Arrow Video: The Initiation of Sarah (1978) - Reviewed

Courtesy of Arrow Films
While the good folks at Arrow Video have made themselves known for curating and restoring many a number of obscure cult movies from the world over on home video, including but not limited to deluxe 4K UHD special release editions, the one thing they haven’t quite delved into just yet is television or made-for-television movies.  With the new 4K restored release of Hammer Films director Robert Day’s made-for-tv flick The Initiation of Sarah, a 1978 pastiche of Brian De Palma’s Carrie and The Fury with enough Satanism to put it alongside such fare as The Devil’s Rain, Arrow Video seems to be expanding their horizons by giving films made for the small screen the big spotlight.  Though limited to the machinations and censorship standards of then-network television, The Initiation of Sarah packs a little punch and managed to even spawn a remake in 2006 for ABC Family television.

Sarah Goodwin (Kay Lenz), like Carrie White or Gillian Bellaver before her, is a withdrawn socially awkward misfit with a special telekinetic gift to move and destroy things (and/or people) with her mind.  Tagging along with her highly popular sister Patty (Morgan Brittany), she gets entangled with a haughty sorority led by the venomous president Jennifer Lawrence (Morgan Fairchild) and soon finds herself ditched by Patty and taken in by a rival sorority house led by house matriarch Mrs. Hunter (Shelley Winters in rare form) who hopes to harness Sarah’s mysterious powers for her own personal vendetta.  At the height of the so-called ‘Sorority Hell Week’ where the rival sororities will compete for campus dominance, little do people on both sides know Sarah is fixing to unleash all manner of Hellfire and Brimstone. 
Clearly borne out of the success of the aforementioned Brian De Palma telekinetic shockers while deriving the Satanist garb and decorum from The Devil’s Rain including but not limited to Shelley Winters riffing on Ernest Borgnine’s red cloaked demon priest, The Initiation of Sarah is a little TV flick with more cooks in the kitchen than you’d expect for such an endeavor.  For instance, the film taps Fright Night and Child’s Play writer-director Tom Holland in one of his earliest screenwriting credits.  Further still, you have soon-to-be renowned cinematographer Ric Waite’s efforts, later going on to shoot big Hollywood films like Red Dawn or Cobra.  The ensemble cast itself is pretty good even if Nancy Allen and Sissy Spacek arguably paved the way for their performances, though Shelley Winters seems to be having wacky Satanist fun.  Special attention goes to Morgan Fairchild, later seen in Phantom of the Mall, as a mercurial femme fatale who seems nice on the surface but harbors a vindictiveness.

Airing on February 2nd, 1978 on ABC Network Television, the film garnered some measure of controversy over a scenes involving Morgan Fairchild either being dumped in water or being scalded in a boiling hot shower, with the implicit nudity being new to television screens at the time.  It didn’t help Fairchild was unhappy with how the scenes were shot and initially regretted participation in the production, an attitude which changed in 2006 when Fairchild was cast in the remake as Sarah’s beleaguered mother.  Seen now, it is a mostly solid somewhat daring TV movie riff on the Hollywood horror successes that preceded it and it represents an early starting point for many horror film alumni.  Nothing spectacular or amazing but you can see why it still has a following given the names involved.

--Andrew Kotwicki