as Jennifer is the queen bitch! She’s a delight to watch. Though I do think it’s hilarious that for the first half of the movie, we’re meant to agree that Kay Lenz is an ugly duckling.

It does veer a little too much into Carrie territory and could do with being a touch more original, but I think it’s easily glossed over if you’re looking for something cheesy and fun. The ending is thoroughly worth it. One of the better TV movie one-two punches!

There is a 2006 remake with Fairchild in it as well as Jennifer Tilly. You absolutely know that’s going to be next week’s pick.

Wicked Wednesday: All the Kind Strangers (1974)

Stranger danger. Apparently not a big deal in the 70s.

You hear lots of stories of hitchhikers and latchkey kids back in the “good ol’ days”. Seemingly a world where we could all just trust each other more. But if All the Kind Strangers (or any story featured on Unsolved Mysteries) is anything to go by, you should probably not trust anyone ever. ESPECIALLY children.

Jimmy Wheeler is a photojournalist on his way to a job when he spots a lone child in the road. Young Gilbert is in the middle of nowhere, struggling with a bag of groceries. Feeling for the young kiddo, who has many miles to walk, Jimmy offers the kid a ride down the road.

Gilbert gives Jimmy directions. Down the road for a few miles. This lone dirt path? Just down a few more miles. Just keep going even when you run out of road and need to drive through a wide stream.

Despite his increasing unease, Jimmy keeps driving the child. Personally, I’d never help a child, let alone drive my new luxury convertible through a gross brook, but this is why I’m not the main character in a horror TV movie. Eventually, however, the car arrives at an old farmhouse.

Jimmy goes inside and meets Gilber’s siblings – all six of them. They’re clearly a rough bunch without a smile to spare for anyone. Jimmy’s bad feelings grow and are completely justified. Things are not well in the household.

When he asks to meet the children’s mother, he is introduced to the young English woman Carol Ann. She’s quite clearly not the children’s mother (well, Jimmy knows this right away. Coulda fooled me.). He sees the locks are on the outside of the kitchen she’s working in, not the inside. There are boards over the doors as well.

As the two adults speak, Carol Ann writes “HELP ME” in the flour. Before Jimmy can ask any questions, they are pulled into dinner with the children.

At dinner, Jimmy learns that the children’s mother died in childbirth years earlier. Their bootlegging father died falling from a roof or something. They’ve been auditioning people to be their replacement parents so they can all stay together.

Carol Ann and Jimmy know they have to escape. The fate of the other potential parents is not clear, but it’s obviously not a happy ending for anyone. Jimmy finds a bunch of initialled belongings in his room. He sees a bunch of sunken cars in the stream, including his own. But with doors locked and hungry dogs waiting in the yard… escape isn’t as easy as just walking out the door.

Eventually, though, All the Kind Strangers takes the easy way out. The kids learn their lesson and the adults get their freedom. If it weren’t for pesky cable television restrictions getting in the way, this could have taken a darker turn. So the movie has some pretty good moments, but it ultimately falls a bit flat.

But there was a good atmosphere, lightening and thunder. Really all I want out of a quick 70-minute TV movie.

It’s difficult not to compare this story to Children of the Corn, but this TV movie actually predates King’s by three years. I think all these creepy kid stories are onto something, though. Why trust any of these little ones? Jimmy would have been happy and free if he would have just let Gilbert walk! The kid said he was fine, leave him!

You really never know what you’re going to pick up when you open your (car) doors to strangers.