Why do I enjoy some slasher films and not others? What is it about one slasher film that makes it stand out from another slasher film? Given that every single slasher film adheres to a very strict, very cardboard structure, what makes one seem fresh and the other seem stale? These are three questions I often ask myself when I’ve seen a slasher film I enjoy. The answers usually come down to characters. There seems to be an unwritten rule book somewhere that dictates that all slasher film characters need to be oblivious, sex obsessed and utterly vapid. Characterization comes down to little more than social standing (popular or unpopular) and/or high school cliché group (nerd, jock, cheerleader, weirdo, etc). That shouldn’t (and probably doesn’t) surprise anyone. These are films made to be immediately accessible to slasher fans, many of whom are either in their high school years or close enough to them to immediately recognize themselves in one of those prescribed roles. There is a notion among film studies of something called “vernacular cinema”. Vernacular cinema tends to stay within rigidly defined scopes, relying on familiarity to appeal to a specific group of moviegoers. Like slang, those who speak the vernacular are instantly comfortable. Those who don’t will obviously struggle to find their footing.
Slasher films fit perfectly into the vernacular cinema. There is a reason that producers, writers and directors don’t fuck around with the “rules” all that often. Doing so would risk alienating moviegoers who are expecting a specific kind of film. For all the dream sequences, mind bending reversals of the conscious and unconscious, and playing around with diegetic elements, A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET still plays by those rules. If Craven had stretched his film more, he would have risked leaving behind the familiar (the vernacular) structure of the slasher film and that would have likely caused many ticket buyers to toss their popcorn.
THE INITIATION doesn’t try to break through the vernacular. It doesn’t attempt any kind of originality in its story or presentation, but it still manages to be one of the better mid-80s slasher films. It presents a charming, interesting Final Girl with more baggage and personality than most (and it doesn’t hurt to have the cute-as-a-button Daphne Zuniga playing the role) and contains a little more subtext and subtlety than usual. It makes identity politics a key element from the get-go and is probably more concerned with its climactic reversal than most slasher films. There is even a smattering of symbolism throughout the film (notice the paired actions or the staging of events before mirrors) that adds a bit of replay value to the film. It is careful in its construction and earns its gotcha moments. Even though it is much more anemic than most of its brethren, it contains a few decent stalk-and-slash set pieces and its red herrings are actually tied into the narrative resolution than simply bolted on for the sake of confusing the audience.
In terms of characters, THE INITIATION is far less annoying than most and actually manages to contain a subplot between two characters that is kind of clumsily touching. Sure the film relies on the typical bitchy sorority sister and a pair of obnoxious jokers to pad out the victim checklist, but they’re underplayed in the film just enough that they never derail the film. If THE INITIATION has one major flaw it’s in the structure of the film. The wait to get to the central location (a shopping mall operated by the Final Girl’s father that they’ve broken into as part of a sorority initiation) takes place rather late in the film. The film feels lopsided. Much like HELL NIGHT or THE FUNHOUSE, we know the majority of the action will happen once the characters are isolated inside the location. Waiting to get there kills off some of the fun. Once the film moves into the mall, it speeds along at a good pace but I definitely wanted more, something to help balance the slow, methodical first half with the breakneck second half. But that’s a small quibble in light of how many things THE INITIATION gets right. In a subgenre full of absolutely terrible films, THE INITIATION comes across as entertaining, interesting and even a bit ingenious at times.