[Robin Meloy Goldsby recalls her time in THE HOUSE ON SORORITY ROW (1983)]
The House on Sorority Row
©2011 Robin Meloy Goldsby, All Rights Reserved
This story is an excerpt from Goldsby’s newest book,
Waltz of the Asparagus People: The Further Adventures of Piano Girl
Published in the USA by Bass Lion Publishing
Published in Germany by Bücken & Sulzer Verlag
Sisters in life, sisters in death.
I was one of the lead actresses cast in the 1983 Film Ventures chop-up-the-college-girls cult classic The House on Sorority Row. Fans of the film may remember me as the clumsy and idiotic blond who grabs a butcher knife, runs down a hallway while being chased by an invisible killer (later revealed to be a schizophrenic clown), trips and falls, and—here’s the idiotic part—hides in the bathroom, where she meets her shocking fate.
Slasher Film 101: Never ever hide in the bathroom.
I’m thinking about this now, because this week—twenty-six years after the debut of the original film—Sorority Row premieres again, this time around as a “contemporary horror film” with a new cast, including Carrie “Princess Leia” Fisher (daughter of Eddie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds), Rumer Willis (daughter of Bruce Willis and Demi Moore), and a handful of unknown but undoubtedly hopeful and hardworking actresses. I wonder what each of them had to go through to get the job. I suspect the audition game is much the same as it was for me all those years ago. I’m lucky I escaped that phase of my life with my head on straight. Almost.
In the eighties I lived in New York City but paid my rent—and my dues—by playing the piano at the Waterbury, Connecticut, Holiday Inn, home of the all-you-can-eat Scampi Buffet, the Blue Hawaiian two-for-one cocktail hour, a spinet piano with a missing leg, and a handful of semi-toothless customers with names like Clarkie, Dutch, and Roy-Boy. Playing the piano in a seedy cocktail bar motivated me to keep striving for higher levels of employment. I loved making music, but I had stars in my eyes, a college degree in drama, and big ideas about the limelight, motion pictures, and serious acting. I read about the open auditions for The House on Sorority Row in an actor’s trade publication called Backstage. Anxious for a chance to escape Waterbury, I decided to go, even though I knew it would be the ultimate cattle call.
Almost 700 actresses showed up to audition for seven roles—a throbbing mass of female talent squashed into a tiny Midtown rehearsal-studio lobby. We were a perfumed blob of blind faith, giddy optimism, and desperation, up to our layered bangs in apricot blush and lash-plumping mascara. Twenty-five years later, I’m sure some jaded but curious janitorial team is still scraping glitter gel, nail-polish claw marks, and lipstick stains off the walls. Revlon Perfect Pink, with just a hint of shimmer.
There were over 650 rejects that day, which might have been a record, even for New York City.
Needle-fine April drizzle splatters my forehead as I cross Fifty-fifth Street. Springtime in New York: Pedestrians leap over puddles, and the air smells like a noxious broth of exhaust fumes and clean linen. I join the conga line of actresses coiling past the rehearsal-studio door and worry that the humidity will ruin my makeup.
“You’re number 430,” says a know-it-all manboy with a whiny voice. “Wait for your number to be called.”
The young women assembled are a lush bunch, with cranked-up hair, strappy high heels, and tight synthetic sweaters in earthy colors. Most of these ladies have model potential—chiseled faces and perfect bodies—but they’re two or three inches too short for a career in fashion. It’s a room jam-packed with Elite Model spit-backs—gorgeous but slightly squat.
At an open casting call, when this many actors show up for so few roles, the casting director does something called “typing.” Here’s how it goes: Ten nervous wannabes are herded into a fluorescent-lit room. They stand there like iced cupcakes in a bakery window while the casting director looks them over once or twice. Several of the original ten are given a “callback,” or an invitation to return, with slightly better odds. The casting director, often a woman with a sad smile and a ratty black pantsuit, mutters a hurried thank you for your time and glances at her oversized watch. Then she herds the rejects out of the room by holding open the door and shouting—through a fake smile with clenched teeth—NEXT, PLEASE into the waiting area. The dejected group shuffles out, a hopeful group bounces in. It’s like two forces of life, pulling and pushing at the same vague promise.
I figure it might take several hours before the casting director gets to my group. No chairs left, so I sit on the floor and try not to think about soiling my best coat. A pitted path in the grubby linoleum leads from the lobby into the casting area, probably from decades of stiletto heels digging into the spongy surface.
I scope out the cupcake competition and listen to the chatter.
“Do I look fat?”
My puffy face depresses me; most of my 125 pounds is located above my neck. But because it’s chilly outside and raining sideways, and because I have a stale street-vendor pretzel and a thermos of coffee in my bag, and because I don’t have anywhere else to go until the bus leaves for Waterbury, I decide to stay and devise a strategy. Maybe the Paul Mitchell hair-spray fumes will help me think.
An idea hits me. Horror films are formula films. There’s always an awkward girl, an unfortunate-looking sidekick, an ugly duckling. This could be me—the dweeb. Because I have my Waterbury overnight bag with me, I’ve got access to a large supply of ugly-girl enhancement tools: makeup remover, hair twisties, pink Keds, fat-girl sweat pants, reading glasses, and a baggy old T-shirt. I shove my way into the crowded bathroom, where I change clothes and experiment with some bad-posture poses. An hour later the manboy calls my group into the studio. While my beautiful competitors fluff their hair and beam at the casting director as if they’re auditioning for a Pantene commercial, I stare at my feet.
“Pathetic,” says the casting lady.
“I know,” says a Jesus-looking man standing in the corner. “She’s perfect.”
The Jesus look-alike strolls over to me and introduces himself. “I’m Mark Rosman, the director. I think you’re my Jeanie.”
“The rest of you, thank you very much.” The casting lady wedges open the door with her boot. “NEXT PLEASE!” she yells into the crowded lobby.
I shake hands with Jesus, make an appointment to read for him, and slip out the door as the next group of calendar girls sashays in. I haven’t yet been offered the part, but somehow I know I’ve nailed it.
I float—float!—to the Port Authority to catch the bus to Waterbury, where I play that evening for two mentally challenged people named Dennis and Maryanne. They get completely pissed drinking two-for-one Blue Hawaiians, argue at top volume, and then throw Pepperidge Farm Goldfish at each other, but I don’t care, not one bit, because I have a shot at an acting job in a real movie, and soon, very soon, I’ll be out of the Waterbury Holiday Inn. Who knows where The House on Sorority Row might take me?
Five days later I return to Manhattan for my callback, where I read several scenes, most of which include references to blood, guts, and a murdered housemother bobbing in an algae-filled swimming pool.
“Would you please scream for me, Robin?” asks Jesus.
“Why, of course,” I say. “Uh—you might want to cover your ears.” I let it rip.
“Thank you. Very passionate, very heartfelt, very loud—just what I’m looking for. Many of your scenes will be without much dialogue, either because you’ll be in the process of being murdered or you’ll already be dead.”
“Can’t talk when you’re dead.”
“Exactly, because you’re, well, dead! You get it! Let’s try another scene, this time with some tears.” He shuffles through a stack of pages.
“But you can’t cry when—”
“Here!” He hands me a sheet of paper with one word on it: HELP. “You’re in a desperate situation. You scream for help, then you cry hysterically. Got it?”
“Got it. Wait! Am I dead?”
“Not yet. Got it?”
Scream. Cry. Scream. Cry. Eat a tuna sandwich, drink coffee out of the blue-and-white paper cup. Start all over again. Scream. Scream. Louder.
“One more time, please, this time for the camera.”
We finish the day with me crying for about twenty minutes. I’m good at crying on cue. Salty tears. Big ones, the kind that plop on the floor and almost make a sound.
“Congratulations, Robin,” says the production manager, a sturdy guy with a lopsided smile. The role of Jeanie is yours.”
Finally. A part in a movie!
“You’ll start shooting on July 1st, with several days of costume shopping and makeup tests ahead of time. Oh, you’ll have to be fitted for your neck prosthesis next week.”
Neck prosthesis? At this point I haven’t seen the complete script. This prosthesis word makes me nervous.
“We’ll pay you fifty dollars a day on days that you work. Plus travel expenses and housing.”
That’s all? I earn way more than that in Waterbury. How will I cover my rent?
Robert checks his clipboard. “You are fifth to die in the film, and then, let’s see here, you come back as a zombie and as a head in the toilet, so you’ll have a lot to do.”
“A head in the toilet? My head in the toilet?”
“Chopped off, of course. It’s really the highlight of the entire film. The pinnacle of the dramatic curve.”
“Oh. How will you—”
“And we’ll provide meals and housing and transportation from New York City to Baltimore. A driver will pick you up at the train station and take you to the hospice.”
“Whoops, silly me. I mean the hostel. I always get those words mixed up. You’ll be staying at a hostel that usually houses Sufi dancers. Community bathroom, but you’ll have your own bedroom. You’ll have to bring your own sheets and towels.”
A week later I find myself in the special-effects guy’s Brooklyn brownstone, with my face and neck submerged in a bucket of high-tech gunk, the plastery material used to cast wax figures of Nelson Mandela and Elizabeth Taylor for Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum. I breath through a wide straw and try not to panic.
“Gorgeous, Robin, gorgeous!” he says to my bucket-covered head. “This will be beautiful! I’m going to mold some torn tendons and severed arteries for this baby. Lots of gory details. It’ll be fabulous!” My ears are partially submerged, so his voice sounds muffled, as if he were talking through Jell-O.
I grunt a reply through the straw: “Forfffowwwfflong?”
“Just a few minutes longer,” he says. “And then we’ll get you out of that bucket. Sorry I’m dunking your face in there, but I have to make a mold of it to get the proper neck dimensions.”
On the bus ride back to Waterbury, somewhere around Danbury, I figure out I won’t be able to give up my piano gig—Sorority Row won’t pay enough. It’s a classic New York predicament. I’ll have to stay out of town earning money to pay for an empty apartment. I won’t be home for weeks at a time. Shit. I notice something funny in my ear—a glob of dried pink plaster.
I play my Friday-night set, stopping every so often to pick little pieces of goo out of my hair. I plink out a Gershwin medley and think about the plaster replica of my face and neck floating in a toilet bowl. Clarkie, Dutch, and Roy-Boy drink their blue drinks and stare at the ceiling all night, occasionally taking a moment to yell out a word spelled backwards, an activity they enjoy.
I brush cigarette ashes off the keyboard, play “Embraceable You,” and wonder how I’ll manage to do both gigs. Shit.
Gig spelled backwards is still gig.
There’s an old joke: How do you get an actress to complain? Give her a job.
There’s another old joke: How do you get a musician to complain? Give her a job.
Harley, Eileen, Kathy, Jodie, Ellen, Janis, and I—the lucky seven actresses playing the unlucky seven sorority sisters—meet in Pikesville, Maryland, a few days before shooting begins. Costume shopping turns gloomy when I realize the other actresses will be wearing sexy evening dresses, bikinis, and cutoff shorts (standard slasher-film attire), but I, the cast misfit, will be dressed in the college-girl equivalent of Garanimals—mix-and-match polyester outfits with color-coordinated bows for my hair. One scene calls for baby-blue overalls that make me look slightly pregnant.
Most of the film will be shot in a rambling Pikesville mansion that has been art-directed to look like a ritzy sorority house and dormitory. Everything is fake, but familiar in a funky way, and I feel as if I’ve been zapped back to college days. There are big plastic containers of half-used cosmetics in the bathroom, Bruce Springsteen posters on the doors, and threadbare oriental rugs in the library. Bright, airy, warm, dormy. Fake.
In reverse-Technicolor contrast, the house the film company has rented from the Sufis is all too real. It’s a hostile hostel where we will hang out and sleep for the duration of the shoot. It’s grimy, spooky, and home to most of the Pikesville bat population. At unannounced times dozens of bearded men in long white robes inhabit the main living room. They spin and spin and spin in silent circles with their arms held up to the filthy ceiling, praising heaven, praising Pikesville, perfecting the art of spinning in place.
While the Sufis dance my sisters and I hide in the community kitchen, gorging on Archway cookies, Entenmann’s fudge cake, and take-out pepperoni pizza, wondering if we’ll look fat in the next day’s rushes. From the beginning of time, this is how actresses have bonded.
“Do I look fat?”
“No. Do I?”
“No, are you crazy? Have some more cake. It’s raspberry-lemon-lite, and besides, you need the energy for your big scene tomorrow—it’ll be, like, really emotionally draining.”
An ancient upright grand piano, almost in tune, stands in one of the back rooms. Sometimes, after a careful check for wandering Sufis and Grandpa Munster–sized bats hanging from the eaves, I go in there and play. One or two of the sisters join me, and together we sing Billy Joel songs about getting high, aiming low, and clinging to past regrets. We’re way too young to sing such songs, but we pretend to understand the lyrics.
Now that I have the job, Director Mark has stopped reminding me of Jesus. On the first day of shooting he greets us with a description of the plot: “Here’s how it goes: The Evil Housemother—who hates every single one of you—catches Eileen doing the nasty-nasty in her sorority-girl waterbed. The Evil Housemother slashes the waterbed—whoosh!—with her silver-tipped Evil Cane and completely ruins Eileen’s romantic moment by knocking her and her boyfriend out of their passionate embrace. The scene concludes with poor Eileen shivering on the flooded bedroom floor, plotting to take revenge on the Evil Housemother.”
“Well, ladies, I held my ground,” says Eileen after her waterbed scene. “I absolutely refused to show my breasts.”
Eileen’s bedroom scene has been shot on a closed set—restricted to anyone but the necessary crew—and we’ve spent much of the morning speculating about what might be going on in there.
“I stayed 100 percent fully clothed,” she says.
“Did anyone see my striped kneesocks?” asks Harley. “I can’t find them anywhere, and my feet are freezing.”
One year later, at the premiere of The House on Sorority Row, we’ll see Eileen on the silver screen, wearing nothing but those kneesocks. The stripes add a nice touch.
Director Mark: “For revenge, the sisters play a prank on the Evil Housemother. Eileen threatens the housemother with a gun just to make a point and scare her, but—BOOM!—the gun accidentally goes off, and she shoots—and kills—the housemother. The old lady tumbles into the swimming pool, blood pours out of her huge chest, and her corpse is floating there in the bloody water. The special-effects guy has a blood pump you won’t believe. The girls, anxious to hide their crime before the big sorority-house party starts, drag her out of the water, put her in a sack with rocks, and roll her back into the pool. She sinks to the bottom. But the main thing is—and this is the beauty part—everyone thinks the Evil Housemother is dead and gone, which is actually true! But when the girls start dying, the audience will believe the housemother has somehow gotten out of that pool to murder them! And, get this, the girls all show up in the pool later in the film, after they’re all dead. How cool is that?”
The prop master handles the gun with care, but still, it’s unsettling to be around Eileen with a real Glock 42 in her manicured hands. My character is supposed to be nervous, so I bite my nails and twitch just a tad more.
“Too much makeup on Robin,” says Director Mark. “She looks too glamorous.”
“I look like a squirrel.” I’m sitting between Ellen, who looks like Audrey Hepburn, and Harley, who’s a ringer for Lauren Bacall. Back in the wardrobe area, the makeup artist removes my lip gloss and accentuates the circles under my eyes, while the costume lady adjusts my Garanimals overalls and fusses with my hair ribbons. Turns out to be just as much work to make an actress look bad as it is to make her look good. Almost.
“Perfect,” says Director Mark. “Now let’s murder the housemother.”
Fine. We shoot the housemother, push her into the pool, and watch her body sink. Director Mark wraps for the day. To celebrate, we eat piles of bagels and feed scraps of boiled ham to Rocket the dog, a three-legged mutt who hangs out on the set. Then we return to House o’ Sufi, rummage through the kitchen in search of old cake, and watch the turbaned men spin.
“Do I look fat?”
Later that night I hear sex noises coming from some of my sisters’ rooms. Maybe a Sufi or two has whirled up the back stairs, or maybe a lighting technician or production assistant has sneaked in the back door. I squeeze my eyes shut and try not to care. I dream of kneesocks and Dutch and Roy-Boy, and of sitting on the edge of a Jell-O–filled swimming pool while everyone else jumps in and swims.
We put her back in the pool and she was still alive, emotes Kathy, the big star of the film, also known as The Girl Who Lives. The entire plot depends on the audience believing that the Evil Housemother has gotten out of her rock-filled sack at the bottom of the pool and returned to the sorority house to start knocking us off with her Evil Cane.
Ellen is murdered in the basement, with a haunting silhouette of her perfectly pert profile projected onto a stone wall by a lone lightbulb that loops back and forth. The Evil Cane lunges into the frame and, ploomp, stabs her in the throat.
“Gruesome, but tasteful,” we tell each other.
“Director Mark is really good.”
“Yeah, he’s like Hitchcock. He knows how to tell a story with style. Like, artisticfully, you know?”
“Did I look fat?”
Jodie, who probably isn’t as dumb as she looks, but still, I have to wonder, buys it at the base of the attic steps. The attic-cam rushes toward her open mouth and frozen platinum hair and leaves her demise to our imaginations. I like to think she dies because she swallows the camera. She also does not look fat.
Never ever go near the attic.
Janis never reveals her real name. She’s a thirty-five-year-old actress with an actual career who has decided to accept a role as a college girl in a slasher film rather than spend the summer serving nachos in a Malibu restaurant. The killer snags Janis while she’s snooping around the basement looking for Ellen.
Horror Film + Basement = Bad News.
Harley Jane Kozak is my favorite of the seven sisters, mainly because she wears Army-surplus Bermuda shorts, always has a good book in her hands, and teaches me how to French-braid my hair. A gloved hand grabs her while she is poking around in the bushes looking for clues.
Never ever poke around in the bushes.
Eileen falls into an open grave, breasts first. Really, if you’re going to die, it’s convenient to do it right over a hole in the ground. When I see the rushes I’m impressed with Eileen’s death throes; she even takes a moment to fix her hair while she’s falling. And she absolutely, 100 percent, positively does not look fat.
If you want to stay alive, never hang out in the cemetery, especially if you’re wearing a halter top.
The half-drowned housemother is a true menace, and Director Mark is milking each death scene to its fullest potential.
“But, you know, he does it so tastefully.”
The killer catches up with me—Jeanie—at the back gate to the sorority house.
Always use the front door. Never go through the back gate.
After grappling with the mystery killer and the Evil Cane, I escape, run into the kitchen, and lock the door behind me. I rummage through a drawer, pull out a machete-sized butcher knife, then sit there nervously and wait for something to happen. Stupid really, because everyone knows that if you sit and wait, the killer shows up and you’re in deep shit. But I’m not the writer. I’m just the actress hired to play the stupid girl. So I wait.
Director Mark: “Here’s where things get interesting. The sorority girls are gurking, one at a time, all over the house. Poor little Jeanie is sitting alone in the kitchen, just waitin’ to meet her maker. There are loads of teenagers at the party in the next room. Jeanie could go in there, get the band to stop playing that god-awful music, and call the police, but no, she sits there like an idiot with the butcher knife in her hands. The killer rattles the door to the kitchen, and then—smash!—the Evil Cane breaks through the glass window. Jeanie races up the back stairway, clutching the butcher knife. She runs down the hallway, bouncin’ off the walls, slippin’ and slidin’ on the slick sorority-house floor.
“And then she falls—splat! She cuts herself with the knife, sees the dribbles of blood on her yellow dress, and feels sick to her stomach. We can hear the killer coming, faster and faster. But Jeanie thinks she might throw up, so she runs into the bathroom where she can vomit in private. I know what you’re thinking: No, no, no! Not the bathroom! Why the bathroom? I will tell you why: Jeanie might be stupid, but she’s a lady to the end. No way would she toss her cookies right there in the hallway. I wouldn’t want to portray her in any other way, except like really dignified.”
“Cut!” Director Mark yells. “We’ve got a situation. Someone deal with the knife situation, please!”
The rubber prop knife doesn’t look authentic, so Director Mark opts for a real butcher knife. Blunt, but still. The trick is to release the knife as I fall, thereby avoiding a real-life self-stabbing incident that would seriously jeopardize the plot but ultimately be great for the tabloids and trade rags. Flinging the knife endangers the technicians who are racing backwards on a dolly track in a very narrow hallway. One bad knife toss and I could take out half of the crew. I feign a couple of threatening moves toward the Best Boy, just to keep him on his toes. If I’m only making $50 a day, what’s that poor guy making? I practice running and falling without my weapon until I feel comfortable enough to add the knife to my choreographed routine of run, fall, gag. After nineteen takes, the repair of a cluster of open blisters on my sandal-clad feet caused by the Payless white plastic sandals that were not made for stuntwomen, and injuries that will result in humongo purple bruises on both knees, I get it just right. I finish the take, crawl into the bathroom while making gagging noises, and the entire crew claps for me.
The next day I return to Waterbury to play a weekend’s worth of piano gigs. Compared to House o’ Sufi, the Holiday Inn looks like the Waldorf Astoria. I greet Dennis and Maryanne as if they’re my long-lost retarded relatives. I even sit at the bar next to Dutch and Roy-Boy and compliment them on their matching plaid flannel shirts. I wear a long evening dress to cover my bruises and—in between sets of Janis Ian tunes and Beatles hits—I tell my coworkers complete lies about my glamorous life as an actress.
The next bit, my big death scene in the dormitory bathroom, is scheduled for the following week at the Baltimore Public High School for Performing Arts.
Director Mark: “The killer enters the bathroom and we see poor Jeanie, crouched up on the toilet seat like a little rabbit, nibbling on her fingernails, holding her butcher knife, and saying her prayers, hoping the Good Lord or someone will see fit to spare her pathetic life, even if she is wearing such an awful dress. The killer turns on the showers, and steam fills the room.
“Very scary. Jeanie hears the first toilet stall door open, then the second. She’s in stall number three. We wait. We wait. We wait.
“Whack! The Evil Cane breaks the lock on Jeanie’s toilet stall. Scream, scream, scream! As the killer pushes her up against the white wall, a gloved hand comes into the frame and forces Jeanie’s neck up against the blade of her very own knife. Squirt, squirt, squirt, out comes the blood. Red on white. Very dramatic. This’ll be great, great, great.
“Gurk, gurk, gurk, down goes Jeanie, with one hand clawing—think chalkboard noise here—at the stall wall, the other hand holding onto the very knife that’s taking off her head.
“I want people to taste irony in Jeanie’s death. If only she’d stayed out of that bathroom. If only she’d let go of that knife. If only, if only. But, you know, for the sake of the plot, she’s gotta die.”
“Cue steam! Cue blood!” Director Mark shouts. He shoots my death scene without sound, which allows him to yell verbal cues at me while we’re filming. “Okay, Robin, you’re really scared. Now you’re really really scared. Now you hear that first door open and you’re even more scared.”
He also cues the effects people. “More steam—get it to waft in her face, force the door open. Whack her with the cane. Careful the point doesn’t poke her eye out! Knife to her neck! Blood pump, blood pump, blood pump, pump, pump, pump! Now, now, now!
This blood pump is a big drag. It’s attached to a hose that snakes under my Garanimals dress and ends right at the base of my skull. The special-effects man, who’s becoming my least favorite person on the set, squats on the floor underneath me, and when he receives his cue—blood!—he pushes down a plunger that forces the fake blood through the hose and out of the nozzle by my head. The fake blood looks real—it even smells real—and I wonder if the special-effects guy is copping it from a pig farm not too far from House o’ Sufi. But I’m a professional actress, and I soldier on without asking questions. In between takes I scrub off the pig blood, change into a new version of my dress, eat Fig Newtons, and lie on the lavatory floor staring up at the institutional-white ceiling.
Never once does it occur to me to quit.
“Once more, Robin, then we’ll have it. Cue steam. Cue blood pump. Action.”
Twelve hours of work, three different setups, five takes with a knife at my throat, and I’m finally dead.
Director Mark: “But she’s not dead! That’s the genius of this script. You think the girls are dead, but they come back. They come back as zombies! They float in the swimming pool! And then, and then, and then—get this—we see the head. We see, for a split second, poor little Jeanie’s head floating in the toilet bowl. What a thing. It will look 100 percent real.”
“In there? I have to stick my head in there? Is that a real toilet?”
“Yes, but we cleaned it thoroughly.”
I knew they would be shooting footage of my actual head with a fake neck glued to it, but I never thought they would make me put my head inside an actual toilet. It has taken the effects team hours to glue the prosthesis to my neck and apply my dead person makeup. Now I’m supposed to sit underneath the floor of a fake toilet stall—built on a platform—and stick my real head and fake neck through a hole cut in the bottom of the porcelain bowl. The cameraman will be on a ladder above me, on the platform, shooting down.
A production assistant guides my head into the hole. I have a rather large head for a woman who is by no means fat, and this is a small hole, so we use a wedge-and-shove technique to get both my head and the prosthesis inside the toilet. Someone shoves a barstool under my butt so I can sit, but the stool is too low, and my neck—the real one, not the fake one—wrenches. I look up and see Director Mark smiling down at me.
“You look great!”
“Shit,” I say, losing my cool. “I can’t do this.”
“Sure you can,” he says. “It’s the movies. Got it?”
“Got it. But. Hurry. And could someone scratch my nose?”
“Something doesn’t look quite right in the toilet bowl,” says the special-effects man. “Throw some water in there.” Six or seven people stand above me on the platform. One of them holds a bucket.
What would Meryl do?
“And we need to mix some blood with the water.”
“Could you please hurry?”
“Let’s start rolling,” says Director Mark. “Hang in there, Robin.”
“Head to the side, head straight. More blood on her neck. More water in her face. Eyes closed. Eyes open. Makeup! Wipe away the tears! Come on, Robin, get it together—dead people don’t cry!”
“Yes they do,” I shout.
Three hours later he has his shot.
It takes half a bottle of spirit gum remover and twenty minutes of scrubbing in the shower to remove the prosthesis. Pig blood or fake blood, whatever it is, it leaves an ugly stain.
“Here, Robin.” The special-effects guy hands me the gunky prosthesis like he’s presenting an Oscar. “I want you to have this.”
“Fuck you,” I say. I throw his fake neck at him and leave to get the train back to Waterbury. I need a piano, a Blue Hawaiian, and a dose of reality.
The Waterbury gig ends a few months later. Dutch has died—a real death, not a fake one—and Roy-Boy and Clarkie have drifted away. I begin to get piano work in Manhattan.
The following year my fake sorority sisters and I attend a New York City premiere of the movie. What fun we have. We giggle when we see a topless Eileen wearing Harley’s long-lost kneesocks, we scream at the shot of my head in the toilet, we give ourselves a standing ovation as the credits roll. Then, before we say goodbye forever, we go to a party and tell each other how beautiful and thin we are. The House on Sorority Row is a huge hit with slasher-film fans, a group that’s larger than one might hope. Since the movie features the creative demise of seven rich white girls, it also develops a cult following of ethnic minority teenagers. I’m recognized on the subway for several months after the premiere.
“Hey, lady, aren’t you the head in the toilet?”
“You’re some kind of bad, lady.”
“Thank you,” I say, because that’s what Meryl would do.
Not one of the original seven sisters, not even The Girl Who Lived, was asked to appear as a zombie, a ghost, or a head in the toilet in the new big-budget version of The House on Sorority Row. Any one of us could have played the Evil Housemother, but that role went to Carrie Fisher, herself no stranger to horror-film scenarios, although I doubt she ever sat next to Roy-Boy in the Waterbury Holiday Inn or ducked a flying mammal at the House o’ Sufi.
I still haven’t seen the remake.
Mark Rosman continues to direct films. I imagine him at casting calls, pulling the pathetic girl out of the lineup and giving her a job because he knows she won’t quit, no matter what. He knows she wants to be in the movies. She’ll respect his judgment and trust his instincts. And he will coax her to put her head in the toilet, to take off her bra, to cry on cue, to run with a weapon or dive into a pool full of muck. She will follow through. Artisticfully.
Almost three decades ago, we—the seven actresses—hoped to escape our jobs as waitresses, office workers, and piano players in cheesy bars. After the Sorority Row premiere was over and the hoopla had fizzled, we drifted away from each other, betting our careers would someday offer more than an Evil Cane and a dunk in an algae-filled pool. Eileen, Kathy, and Harley have had lovely careers doing projects that did not, to my knowledge, involve pig blood or Sufi dancers. We’re also mothers and wives and tenders of homes, gardens, and patchwork careers. Even though we’ve reinvented ourselves countless times, I’m guessing that, even now, we are not fat.
Sisters in life, sisters in death. We were some kind of bad. On that cattle-call day in 1982, my hair stiff with cherry-scented mousse, I thought a role in a movie would change everything about my life. In a way, it did. I wonder if somewhere in that old Fifty-fifth Street rehearsal studio traces of my face powder still linger—Max Factor Glow Girl, in Frosted Rosé. The company discontinued the color years ago, but it was a lovely shade.
Read the review of THE HOUSE ON SORORITY ROW.
Visit Robin's website.
Listen to the Hysteria Continues podcast dedicated to THE HOUSE ON SORORITY ROW, with an audio interview with Robin and director Mark Rosman!