Moving Pictures
May 20, 2024, 06:27AM

When Girls Terrorize

Remembering Roger Corman through his films, such as 1957's Sorority Girl.

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Girls can be bad, sometimes evil, especially to each other. One of Roger Corman’s early films, Sorority Girl (1957), explores the length one young woman would go to in order to maintain control over others. Although it was a low-budget production (distributed by American International Pictures, which specialized in low-budget films usually targeted for the young people), it eschews the categorization of an exploitation film. Sorority Girl is a radical, modernist exposition of young angst and sadism on a college campus.

Susan Cabot plays Sabra, a wealthy sorority girl who spends most of her time terrorizing weaker members of her sorority. She’s particularly awful to Ellie, a new pledge, whom Sabra verbally abuses, makes her do chores and stomach exercises, and at some point, spanks with a paddle.

Sabra feeds on terrorizing others. Every day, she plots one sadistic game after another. When one of the sorority girls, Tina, gets pregnant, Sabra sees this as an opportunity for control and blackmail. She devises a plan for Tina—to write a threatening letter to one of their classmates, Mort (played by Dick Miller), and blackmail him despite the fact that he’s not the baby’s father.

Tina’s conflicted. She’s a good person but acquiesces to Sabra’s torment. Mort isn’t stupid, and while Tina confronts him and makes an attempt at blackmail, he records the conversation, which proves that he’s not the father of Tina’s baby. This propels Tina into a further abyss, and Sabra’s cold disregard and mind control nearly drives Tina to suicide.

Despite the fact that this film was made on low budget, it shows a singular sensibility. Even the opening titles, designed by Bill Martin, indicate a brooding darkness in the midst of what we might consider a “pulp” genre—black and white drawings of girls caught in a deadly game, at the mercy of one girl, who wears a theatrical mask in one depiction, and has grotesque eyes in another.

Corman teases out a depth marked by oddness out of his actors. One can already see the budding talent of Dick Miller, who was a regular actor in Corman’s films, and who’s also feature in every film by Joe Dante (a protégé of Corman). He’s a college boy—good looks, charm, cigarette in hand, a rebel but not without a cause—yet there’s a quiet confidence and substance there, which will become apparent even in his “everyman” roles in Dante’s films.

Susan Cabot’s captivating as Sabra. Beautiful, yet icy, Cabot oscillates between fake vulnerability and sadistic control. She almost falls apart emotionally in front of her mother, who’s more interested in sun bathing and money than what’s going on in her daughter’s life.

Cabot (who died in unusual circumstances—murdered by her own son) at one point reflected on Corman’s way of filming and his relationship with the actors. There was a lot of ad-libbing in the film—Corman wasn’t too keen on the script that was given to him by American International Pictures, so he changed it slightly but enough to make an impact.

“…he was very loose,” reflected Cabot. “If something didn’t work out, he changed it right away. He gave me a great amount of freedom, and also a chance to play parts that Universal would never have given me—oddball, wacko parts, like the very disturbed girl in Sorority Girl. I had a chance to do moments and scenes that I didn’t get before.”

Corman defined the notion of an “independent filmmaker.” He didn’t set out to make “B-movies,” he simply made movies. His ideas resulted in oddities but oddities which weren’t outlandish or even alienating. In this case, Sorority Girl is far too radical to be put into the B-movie category.

There are several directors in this category that offer multi-layered understanding of reality and interior lives on low budget—Jack Arnold and Edgar Ulmer come to mind. Roger Corman is part of that legacy, and Sorority Girl (like Ulmer’s 1945 Detour and Arnold’s 1957 The Incredible Shrinking Man) challenges the understanding of what should be considered “great art.” More importantly, why do we let critics and even philosophers determine what our experience of art should be? Or what judgments we should adhere to while we experience art? None of these worries matter for Corman, and in this case, he’s a true American film director. Sorority Girl proves this point and is fun and weird in its contradictory blend of high and low art.


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