Saturday, April 23, 2011

Kay Lenz's Performance in The Initiation of Sarah

The Initiation of Sarah (1978) is my favorite horror TV movie from the 1970s -- a decade famous as a Golden Age of horror TV movies. It's a Carrie ripoff, but as occasionally happens, it's better than the original.

As with Carrie, The Initiation of Sarah is about a nerdy girl with psychic powers (Sarah, portrayed by actress Kay Lenz) who is bullied by female classmates. This time it's college, rather than high school, but it's essentially the same story.

Because The Initiation of Sarah is a TV movie (and shot in the more innocent 1970s), it has less gore than Carrie. This means that Sarah must rely on other strengths. Without taking anything away from Carrie's Sissy Spacek, Sarah's greatest asset, among many, is Kay Lenz's performance as the nerdy Sarah.

Lenz's physical appearance, body language, mannerisms, and expressions consistently capture the nuanced timidity of a girl nerd. Consider Sarah maneuvering silently amid the ANS partygoers. (See below clip.) In her dowdy cardigan sweater, the 5'1" Lenz holds herself together, trying to avoid touching anyone as she squeezes past the exuberant taller girls chattering over her. The insecure Sarah strains to be inconspicuous, painfully self-conscious despite the beautiful ANS (Alpha Nu Sigma) girls' obliviousness to her.

It's a short scene, but The Initiation of Sarah is full of such moments when Lenz shines as Sarah. Unfortunately, the above clip seems out of sync, but focus on the visuals and you'll see what I mean.

The one flaw in Lenz's portrayal is when the ANS girls fling mud and vegetables at Sarah, who stands screaming rather than retreat into the house. Most likely, this was Robert Day's direction. A small mistake, in an overall fine job as director. (No, I don't buy that Sarah was "too shocked" to move; I rarely buy that horror's legions of screaming women are too shocked to move whenever a monster lumbers toward them.)

Carrie was remade starring the admirable Angela Bettis, one of the few current actresses who could equal, if not excel, Spacek's performance. I think of Bettis as a female Anthony Perkins; her character in May has a Norman Bates quality. Creepy, yet vulnerable and sympathetic.

It's possible that The Initiation of Sarah was likewise remade, though its DVD description indicates that the producers merely reused the title for an entirely different story. I've not seen this "remake," because most horror remakes of the past 15 years (unlike the ripoffs) have been dreadful, so I can't say for sure.


For more about the staging and performances of actors in horror, see Horror Film Aesthetics: Creating the Visual Language of Fear. This blog represents a continuing discussion of my views on horror, picking up from where the book left off.