Dreams and nightmares are the fuel of most good horrors and thrillers. From antiquity to the modern novel and all the way through to cinema and videogames, it is a fertile ground to launch any kind of journey of uncertainty. In The Initiation, a dream is all main character Kelly Fairchild has to go on. Too bad someone is stalking her at the same time. Trailer (NSFW) and review after the jump.
Kelly Fairchild (Daphne Zuniga) is the scion of Frances and Dwight, two wealthy parents who fret about her constantly being away from home in her university. Of the two, Dwight (Clu Gulager) is the more easygoing, confident that Kelly knows what she’s doing. Frances (Vera Miles) is nervous about her daughter being away to the point of distraction. But she’s a big girl and she’s not afraid of college. Especially not having to deal with superbitches like Megan (Frances Peterson) and her clingy boyfriend Andy (Peter Malof) as she plots the details for Kelly’s initiation task into the sorority she joined. Along with her is Marcia (Marilyn Kagan) and Alison (Deborah Moreheart), her best friends in college. They have to sneak into a building that Mr Fairchild owns and steal the nightwatchman’s security uniform before daybreak. But someone’s just starting killing people at a local mental health institution and the trail of bodies is heading for Kelly on the same night as the initiation ceremony.
The Initiation is not a great film. Its cast is very inexperienced and only barely stay afloat with the dialogue they’re given. There’s an almost soap opera level of bitchiness between Megan and Kelly and equally, the camaraderie between Kelly, Marcia and Alison feels like it belongs on TV. Now, the writer of the film went on to work with Zuniga and others on daytime TV dramas so maybe it’s not unexpected to feel this way. The more senior actors like Miles and Gulager and, yes, even love interest Peter Adams (James Read) look at times like they’re two steps away from quitting. So what is it that makes the film saved in my opinion? Well, it’s a few things but let’s start with the smaller things and work from there.
First of all, one of the most fortuitous things to happen to the film is the film’s original director (Peter Crane) was fired from production after a few weeks and Larry Stewart was brought in to pick up the pace. As a result, almost all the cast was kept since they had already been filming for long enough that the producers couldn’t replace them. On top of that, Crane’s style was much more European and British horror in implementation. So there’s more of an emphasis on the camera moving closer to the subject matter and being uncomfortably close to the cast at times. The opening dream sequence as well benefits from Crane’s work with the events depicted in a foggily lensed fashion. Only the audio is out of place with it being made to echo, almost like a dream in that you can never remember who was talking. At the same time, the early scenes of the “killer” POV are well crafted, neither Steadicam smooth nor the fit-inducing “shakycam” that later films would use. So when Stewart came on board, his direction is much more straightforward and workmanlike. However, he still keeps the “killer vision” looking the same. The scenes in the Fairchild building as the killing goes on is more frantic and panicky which serves the film well, contrasting against the slower first act. So you have this curious effect of the first half of the film which deals with the mystery behind Kelly’s dreams, her meeting with Peter Adams and his assistant Heidi (Joy Jones) and the background stalking of Kelly’s family and friends by the unknown assailant and the second half where the cast is systematically wiped out by a very determined killer which ratchets up the tension until the final reel plays. So a producing decision ultimately helps the film stand out from the crowd.
Secondly, Daphne Zuniga really is the best thing about the film. She’s entirely competent as a final girl. Her dialogue is more measured and a little bit more natural than the other younger actors. Kelly is not an idiot, she doesn’t fall apart at the first sign of trouble and she only really gets stopped in her tracks in the final part of the Fairchild building sequence but I’ll explain that in a moment. Unlike characters like Laurie Strode from Halloween or Sidney Prescott from Scream, Kelly’s only real problem before the final act is the reason for her dreams. They’re unsettling for her because she’s a level headed person. Not knowing what they mean doesn’t sit with her any better than having to deal with Megan and her snarky comments. This is what leads her to Peter Adams and Heidi. Since her parents don’t want to acknowledge that something is getting under her skin and she doesn’t like it, she finds Peter and he helps her in unlocking the mystery. The film is more concerned with that original nightmare, repeatedly hinting that the dream is the key. I must say that it felt great to be rewarded for paying attention to Zuniga’s performance as she gets chills and weird little tics around mirrors (these are part of the dream) like she’s trying to remember something but can’t. While initially, her interest is in finding out what’s going on inside her head, she soon sees Peter as something more. While Kelly could never be accused of being as virginal in outlook as Laurie Strode, she isn’t as wanton in her actions as Megan or even Alison who happily throws herself at anyone she pleases. In fact, the film shows that Peter and Kelly like and then love each other without going in for titillation. When the final act unfolds, Kelly thinks she’s only dealing with Megan but even before the killings start, she feels uneasy enough to be on her guard. In keeping with her initial setup, as her friends start dying, she does her best to keep people alive but in the end, it’s her and her alone to confront the killer.
The other thing that stands to the film is the elaborate setup for the Fairchild building and the killer in the final act. While several people are killed after or before making love, the killer is more interested in killing them than scaring them or making them aware of the event. In fact, it’s more to do with Kelly and the killer than them. Stewart under lights everything, casting huge shadows along the multiple floors and has well-planned kills. The killer kills people not through some Jason Voorhees levels of teleportation but through opportunity and patience. The earlier kills are much more thought out since the killer has time to work them out. But in the Fairchild building, the killer waits for their moment and uses everything around them to get the job done. The dual storyline in the final act with Peter, Heidi and Mrs Fairchild ramps up as the cast start dying and we come to the twist at the end of the film at the same time that they and Kelly do too. It’s a very good twist, one that I didn’t see coming. Whatever you want to say about the dialogue and acting, the film’s payoff means that Crane and Stewart’s work wasn’t in vain.
Rough in places, The Initiation holds it together with lead Zuniga long enough to cross the first line intact
Home Video notes: Arrow have done a great job on the film. While not the most dynamic looking film to begin with, the cleanup and the functional audio means the film probably looks as good as it can without a super expensive treatment. Extras include a deleted scene from the rocking 80’s party with dialogue edited back in (please note, dialogue is subtitled as no audio for it exists anymore), great interviews with actors Joy Jones and Christopher Bradley and with writer Charles Pratt, Jr. There’s also a great commentary track from the crew at The Hysteria Continues podcast. With a limited edition pressing of Arrow’s usual booklet, The Initiation is as good as it could ever be, release-wise.