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TV TERRORS Double Feature: “THE INITIATION OF SARAH” & “ARE YOU IN THE HOUSE ALONE?” (DVD Review)

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I don’t think it’s necessarily true that in order to fully appreciate the charms of the 1970’s TV horror movie, you had to in fact come of age during the 1970’s, but there’s no doubt it helps. This writer was birthed in 1974 and was exposed to such fare as far back as I’d had a memory. And of course, by the time I was completely cognoscente of pop culture in the dawn of the 1980’s, most of the vintage made-for-television terror shows would be re-run ad nauseum in both prime time and – even better – late, late at night or in the wee hours of the AM. They were everywhere and, although pedestrian when stacked up against their theatrical counterparts, there was a certain je ne sais quoi that gave them a kind of power.

So while it’s true that my nostalgia-laced affinity for films of this vintage and cathode ray destination is amplified, those young ‘uns coming late to the party will still find plenty of (by today’s standards, no doubt campy) appeal in the double shot of features that make up the TV TERRORS release out now on DVD via the great Scream Factory. Both pics in the package offer peeks into the kind of sensational entertainment folks gravitated towards: both mimic popular theatrical films of the period and both are examples of a kind of un-ironic, honest to goodness, unpretentious storytelling.

First up is the Tom Holland co-penned, Robert Day-directed CARRIE echo THE INITIATION OF SARAH, starring the beautiful Kay Lenz (1986’s HOUSE) as the Sarah in question, a supposedly homely lass (no amount of Salvation Army duds could truly degrade Lenz’ natural charms) who runs afoul of sorority bitch goddess Morgan Fairchild while dorm mother Shelly Winters grooms her for nefarious purposes. It seems sweet Sarah is afflicted with psychic powers and when the cackling gals make life hell (more like heck, as this is a TV movie after all) for her and her sister (Morgan Brittany) and pal Mouse (Tisa Farrow, a year shy of her turn in Fulci’s ZOMBIE) she gives ‘em a rapid cut Sissy Spacek stare and makes them regret their cruelty. But Sarah is kindly however and doesn’t really want to harm anyone, something Winters – a satanic priestess – is fairly keen on doing.

THE INITIATION OF SARAH is prime telefilm guilt giggle, a trashy bit of sincere silliness with soap opera sensibilities, dialed down sleaze and a cavalcade of recognizable faces (including actor/director/producer/Warren Beatty look-alike Tony Bill as a professor who tries to keep Sarah on the level) doing their damndest to elevate the familiar material. A movie like this was made for commercial stop snack and pee breaks, so feel free to pause the picture at key cliffhanger moments and do just that. It works great.

Next up is the superior Walter Grauman-directed 1980 thriller ARE YOU IN THE HOUSE ALONE?, a picture that tries to ride the babysitter stalker subgenre (BLACK CHRISTMAS, HALLOWEEN) to decent effect before turning into a rape/revenge saga and then settling on a serious issue-fuelled, After School Special. In it, a very young Kathleen Beller (from mega-soap DYNASTY) stars as a gentle teen plagued by an endless spate of obscene phone calls from a lunatic who promises epic havoc. As the red herrings pile up (Who could be the caller? Her chipper boyfriend? Her teacher?), Grauman manages to elevate the mild dramatics into audio/video paranoia with bizarre camera angles, kinetic editing, dynamite use of sound and a fantastic central turn from Beller (not to mention Bill – again – as her distressed dad). Best of all, an impossibly young Dennis Quaid (who made this around the same time as the insipid GORP) is skin crawlingly effective as a classmate who may, or may not, be the mentally damaged prankster in question. Surprisingly grueling for a TV movie, this is a serious minded movie masquerading as a disposable Wednesday night entertainment and comes highly recommended.

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Kathleen Beller in “Are You in the House Alone?”

SCREAM Factory doesn’t bother with any extras here, which is perfectly fine as the pleasure of watching the films themselves is reward enough. And while neither film rises to the 70’s small screen shocker poetry of a Dan Curtis film, both pictures – especially when viewed back to back – are quality snapshots of a long gone era of TV that was both craven and innocent, and a time when networks were governed by craftsmen and women with imaginations and talent married to their sense of commercial savvy.

INITIATION OF SARAH: 3_skull

ARE YOU IN THE HOUSE ALONE?: 3.5_skull

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About the author
Chris Alexander
Author, film critic, teacher, musician and filmmaker (not to mention failed boxer) Chris Alexander is the editor-in-chief of FANGORIA Magazine. He got his first professional break as the “Schizoid Cinephile” in the pages of Canadian horror film magazine RUE MORGUE before making the move to FANGO in 2007. His words have appeared in The Toronto Star, Metro News, Wired, Montage, The Dark Side, Tenebre and many other notable publications and he appears regularly on international television and radio.
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