Sunday, November 13, 2011

Sarah Plain & Tall & Telekinetic

Shelley Winters in a 1978 made-for-TV Carrie ripoff streaming on Netflix? You can bet your Olympic swimming medal that has a place at The Doll’s House!
Quick Plot: The beautiful Patty and her mousy adopted sister Sarah are heading to college, the alma mater of their sorority queen mom/pointedly adopted sorority queen mom. Patty dreams of joining the likes of queen bee Jennifer (played by the always fabulously bitchy Morgan Fairchild) at the Alpha Bitcha Bitcha House (I didn’t write the name down, but I’m pretty sure that was it) while dowdy Sarah joins the girls with less money, looks, and manners over at Phi Blah Blah House. She also strikes up a mildly inappropriate romance with one of her teachers and reveals, as Patty is forced to play the Alpha Bitcha Bitcha role, a fairly obvious case of Carrie White.

Much like The Spell, The Initiation of Sarah is a made-for-TV leftover of the Carrie juggernaut. Apparently in the late 1970s, socially awkward teenage girls with telekinetic powers were all the rage, while their mean-girl tormenters ensured acting roles would always be available for icy blonds. Brunettes, on the other hand, were safely ensured the chance to play the dumpy girl’s even dumpier buddies (how Mia Farrow’s sister snuck in as Sarah’s violin-playing pal is a mystery) and thus keep the status quo safely in line.

And that’s were it stays in this far-too-slow movie. Though well acted by its young cast, The Initiation of Sarah is sadly duller than that freshman psychology class I took where my professor uttered the expression ‘um’ 60 times in two minutes (I counted, which was more interesting than the ummish lecture). As Sarah, Kay Lenz is fine, but hardly the tragic victim of Sissy Spacek, while sister Patty (Morgan Brittany) is quite likable, even if her story never finds a snug place to fit into the supernatural development of Sarah’s heritage. Because oh yeah...her birth mother was killed in a bewitching sorority ceremony by Shelley Winters. Or something.

See, Shelley Winters is Shelley Winters. Big, boisterous, intimidating at dinner parties and I imagine, DMV lines but also a presence that simply demands your attention. You understand why she’s credited as making a “special appearance” here because without the pure power of this sassy dame, The Initiation of Sarah would be pretty hard to survive.

It’s not a terrible movie; just a dull one. At around 95 minutes, The Initiation of Sarah somehow feels epic, even though the running time covers barely half a semester. A good deal of that is Netflix listing the film in the category of “Horror Films.” When more time is spent on Sarah’s Cinderella makeover and reinvigoration of her dowdy sorority than human sacrifice or dropping pianos on people (tease!), it makes for a tad souring of my evening.
High Points
Ain’t no bitch can deliver a line like “Girls! Put on your hoods!” with quite the same panache as Shelley
Low Points
If you’re going to spend five minutes setting up a piano being suspended from the second floor vicariously as minor villains pass over it, how dare you--HOW DARE YOU SIR I SAY--end the scene know, ACTUALLY dropping the piano on someone
Lessons Learned
When a man you hardly know tells you that you look good in your bathing suit then escorts you into the water, he probably wants something a little more physical than synchronized swimming
Sororities aren’t all that bad. They just make you do horrible things to test your loyalty

In the 70s campus life, kissing was far more aggressive, perhaps because the whole damned world was drinking coffee
When lifting weights, think carefully before having your ticklesome girlfriend act as your spotter

The best insult to hurl at a nervous college student is to tease her for being a prodigy
Side Note
Apparently there exists a 2006 remake made for the ABC Family Channel and starring the TOTALLY mousy and unattractive Summer Glau in the title role, with Fairchild popping back in to play her mother. Not sure if there’s a shirtless Robert Hays or piano death though

I almost feel unqualified to give an ultimate ranking of this film. Is it fair to say I didn’t like The Initiation of Sarah because it wasn’t trashy? When the worst thing the bad girls do to our heroine is throw tomatoes and mud (or maybe poop; it’s more interesting if it’s poop, so let’s say poop) her way, it just doesn’t do much to give me any reason to smile.   The film is streaming, so it certainly doesn’t hurt to try out The Initiation of Sarah, but don’t expect a huge finale. There are a few deaths and a mild ‘splosion, but nothing that a little Piper Laurie prayers couldn’t top.


  1. If you're into exploring the most outre films of Ms. Shelley Winters, I have just three words for you: Pretty Poor Eddie. I can all but guarantee you will not be disappointed. I could describe it as Deliverance meets Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and still not quite get at the essence of this flick. And it's Shelley at her absolute Shelley-est. Highly recommended.

  2. I have both the original and remake saved for future viewing. Shelley Winters will save the original for me. She couldn't do any wrong for me in these B-horror flicks. What's the Matter with Helen is campy gold! Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? Mommy in Cleopatra Jones. Miss Shelley may actually trump Joan Crawford in the scene-chewing department.

    I may need to write an essay about her.

  3. Wayne, my heart just exploded in anticipation.

    Oooooh Burgundy! I'd LOVE to read your Shelley papers! SHe really does just have fun onscreen, and even when she's stuck in a dreadful film--and that happens so much more than it should--she never gives up chewing!

  4. Did Morgan Fairchild appear in everything before she was famous? Even if you watch almost-but-not Smokey and the Bandit TV pilots, you'll see her!
    Also, there was a recent remake of the Aaron Spelling produced Satan's School for Girls, so maybe remaking obscure TV movies is becoming a trend. Maybe next we'll see a remake of Werewolf in a Girls Dormitory...with Jewel State probably.

  5. I didn't know about this trend, but now it might be my new obsession. I like it. I like it a lot.

    Even if it means less Fairchild...

  6. Lol at your um, college professor. I had a high school teacher who repeated the phrase "And so forth" at the end of each sentence. We use to bet before class on how many times he'd say it in the last five minutes of the period (34 was the record). Liked this film more than you, but I'm sure part of that is nostalgia as I saw it when it debuted. Agree with the other posters in that Winters + Harrington = awesome. He knew how to direct the big lady divas for maximum effect. Ann Sothern turns in a Winters-worthy performance also in Harrington's, The Killing Kind which has the world's greatest tag-line, "Terry loved soft, furry, little animals. He loved his mother. He loved pretty girls...ALL DEAD! "

  7. Oooooh that movie sounds WONDERFUL! Considering your proven track record with recommendations, I'm there!

  8. Shiftless is right: The Killing Kind is AMAZING. Ann Sothern gives a tremendous performance, slinging bacon everywhere. Holy Oedipal Complex for the win! And get this: the son isn't the creepiest character in the movie. Also, look for a pre-Laverne & Shirley Cindy Williams. Highly recommended.

  9. You folks have convinced me! Oedipal complexes, bacon slinging, vintage TV actors. I'm already there!