"I'm not bad. I just act that way": Susan Cabot IS Sabra Tanner in Roger Corman's "Sorority Girl"(1957).
Hi Keebah and hello, movie lovers.
Meet Sabra Tanner (Susan Cabot), a brunette beauty attending a swanky college. Not only is she a member of an elite sorority, Sabra also has more money than God, dresses like a fashion model and drives a spiffy Thunderbird car.
She's also mean as a snake.
Produced and directed by your friend and mine Roger Corman, "Sorority Girl" (1957) has barely begun when we witness Sabra ordering sad sack pledge Ellie (Barbara Cowan) to wash and iron her clothes, insulting her goody-two shoes roommate Rita (Barboura O'Neill) and sneering at her fellow Sister's knock-off dress--while flaunting her own, more expensive purchase.
Later on, when another Sister calls out Sabra for treating Ellie like her personal maid (which is against house rules), a miffed Cabot tracks down Ellie and slaps her face.
"Next time, don't talk so much!" Sabra hisses.
Like I said, mean as a snake. Make that two snakes.
Despite her bullying behavior, Sabra can't figure out why she has no friends or why her fellow sorority Sisters treat her like the plague. Is it her fashion plate perfection? Her social status as a rich heiress? Her brutal honesty? Boy, there is just no pleasing some people, is there?
Of course, it isn't just Sabra's fellow co-eds who don't like her. Her high society mom (Fay Baker) doesn't care for her much, either. That's clear when the two meet for dinner in town and barely conceal their mutual loathing.
Wearing a hat the size of a hula hoop and sucking on a mile-long cigarette holder, Mrs. Tanner asks, "Sabra, what do I have to do to convince you I care about you?"
"What do you mean I have to pay the tip?": Sabra and her mom argue over money--again.
"A lot more than you have," Sabra replies.
"I may not be perfect," Mrs. Tanner admits. "But I am your mother."
"I know how to spell it, but what does it mean?" Sabra asks.
"It means there's a very close bond between us," Mrs. Tanner explains.
To which Sabra hollers, "Mother! You wouldn't walk to blocks to see me!"
Round 2: Sabra and her mom argue some more.
Which causes mom to snarl back, "Maybe you mean you wouldn't walk two blocks to see me!"
Sabra laughs and says, "Now we're both speaking the truth."
Mrs. Tanner fixes her daughter with a steely glare and seethes, "You were a brat the moment you were born! It was in your eyes."
Mrs. Tanner then reminds Sabra that she "still controls the purse strings for a while" and pulls out her daughter's monthly allowance check--which mom rips into pieces.
"I hope you have enough clothes, dear" Mrs. Tanner says airily, "because that's the last one I intend to write. From now on, you can do without."
I couldn't find anymore pictures of Sabra and her mom, so I downloaded this.
"I hate you!" Sabra whispers through clenched teeth.
"What a pity," mom sighs, "when I love you so much. Oh, well!"
Strapped for cash, Sabra takes her frustrations out on Ellie, as usual. After ordering the dumpy pledge to rigorously exercise, she blows a gasket when Ellie refuses to do anymore sit-ups. So Sabra grabs a wooden paddle with Greek lettering on it and spanks the daylights out of her.
"Maybe now you won't say 'can't'!" Sabra declares.
That's when nice girl Rita enters the room.
Nice girl Rita (Barboura O'Neill) has some secrets, too.
"What a horrible thing to do!" she tells Sabra. "You don't belong on this campus! I knew you'd hang yourself with something, but I didn't think it would be this!"
"All I did was spank her a little..." Sabra shrugs. "She's a pledge. She needs discipline..."
"Not like that!" Rita corrects her. "The Dean will throw you out on your ear so fast, you won't know what hit you!"
Before the Dean can do any throwing, however, the girls get in a fist fight and Sabra knocks Rita out cold. Now she can rummage through her roommate's secret lock box. When she comes to, Rita sees Sabra with a smug look on her face, waving around a newspaper clipping. Turns out the high-minded Rita's dad is in jail for murder!
Well, not murder murder. See, an apartment his company built wasn't up to code or something and it collapsed, killing seven people. Rita, who's running for student body president on a progressive platform that includes ending racial discrimination in the admission process, would have a hard time defending her liberal credentials if her fellow students knew her dad was a slum lord.
"Read it and Weep": Sabra threatens to blackmail liberal Rita by telling people she reads The National Review.
So Rita backs down, but Sabra still needs money. When she learns fellow sorority Sister Tina has a bun in the oven (and the guy responsible for it has skipped town), Sabra pushes the distraught gal to blackmail local hang-out owner Mort (Dick Miller, a Corman regular) for $1,000. Mort, by the way, is a recent college grad (and past student body president) who happens to be Rita's cuddlemate. When Tina comes to collect her money, Mort secretly tape records her confession--and threatens to take it to the Dean. Poor Tina runs out of the cafe in tears.
"Sorority Girl" is only an hour long, so the flick's denouncement comes real quick. The sorority is having a day at the beach, but Tina is too upset to join in the fun (plus they're playing volleyball, yuck!). Feeling hopeless about her situation, Tina decides to end it all by jumping off a near-by cliff. Sad sack Ellie sees what's happening and calls for help. Everybody--except for Sabra--races to stop Tina from jumping.
"It was Sabra!" Tina sobs. Then Mort tells the gang about Tina's pregnancy and how he's called her parents and told them the news ("They're coming to take care of her," he explains. Did I forget to mention that Tina works at Mort's cafe as a waitress? She does).
En masse, the sorority Sisters confront Sabra on the beach.
"You're not human!" Rita screams. "You're something the sea cast off!" (Was that a reference to Cabot's later appearance in the Corman classic "The Saga of the Viking Women and Their Voyage to the Waters of the Great Sea Serpent" (1958) which cast Susan as baddie Inga the Dark? It's reviewed in this blog in case you're interested.)
"I suppose everything you do is right!" sobs Sabra. "You never bothered to find out what my story is!"
As the waves crash around her, Sabra says, "It doesn't matter anymore! I don't need you! I don't need anybody!"
"Leave her," Rita says and the sorority Sisters walk away.
"If everything could only begin for me, once more," Sabra reflects in a voice over. "It's too late for me. I've lived my life. Always afraid. Every moment of it..."
As the music swells and the words "The End" flash on screen, we see Sabra alone on the beach. Does she drown herself? Move off campus? Join another sorority? Switch to online learning? The movie never tells us, which is probably the best way to end a film like this.
What will become of Sabra?
Or Roger Corman just ran out of money. Take your pick.
Of all the movies Roger Corman has made (412 at last count), "Sorority Girl" is by far one of his best. I know that might not be saying much, but hear me out.
At only 60 minutes in length, there are no dull patches, no unnecessary subplots and no empty CGI effects. "Sorority Girl" is "economy in story telling" at its finest.
The opening credits by Bill Martin are especially effective. A series of drawings that apparently take place on Easter Island, they show a girl going through a ritual where she gradually looses control. The drawings give off feelings of isolation, persecution and paranoia. No wonder Sabra wakes up screaming when they're done.
However, it's the performance of Susan Cabot as the unhinged Sabra that lifts "Sorority Girl" up from your standard exploitation movie. She portrays Sabra as both smart and sadistic, a player of the long game who is able to ferret out her target's weak points and use them to her advantage. However, Cabot also makes it clear Sabra is being driven by a force she doesn't understand and can't control.
No, she's not playing pickle ball. Sabra is beating some sense into unfortunate pledge Ellie.
Matching Cabot's performance is Fay Baker. Her Mrs. Tanner is a real piece of work: cold, judgmental, dismissive. When Sabra arrives home unexpectedly, the first words out of mom's mouth are, "Did you get expelled?" Cabot is self-aware enough to know she needs help ("I want to hurt everybody!"), but when she tries to explain this to her mother, Mrs. Tanner waves it away as "nonsense" and a childish tantrum. When their conversation goes nowhere, mom says, "If you leave now, you'll be back at school before dark"--and then flounces off to have cocktails with a friend.
With a mom like that, how could you not have mental health issues?
Made on a shoe-string budget (of course) and shot in two weeks, "Sorority Girl" is a nifty neo-noir drama. It's not perfect, of course, but in Susan Cabot "Sorority Girl" has an anti-heroine who is both powerful and pathetic, damaged beyond repair.
So movie lovers, please hug your kids and help me SAVE THE MOVIES.