If I were to give any unsolicited advice to an aspiring screenwriter it would be this: start with a bang and end strong.
In my experience, a good beginning and conclusion can salvage a complete cinematic misfire, or at least help you forgive some of the glaring problems that dominate a movie’s middle section.
Outside of the newest entry in the James Bond franchise, my most recent encounter with this phenomenon took place during a viewing of Joe Mazzuca’s Sisters of Death (1976), a low-budget horror film that is rife with plot holes, cheap titillation, and bad production values.
However, I couldn’t bring myself to truly hate this film, since there were enough interesting elements at play to hold my attention for 97 minutes (including a really entertaining finale).
Still, I wouldn’t go as far to say that Sisters of Death is some kind of underrated horror masterpiece or anything, since the film often looks and feels like a porno with all the explicit sex scenes taken out.
The plot of Sisters of Death kicks off with a literal bang, where a secret college sorority initiation ceremony goes horribly wrong and results in one of the pledges being shot in the head.
Seven years later, the surviving members of the sorority meet up for a reunion at a secluded compound, although nothing is as it seems.
Once the women realize that they have been trapped by an electric fence, paranoia begins to set in once a mysterious killer starts picking them off one by one.
On paper, this sounds like a perfectly serviceable premise for an exploitation flick, especially with noted b-movie queen Claudia Jennings serving as the main lead.
And like I mentioned before, the opening couple minutes of this film serve as a great hook, where the filmmakers use an ethereal score and sudden burst of violence to set the stage for a movie that’s meant to be equal parts mystery and slasher.
Unfortunately, the script really starts to fall apart as soon as the plot gets rolling, since virtually all of the characters make one bone-headed decision after another, even by horror movie standards.
For one thing, the invitation to this college reunion was sent out by a mystery benefactor, which doesn’t set off any alarm bells for most of the women involved.
The majority of these ladies also find no problem with getting into a car with two strange men who were hired to drive them out into the middle of the desert.
And when they finally arrive at their destination, the sorority sisters are thrilled to find that this shadowy figure has supplied them with champagne and their own bathing suits to enjoy the compound’s luxurious pool area.
This serious lack of curiosity and self-preservation makes you resent these characters before they are even put in mortal damage, which robs the latter half of this movie of any real tension.
And that’s a real shame, since the entire cast are obviously doing their best to work with the material they were given.
Even though the sorority sisters are brainless idiots, the actresses playing them all have great chemistry and really sold me on the idea that they are old friends.
The movie’s screenwriters also do a decent job of imbuing the five main actresses with unique personalities, which helps you at least keep track of all the main characters once they start dropping like flies.
The people behind the camera should be given some credit as well, since they made the wise decision to utilize a lot of long takes to build suspense.
Combine all these lingering shots with an eerie, atmospheric score and Sisters of Death occasionally resembles the better “Giallo” Italian horror movies that were coming out around the same time, albeit with a fraction of the same directorial skill that was wielded by filmmakers like Dario Argento.
Because as hard as he tries, Mazzuca’s cinematic ambitions are constantly at odds with the poor production values that plague most of this movie.
One of the most glaring examples of this dynamic is the “giant” electric fence that is meant to keep all the main characters from escaping the compound.
While I’m sure the original script for Sisters of Death specified that this fence needed to be 20-30 feet high, what ends up on the screen is a structure that is barely taller than an average man.
As pointed out by YouTuber Robin Bailes, the characters could have easily escaped this deadly scenario if they simply stacked some furniture next to this fence and hopped to the other side.
Instead, the sorority sisters and their two male companions simply wait around like sitting ducks and continue to go about their day and night almost like nothing had even happened, deciding to take hot showers and go to bed in their underwear.
This would have made sense if Sisters of Death was an outright porno, where the filmmakers were financially obligated to crowbar some inorganic sex scenes into the plot every five minutes or so.
But since that never happens, all I’m left with is the cinematic equivalent of blue balls and lingering thoughts like: “why didn’t they stay outside where the killer can’t sneak up on them?”
It also doesn’t help that the movie’s editor was seemingly asleep at the wheel, since I spotted the crew’s boom mic in at least five different shots.
But despite all those shortcomings, Sisters of Death actually manages to pull itself together for the final 10 minutes, where all the various plot threads wrap up in a pretty compelling fashion.
I won’t spoil what happens, but suffice it to say that Mazzuca and his screenwriters successfully threw some curveballs at me that I wasn’t expecting for a film of this caliber.
And while a strong ending isn’t enough to override the film’s many shortcomings, it at least made me feel like I hadn’t completely wasted my time.
Is this a back-handed compliment? Sure. But if the writers of Seinfeld have taught me anything, it’s that glaring character flaws can be forgiven if you leave the audience on a high note.
Corner store companion:
Wagon Wheels (because the middle is the worst part)
-Release date: April 19, 1976 (IMDB), August 1977 (Wikipedia)
-According to IMDB, this movie was originally shot in 1972, but wasn’t released until several years later.
-Actress and Playboy Playmate Claudia Jennings, who plays the lead character in Sisters of Death, tragically died in an automobile accident on Oct. 3, 1979, only a few years after this movie was released. She was 29 years old.
–Sisters of Death marks Joe Mazzuca’s last project as a live-action film director before switching over to being a production manager for several animated TV shows. His filmography includes work on programs like: Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, She-Ra: Princess of Power, Muppet Babies, and Dexter’s Laboratory.
–Sisters of Death can be viewed in its entirety on YouTube.