With The Initiation, following their earlier Blood Rage and The Mutilator releases, Arrow is becoming the go-to outfit for the weirder '80s slasher films, the ones that were a bit too late to the party to enjoy the same kind of success as other Halloween/Friday the 13th wannabes did. Their theatrical releases were smaller, their grosses hard to find, and when it came to the rise of DVD, they were given fairly disrespectful treatment compared to the big guns; Halloween got something like four special editions on DVD alone, while The Initiation was dumped on an Anchor Bay two-pack with Mountaintop Motel Massacre. But as the world inches closer to making physical media a collector's only market, it makes sense that horror films like this would thrive - after all, horror fans are pretty much all collectors by default (if you know a horror fan with a huge disc collection, chances are some of that collection is made up of films he doesn't even like), so putting together special editions for these obscure films is actually a smart move for Arrow and their peers. It might not be too enticing to re-buy Evil Dead yet again for a new commentary, but for a movie like this that was never given a decent release? Sold!
Even without the bonus features (more on those later), this one might be worth a look for slasher aficionados - it's far from a perfect film, but there are some unusual elements to it that give it enough personality to overcome its somewhat sluggish pace and TV movie-esque production. Daphne Zuniga (in her first lead after a bit part in an earlier pace-challenged slasher, The Dorm That Dripped Blood) is a sorority pledge who has been suffering from a recurring nightmare in which a couple is attacked in bed by another man who ends up being horribly burned in the ensuing scuffle. We quickly learn that the people in bed are her parents, played by Vera Miles and Clu Gulager, who are given billing over their younger co-stars despite perhaps fifteen total minutes of screentime between them. Miles doesn't want Zuniga to talk to her parapsychologist TA (James Read) who has promised to help her figure out what the dream means, so you have to wonder if her interpretation of the dream is completely accurate. Meanwhile, the burned man has survived and is now the groundskeeper at a mental institution - one where a few patients get riled up and escape on the VERY SAME NIGHT Zuniga and her sorority pals plan to break into a giant mall (which looks more like an office building/hotel than any mall I've seen). Did I mention Clu owns the building, and is also having an affair?
As you might have guessed, there's a lot more going on in this slasher than the usual "Six friends go off to the ____ and a killer shows up" plot that works just fine for the bulk of these movies. There's so much backstory to work through and time spent putting all the pieces in play that it's actually almost an hour into the movie by the time everyone goes to the mall, which can be problematic when "A group of sorority pledges are stalked in a mall by a killer" is how this movie's plot would be described by anyone with a limited space to do so. It probably works better if you don't really think of it as a slasher at all, but more of a giallo of sorts, with occasional murder scenes peppering a story about a woman who might be going insane. Then, when it finally becomes a proper body count flick in the 3rd act, it's kind of like a bonus! The big reveal is practically out of a giallo anyway, in that it's kind of a "Wait, WHAT?" moment, so it's a fair comparison, even if I highly doubt this collection of Texas investors and untested talent (both sides of the camera) were well versed in the filmographies of Argento and Martino.
Another thing making it stand out a bit is the fact that it's kind of got a soap opera quality to it. Without spoiling particulars, the plot revolves around amnesia, extra-marital affairs, long-lost twins, and people banging their doctors. It's even got that Vaseline smear on some of the flashbacks and love scenes! I know that "it reminds me of a soap opera" is hardly the best way to sell someone on a slasher flick, but let's not forget - this is a very overpopulated sub-genre, and the boom that this film belongs to (albeit coming in at the 11th hour) had no shortage of movies with zero memorable qualities beyond this or that particular kill scene, or someone's early acting appearance (such as The Burning, aka "But Jason Alexander is in it and it's got that great raft kill!"). This film isn't going to end up on m(any) lists of the all time best slasher films, but it wouldn't take long to positively identify it from a thorough plot description or picture of its awkward "mall" setting, either (whereas a shot of Chopping Mall's backdrop could be mistaken for Phantom of the Mall, since they were both shot at the same one).
As for the kills, they are hit or miss. It's got one of those classic bits where someone says "he'd forget his head if it wasn't attached" about a guy who got his head cut off - but that part of his death is off-screen, and we only see him get stabbed in the neck with a garden tool before it occurs - her line (which comes after) is more evidence of his decapitation than anything we see. And the director (or editor) is curiously fond of cutting to dolls before each kill, which I never quite understood. But there's a pretty good axe to the head death, a fairly brutal stab scene, and a bow and arrow kill which is always welcome since it's so rare (and rather daring of the killer). The body count is, I think, ten (plus a surprise survival of someone we thought was dead, so like 10.5), which is perfectly acceptable for the era and higher than that OTHER slasher involving dreams that came out around the same time (late 1984 - you know the one). The FX aren't that bad, either - it's not Savini-level or anything, but a touch gorier than I expected.
Arrow has put together a pretty decent selection of extras; not as extensive as Blood Rage or Mutilator, but like the movie, just enough to qualify it as a win and nothing more. The most appealing of the lot is probably the interview with Charles Pratt, Jr, who wrote the film and, perhaps unsurprisingly went on to work on several actual soap operas, both daytime and nighttime (he even reunited with Zuniga on Melrose Place, in fact). He gives some of his life story and how he fibbed his way through a meeting in order to get the gig (anyone who knows much about independent horror won't be surprised to learn the film was born out of a producer's desire to make money in the lucrative horror market, without caring much about the film's quality). He explains why the film has some really stylish bits early on while the rest looks like a TV movie - the original director (Peter Crane) had gotten some really good stuff, but only was two days behind schedule after three days, so he was fired and replaced with the workmanlike Larry Stewart. Pratt says they did their best to use every single frame that Crane shot while cutting some of Stewart's stuff in order to keep the movie as visually interesting as possible, though obviously there couldn't have been all that much even if he had made the most of his three days. He also tells a pretty funny anecdote about Vera Miles, who apparently only agreed to be in the "piece of shit" because she liked Crane and wanted to work with him, only for him to be gone before she arrived for her two days of work. The other two interviews, with Christopher Bradley (Chad, one of the frat guys) and Joy Jones (Heidi, who will remind anyone watching of a certain overloved Stranger Things character), also detail some of the problems with the switcheroo - Jones says all she did was read Stephen King on what was supposed to be her first day of filming as it was the day Crane was fired, and Bradley ended up getting into a fight with the new guy.
Then there's an extended party scene that will be of no interest to anyone in the world, the trailer (which sells the movie rather honestly, oddly enough), and, if you have BD-ROM capabilities, the screenplay. Finally, there's a commentary track, albeit not with anyone from the movie - it's a fan/historian commentary by the folks from the Hysteria Continues podcast, which has recorded a whopping 130 episodes as of this writing, each dedicated to a different slasher flick, ranging from genuine classics like Black Christmas to woeful crap like Halloween: Resurrection (with some slasher-adjacent options like Predator and The Fog for good measure). Naturally, as they are fans and not personnel from the film, they don't have much to say about the production or anything like that, but they do offer plenty of insight about the film's place in the slasher sub-genre, the things it should be credited for, and the occasional jab at its lesser qualities (I burst out laughing when they laid into Zuniga's hilariously casual reaction to the shock ending). I wouldn't say it's an essential track (especially if you've already listened to their podcast on the film, though one of them has changed his mind about the film's overall quality), but as these things go it's one of the breezier, and despite being in different rooms there's thankfully very little interrupting or talking over one another, so they get an extra point just for that.
There are other similarities to Blood Rage and Mutilator here, which I can't get into without spoiling all three movies, but now I'm trying to rack my brain to think of others that fit that unique bill in hopes that Arrow gives them the same treatment (closest one that comes to mind is Honeymoon Horror, though it's nowhere near as peculiar). UNLIKE those two, this one had been released uncut on proper DVD before, so it's not as ripe for discovery as those (Zuniga's presence also gave it a leg up on those star-free other ones), but the bonus features and high-def transfer make it a worthy upgrade for anyone who owns that double feature disc, and now the film is free of the stink of Mountaintop Motel Massacre! Win-win.