Each month in Horror Queers, Joe and Trace tackle a horror film with LGBTQ+ themes, a high camp quotient or both. For lifelong queer horror fans like us, there’s as much value in serious discussions about representation as there is in reading a ridiculously silly/fun horror film with a YAS KWEEN mentality. Just know that at no point will we be getting Babashook.
***SPOILERS for Sorority Row follow.***
Synopsis for Sorority Row: A group of sorority sisters try to cover up the death of their house-sister after a prank gone wrong, only to be stalked by a serial killer one year later.
Queer Aspect: Sorority Row features some of the best reading in any slasher film ever made.
Don’t know what reading is? Never fear! Here is a definition straight (pun not intended) out of RuPaul’s Drag Race Dictionary.
- v. To wittily and incisively expose a person’s flaws (i.e. “reading them like a book”), often exaggerating or elaborating on the; an advanced format of the insult. The term is a reference to the film Paris is Burning.
- n. Criticism made to a drag queen.
Joe, I am so happy that we are doing Sorority Row for our off-cycle feature this month. As you (and many of our readers) know, I absolutely adore this film. In fact, it was the very first film I wrote about on Bloody Disgusting almost four years ago. I can practically see the comments now: “Sorority Row? Must be a Trace article.” I’ll try not to repeat things I wrote in that article, but I do want to re-tell this little anecdote about my first time seeing the film:
I only happened to catch Sorority Row in theaters because I got free tickets for it. I took two of my friends and we pretty much all went in with zero expectations. Once the credits started rolling I looked at one of my friends and asked him if he thought it was as much fun as I did. His response was a very reluctant (but equally enthusiastic) “YES. But no one is going to believe me.”
As evidenced by its dismal box office gross of $11.9 million (it had a $12.5 million budget), not many saw it and liked it. It’s not surprising considering no one wanted a film like Sorority Row back in 2009: remakes were a dime a dozen, slasher fatigue was just beginning to set in (this would rear its ugly head again when Scream 4 was released just two years later) and a been-there-done-that plot right out of I Know What You Did Last Summer showcased little imagination on display.
With all that said, Sorority Row manages to subvert any and all expectations by being a hilarious little slasher that knows exactly what type of film it is. Bolstered by a game cast (with Leah Pipes’ Jessica as the film’s secret weapon), the film boasts solid direction by Stewart Hendler (that opening credits sequence where the camera moves through the house is particularly inspired) and a snarkily funny script written by Josh Stolberg and Pete Goldfinger (they co-wrote 2010’s better-than-you-think Piranha remake…and last year’s disappointing Jigsaw). Maybe audiences just weren’t ready for a funny slasher film that still played it relatively straight, but damn if Sorority Row doesn’t play well with a crowd. And in a wonderful coincidence, fellow Horror Queer (and Buzzfeed editor) Louis Peitzman recently acknowledged the film, as well!
I don’t mean to oversell the film. This isn’t high art or anything; in fact, the film sticks close to genre conventions without reinventing the wheel. This is standard slasher fare, but it is a super fun time if you’ve got a few friends over for a few adult beverages.
Joe, the reason I picked Sorority Row for this month’s off-cycle post is because it feels like it was made for queer audiences. The film is so ridiculous at times that it borders on camp (examples include the catfight between Megan and Jessica or the moment when the killer just happens to be in the girls shower room when a random sorority girl learns of the prank gone wrong). There is also a tremendous amount of hilarious bitchery on display here. There are enough “yass kween!” moments here to make an Unauthorized Sorority Row Burn Book. And of course most of those burns are courtesy of Pipes’ Jessica! Here is just a small(ish) sampling of the treats we are awarded in the film (or you can just watch the supercut of Jessica’s one-liners that I graciously included at the end of my section):
Cassidy: If they weren’t roofies then what were they?
Claire: Vitamin B12.
Ellie: You know that helps prevent anemia?
Jessica: Too bad it doesn’t prevent bulimia. That’s something Megan could actually use.
Jessica: [after finding Megan’s corpse in the shower] Oh, she looks terrible.
Jessica: I’m gonna deal with you later!
Maggie: You might wanna deal with that hair first because it looks like shit.
Ellie: Megan’s alive, you guys.
Jessica: Ellie, you’re being borderline retarded* right now. *(This one hasn’t aged well)
Jessica: [upon seeing Mickey’s feet sticking out of the wall] It’s Mickey. I would know those ugly-ass shoes anywhere.
It’s just so good, and I’m more than a little surprised that more people haven’t caught on to how infectious the fun being had in this film is! What’s also surprising is how much confidence the studio (Summit Entertainment) had in the film. According to IMDb (so the reliability is a bit up in the air), they were going to make cuts to Sorority Row to make it PG-13 after the success of the abysmal PG-13 Prom Night remake in 2008. The studio changed its mind when they saw the final cut. This movie gets a bad rap and I simply don’t get it.
Joe, I’ve spent so much time going on about why I love this film that I haven’t actually started analyzing it or discussing the things that are problematic about the film (Chugs’ positive comment about roofie sex springs to mind). Or how all of the kills (as great as they are) center on the girls having something shoved in their mouths. Did you predict the identity of the killer? And (most importantly) what do you think of Chugs’ cold vagina?
Awww Chugs! If only you weren’t basically a mirror image of Jessica, perhaps you would have lasted longer. Alas, Sorority Row frequently kills off its doppelgangers and therefore you had to go.
I probably spent half of my rewatch of this film trying to remember when I first saw it, but I honestly couldn’t recall when that was. I think my mental fugue is reflective of my overall indifference to Sorority Row. I remember latching on to several of the elements that you highlighted above, particularly the bitchiness, the gory kills, and that opening party shot (which unfortunately sets the bar a little too high because the film never really matches it again). I remember being pretty disappointed at the time and unfortunately I can’t say that my opinion has changed much. I appreciate its quirks and its delightfully gory deaths, but overall, I’m a bit “meh.” If our readers haven’t figured me out yet (and judging by the number of people who comment as though you write these posts alone, there’s a lot of them) I’m a bit of a script stickler. And boy howdy Sorority Row does not have a strong script!
It’s almost as though Stolberg and Goldfinger wrote a threadbare outline and then spent the rest of their time crafting delectably bitchy one liners for the girls (or perhaps there’s another draft or two down the mineshaft with Megan?). The problem is that plotting issues kick in right off the bat with the opening “prank gone wrong.” The fake-out that winds up being an accidental murder closely adheres to the 80s slasher formula, but it doesn’t really make a lick of sense (what exactly was the intended plan?), nor does Garret’s very sudden and odd decision to impale his dead girlfriend with a tire iron.
Thankfully the plot holes are mostly covered by the performances – minus Rumer Willis’ Ellie, who on the rewatch proved to be some serious dead weight. I remember wanting more Carrie Fisher on the first watch and seeing her channel Mrs Mac from Black Christmas as the drunk sorority house mother made her untimely passing hurt all over again.
But why does Mrs. Crenshaw disappear for this party when she clearly had no issue staying for the one that opens the film? Why is Maggie used so randomly, only to become a crucial character in the third act? Why is so much time dedicated to Jessica’s desire to marry into politics with milquetoast Kyle? Why is Kyle (and all of the other boys) so bland that I literally didn’t recognize him when he turns up in full-blown homicidal red herring mode at the film’s climax? And what, dear lord, was everyone smoking when they came up with Andy’s truly atrocious motivation for committing the murders? Sweet Jebus, that may be one of the stupidest reveals I have ever seen in a slasher and I have seen a lot of slashers. (To answer your question: no, I didn’t see it coming because I completely forgot about Andy. I kept waiting for Ellie to be outed as the killer because she was acting shady AF and I figured it was the only reason she stuck around).
So yeah…a few gaps in logic. More than the gripes about the lazy plot, though, I am legitimately confused about who the target audience for this film is? There is a lot of female nudity – topless extras, with pretty revealing outfits on our core cast (Maggie literally spends 90% of her screen time in panties and a man’s dress shirt). Sure, it was 2009 and the belly baring crop top with heels look was still popular, but the costuming, in particular, feels male-gaze ready.
The dialogue repeatedly takes jabs at the girls’ ironic dismissal of the sisterhood pledge that makes up the sorority motto, though the bitchiness is clearly meant to reflect the reality that girls can be just as mean and cruel. Cue this line:
Cassidy: I love you Jessica because you make being a bitch an art form.
Rewatching Sorority Row, the uncharacteristically frank depiction of women frequently came off like a cross between Gale from Scream and Blair from Gossip Girl – the bitch with a heart of gold who’ll cut you with a savage one-liner. These are, for all of their strengths and weaknesses, a group of memorably diverse feminist characters. That’s never more clear than the screen time breakdown between sexes: the girls rule the narrative while the boys are forgettable and barely present. This only serves to reinforce how frustrating it is that the killer is Andy. ANDY?! Come on!.
Honestly, I’m torn. Half of the time, the depiction of these women feels like the film is pitched at straight bros who want boobs. The other half feels aimed at girls interested in a band of diverse female protagonists who embody both the sisterhood and cruelty of female friendships. The result is a final product that doesn’t satisfy either audience fully. Throw in the multi-pronged phallic weapon and the aforementioned oral murder fixation and there’s some weird and wonky sexual politics at work.
At this point it’s probably best for me to turn it back over to you, Trace. Who do you think the film’s audience was? Were you as bothered as me by the plot holes, or is this just familiar slasher territory? And, most importantly, what do you figure was the cost of hair extensions for this film? (Hopefully not too much because Rumer’s are terrible).
Joe, Joe, Joe. What a sourpuss you are! I know as a critic it is looked down upon for me to say that all of your criticisms don’t matter but….they don’t matter! I jest, I jest. You are correct to critique this film and I can certainly understand where you are coming from, but (at the risk of sounding like some of the commenters who complain about our reviews) this is one of those films where you’re just meant to sit back and enjoy the ride. Sorority Row perfectly encapsulates the spirit of the 80s slasher wave. Does that mean that this film is exempt from criticism? Absolutely not, but I am able to overlook all of the plot holes you mention because I just don’t take the film that seriously.
If I can dissect a few of your complaints though:
- There wasn’t really a plan for the prank. Even Cassidy asks Jessica “How far are you going to go with this?” Does Jessica know? Probably not. She’ll go as far as she can until she gets the satisfaction that comes from pranking someone, I suppose.
- Mrs. Crenshaw doesn’t stay for the party because it’s their end-of-year graduation celebration. It’s sort of an unwritten agreement between the house mother and the graduating sorority sisters. Consider if a rite of passage into adulthood and a show of confidence in their newfound maturity (haha).
- All of the boys are so bland in order to make the female characters stand out that much more.
Where we disagree most, however, is in the reveal of Andy as the killer and Kyle’s usefulness as a red herring. You are telling me that you did not expect Kyle to be the killer? Admittedly, I had extremely low expectations when I saw Sorority Row for the first time so I fully expected the film to go the obvious route and make Kyle the killer. As you said, so much time was spent on his dad’s campaign trail and Jessica’s need to please him. It’s such an extended setup that it makes its total irrelevancy all the more genius, especially when Kyle does get a little axe-happy in the climax. He is a psychopath, but he’s not the psychopath. Andy’s motive is to kill anyone who knows about the secret so that he and Cassidy can have a happy life. Is it a stretch? Sure, but this boy be crazy so it fits with his character. The only real aspect of his motive that makes no sense is that he thought Cassidy would still want to be with him after all of this. I have no explanation for that. That is just the sort of ridiculousness that pushes Sorority Row firmly into camp territory though. It never fully crosses the line, but the intention is clear.
I do agree with you on one thing though: the target audience. All of the marketing for this film sold it as a straightforward slasher film, but this film is a horror comedy through and through. I tend to refer to it as Scream or I Know What You Did Last Summer meets Mean Girls. It may have more in common with I Know What You Did Last Summer plot-wise but the film is self-aware enough to justify the Scream comparison. The trailer leaned on the sisterhood among the protagonists, but certain scenes like the completely unnecessary shower room scene most definitely target young men. That being said, there isn’t a lot of female nudity in the film, as you say. You get a butt shot in the opening credits and a few pairs of breasts in the shower room, but nothing beyond that. It’s not like they’re spread out over the film; they are contained to just two scenes. Gratuitous nudity is clearly an homage to ‘80s slasher films though, which were filled with it. I’m surprised you can’t appreciate that since you’re so old and were actually alive during the ‘80s (insert winky-face Emoji here).
What is surprising is that none of the lead actresses have a nude scene, so it does make the random nudity of secondary characters feel even more gratuitous. Respect should be shown to the director and studio though, as this interview makes it clear that they never pushed for any of the actresses to be bare any skin (yet still had enough respect for the tropes of the slasher genre to cram some boobies in there).
The target audience for this film should have been gay men, but I suppose that’s a bit too narrow of a demographic to directly appeal to (see: our discussion of Hellbent last time). I don’t know if Stewart Hendler is gay, but my gut tells me he is (especially after listening to his commentary with four of the main actresses) He knew exactly what kind of film he was making, but whether or not that translated to the film is up to the viewer.
Joe, I hate that our format for these articles means that you will get the last word on Sorority Row. I know I won’t be able to change your mind on the film, as much as I would like to. Does it not push the comedy far enough to merit excusing some of its flaws? Do you not find Leah Pipes to be a revelation? All of the other actresses are solid (even Willis, who does just fine playing the weak, insecure Ellie…so much so that the film repeatedly calls her out on her uselessness through Jessica’s biting one-liners), but Pipes walks away with the film.
I’ll admit that Pipes’ bitchiness is savage, but I’ll confess that I just don’t find her performance as striking as you do. It comes off as very typical acerbic head bitch to me and if you’re going to deliver shade and profanity, she doesn’t hold a candle to the gold standard, which is undeniably Rose McGowan in Jawbreaker. Now that’s a revelatory queen bee performance to me.
But you have helped to clarify a valuable point, Trace: individual mileage for comedy and camp (intertwined as they are) is extremely individual. You love this film – your impassioned defense of it is undeniable. When I watch it, I see a decent, albeit unspectacular slasher. What you see as a scathing near-camp delight, I see as a bit of a miss. What’s interesting is that we’re both right.
We chatted offline about how I don’t see the comedy as intentional and how I don’t believe that the film should require extratextual materials like interviews and commentaries to make its point. You disagree because the camp and comedy are so evident to you. I find this distinction fascinating, and I think it will be an interesting point to keep in mind moving forward, particularly as in our off-cycle choices (I’m thinking of a few of our upcoming picks, including several very campy slashers. Suddenly I’m intrigued to see whether we’ll agree or disagree on them).
If nothing else, I appreciated taking the opportunity to revisit Sorority Row again with your perspective in mind. I’ll freely admit that I judged the film too harshly on my first watch, and for that I’ll put a lot of blame on that trailer and advertising, which failed to infer that the film has any kind of comedic angle at all. Ultimately, however, for me the camp isn’t strong enough to tip it into good/bad territory and Jess, while impressive, remains more flat-out-bitch than guilty pleasure (though having suffered through at least one season of The CW’s The Originals, I’ll heartily endorse that she’s far too talented for the career she has unfortunately had).
One final thought, and it’s a silly one: a small, irrational part of me resents this film because Briana Evigan (lead Cassidy) doesn’t bring the same spunk and verve that she brought to Step Up 2: The Streets, which is a personal favourite of mine. If we’re talking about actresses who deserve a better career, both Evigan and Pipes deserve a spot on that list.