It actually came out in 1983, but DVD company Liberation Entertainment is only getting around to releasing the “25th Anniversary Edition” of the minor horror classic The House on Sorority Row now… no doubt to capitalize on the recent release of the bigger-budgeted Hollywood remake Sorority Row.

First-time writer-director Mark Rosman was looking to combine his love of suspense with the more commercially viable genre of slasher films when he wrote his script about a group of sorority sisters whose prank on their mean-spirited house mother goes fatally wrong. Inspired by the work of Hitchcock and Henri-Georges Clouzot as much as John Carpenter, Rosman crafted a blood-soaked thriller whose quality belied its low budget and commercial conception.

The Dark Lord Bunnykins conducted this interview with Mr. Rosman by email in early January.

What inspired the story, Mark?

I always loved suspense/mystery/thrillers and wanted to set about writing my first screenplay for me to direct. All the rage in that day (early 1980s) for low-budget movies was horror films (I guess not a lot has changed!). I decided I’d try to come up with a suspense thriller that had horror elements to it.

I had lived in a fraternity for two years when I went to UCLA. I had since graduated college (NYU) and was living in my parents’ house in Beverly Hills. One day I was staring out at the pool in our backyard and the idea came to me about sorority girls pulling a prank involving the pool at their house. I merged that with an idea I had worked on with some other friends: a mother keeps her deranged son locked up in a closet in her house. The mother became the sorority house mother and the deranged son ended up living in the attic of the sorority house over the summer. I combined that all and came up with the script which was originally titled Screamer.

You admit on the commentary that you were more of a suspense fan than a horror fan but that you wanted to make something commercial. What suspense films or directors inspired you? Some have mentioned Hitchcock and Henri-Georges Clouzot.

Yes, definitely Hitchcock. And Clouzot’s Diabolique was always a favourite. But I also loved Frankenheimer, De Palma, Welles, and Kubrick.

The relationships between the sorority sisters are realistic. What experiences fed into their characters and interactions?

After living in a frat house for two years, you pick up things. A lot of the interactions between the main girls and with the smaller characters definitely came from dialog I heard and characters I met during those days.

The girls are not merely innocent victims. Indeed, they are culpable for the death of Mrs. Slater. How important was it for them to face death knowing that they were guilty of a crime?

Probably my biggest goal for the movie was to write a horror film where the girls were not just innocent victims. I never liked those slasher movies where the only thing wrong the victims did was to have sex. But not only did I want the girls culpable of a crime, but I also wanted them involved in a story while the killer was coming after them. I get bored watching victims just partying while we wait for creative ways to kill them. I wanted the girls driving a story forward, and a mystery as to who was really doing the killing.

The DVD packaging calls The House on Sorority Row a “cult classic slasher film.” How accurate is the “slasher” part?

Well, the slasher part was definitely put in to get the film made. But I suppose it is a slasher movie. It’s just that the slasher part is not the reason to watch the movie.

Many of the “kills” were added in post-production. At what point did you realize that you had to make the film bloodier?

In the original shooting, I had planned for only three explicit killing scenes: when Morgan gets the cane stabbed through her body while holding the music box, and when Liz gets her throat slashed in the van, and Vicki gets stabbed with the cane also at the van in the cemetery. After I cut the film together and showed it to some people in the business, I realized that if I’m going to have a shot of getting this distributed, I needed to add more gore. So I came up with bloodier endings to the other deaths and figured out a way to shoot them in my parents’ backyard in Beverly Hills (the movie was shot in Pikesville, Maryland). I also added another killing by having a frat guy stumble across the killer after he came out of the pool. I found out that our LA make-up effects house had already made a life mask of one of their employees so I cast that guy as the frat kid and had the cane go through his throat via using the life mask.

Your original ending had our heroine Katey dying at the hands of the killer, but your distributor, Film Ventures, demanded a less downbeat, more ambiguous ending, with the killer still alive at the end. Why do you think that was? Were they hoping for a sequel?

The distributor had only two notes when they saw my cut. The first was to colourize the black and white opening. They felt no one would sit through black and white. We added a blue tint to it. The second was to end the film when the clown opens his eyes and cut out the ending which showed Katherine floating dead in the pool, wearing the clown costume. They said simply, “You can’t kill the hero.” Maybe they were right. You go all this way with her and then she ends up dead? I was just so sick of every single horror film ending with the last girl living. I wanted to kill her in a creative way. In the original script, Katherine ends up in the hospital and she’s being wheeled out to be greeted by her mother. But then the wheelchair makes a hard turn and we pan up to reveal that the orderly is Eric. When I shot the film, we changed it to the pool ending so we could shoot it at the house location. Both of those endings I loved, but that’s the way it goes in Hollywood. Oh well.

It's curtains for Morgan (Jodi Draigie)

What would a sequel be about?

Who knows? Over the years I tried to come up with sequel ideas but nothing was that great. Film Ventures went bankrupt maybe a year after the movie opened so they never were around to do a sequel.

Did you run into any problems with the MPAA over the violence?

We had the typical notes of cutting out frames of some of the violent scenes to limit them. I think so much blood had been spilled in other horror movies by then that we didn’t have to do much cutting.

Richard Band’s score is epic and classy. How important do you feel it was to elevating the film above its “slasher” contemporaries?

Richard did a really great job. Our inspiration was Bernard Hermann of course. But Richard added a prettiness to the main theme that gave it something special and appropriate. Using the London Philharmonic to record the score didn’t hurt either. Yes, it raised the level of the movie a lot and I greatly appreciate that.

This is the “25th Anniversary Edition,” but the film was actually released in 1983. Why the delay?

I think Liberation, the current distributor of the original, was inspired to do this edition because of the remake.

This killer isn't clowning around.

The film was recently remade as Sorority Row. What if any involvement did you have with it? Have you seen it? And, if so, what did you think?

I didn’t have much involvement with it. I owned the rights to my original screenplay which is what they based the remake on – very loosely. I came out to the set for a couple days which was really fun. I thought the writers did a great job updating the story. The remake is much funnier, sexier and bloodier than mine – which I think is very appropriate to what’s going on today in horror films. Their choice to have real fun with it was inspired. The director, Stewart Hendler, did a fantastic job. It looks like Bourne Identity meets Scream. Lots of cool handheld shots. Made me very jealous.

What do you feel is the lasting appeal of this, your first film as a director?

Who knows? I’m glad it has any appeal at all 27 years later! I hope it’s still fun watching these girls get all catty with each other after they’ve thrown their dead house mother into the pool!

The House on Sorority Row will be available on DVD from Liberation Entertainment on Jan. 12.

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