Sorority Girl is a slightly odd entry in Roger Corman’s filmography. It’s one of his early efforts as a producer/director and was certainly marketed as an exploitation feature for the drive-in crowd.
What it actually is is a combination of teen flick and 1940s-style women’s melodrama. In some ways it reminds me of the American exploitation movies of the 30s which were often essentially women’s melodramas spiced up with exploitation elements. And like those movies Sorority Girl seems to promise more luridness than we actually get. The poster would lead us to expect a certain amount of sexual kinkiness plus lots of spanking. Well I guess it isn’t all empty promises - we do indeed get a spanking scene. Yes, with the paddle depicted on the poster.
Most movies of that era dealing with juvenile delinquents or related subjects focused either on nice clean-cut small-town kids gone bad, or tough kids from the wrong side of town who were always bad. But in Sorority Girl the bad kids are wealthy kids attending an Ivy League college. It’s an anticipation of much later movies that would explore this kind of Spoilt Rich Kid territory.
There’s very little to the plot. Sabra (Susan Cabot) comes from a very wealthy family indeed, but for some reason she doesn’t seem to be accepted by the other girls in her sorority. The boys seem to steer clear of her as well, even though she’s quite pretty (and rich). As the movie unfolds we discover that Sabra has some major psychological and emotional issues, and we’re less and less surprised that nobody likes her.
Sabra’s mother is rich and selfish and has always regarded Sabra as an annoyance. She has never felt accepted anywhere, and her resentment causes her to lash out. She has a compulsion to be nasty to people, to the point of ensuring that they won’t like her. Her pledge, Ellie, is the one exception, displaying a rather pathetic devotion although she’s a little less devoted after Sabra loses her temper and gives her a good spanking with the afore-mentioned paddle.
When her hated mother cuts off her allowance she becomes desperate, and her behaviour becomes increasingly unstable until events spiral out of her control.
With a barebones plot the movie is forced to rely on characterisation, and Sabra is an undeniably fascinating character, and much more complex than you expect in a 50s teen movie. Here again the movie bears more resemblance to the classic women’s melodramas of the 40s with their focus on troubled, complicated and not always easily likeable women. This demands quite a lot of Susan Cabot who has to do a lot more acting than she was called upon to do in later Corman films like Wasp Woman. And she does a pretty fair job. The tale of Susan Cabot’s own life and death is actually as bizarre as the plot of a Roger Corman film, but that’s another story.
The teen pregnancy sub-plot adds to the exploitation elements but the main focus is always on Sabra’s descent into her own private emotional hell. Corman takes his material quite seriously, and most of the cast members do so as well, and the end result is a movie that is more intelligent and more emotionally charged than your average 50s drive-in movie.
The fact that this was 1957 and there was therefore no way to deliver the kind of luridness that this kind of movie would certainly have featured had it been made a decade later works in its favour. It has no choice but to take itself seriously and to capture and keep our attention by making us care about the characters. And it explores the subject of mental illness with surprising subtlety.
The Region 4 DVD release is acceptable as far as sound and image quality are concerned, although the picture is perhaps a little washed out. There are no extras at all.
A surprisingly decent if odd little movie.