Walking up to the Trocadero (10th and Arch), those now-iconic arched neon-red letters basking a lively assemblage of people in an ominous glow, one wouldn’t expect that a film screening was about to take place. It’s certainly the first time I’ve been patted down before a movie. The inside of the Trocadero was dark with noir-ish pockets of dim light in the peripheries. The crowd was sizable, crackling, and alive – somewhat affronting to a timid moviegoer. The Troc, my least favorite concert venue next to the Electric Factory, actually suited the event nicely, with a large screen obscuring the stage where so many acts have performed in their early or waning years. The venue’s burlesque history and aged embellishments were a welcome accompaniment to the theater-of-carnage that was about to bathe the screen in even more red. I’d go as far as to say that the appreciability of Alpha Girls was largely dependent on the match of venue and the crowd (at least for this outsider to the genre). Everyone seemed to know one another. Combined with the Philly-born-and-bred aspect of the film – best expressed in a perfectly cheezeball montage of local establishments like the Isaiah Zagar’s Magic Gardens and the Chinatown gate on Arch street which strides the Trocadero – this screening was very much a celebration of community….. replete with demon worship, axe murder, black magic, spurting blood effects, periodic references to Star Wars and Clash of the Titans, and emotionally dysfunctional collegiate girls desperate for acceptance. I was excited to see and hear the whole audience cheer out loud at each name in the opening credits, as if it were a graduation, and thought how warm and embracing this must feel for all the filmmakers and actresses present.
Alpha Girls, directed by Tony Trov and Johnny Zito is a local film (shot mainly at Drexel) about four pledges vying for a spot at the prestigious Alpha Beta sorority for one personal reason or another. Their situation escalates quickly beyond hazing and humiliation, and passes into the realm of ritual and occultism. When the girls find the book of incantations used by their underground sorority cult, they try to flip the scenario of victim and victimizer with grave and slightly insane consequences. The result is what you might expect, and some of what you might not. The “some of what you might not expect is the clever faux History Channel documentary on the occult sorority and its nefarious ties to violence and worship that looks as convincing as anything I’ve seen on the History Channel itself. From start to finish I felt something I hadn’t felt in a long while of arthouse film-going……I felt entertained. Entertained in the simplest, most unthinking and shameless kind of way. Which is a perfectly viable way to be entertained….. some of the time.
As a horror and grind homage Alpha Girls functions nicely, taking a page from The Craft and churning it through a meat grinder. As a modestly budgeted film, it looks and feels accomplished (particularly in the make-up effects arena, truly impressive). The performances varied but they all worked, especially because we’re not necessarily expecting much. Cassidy (Beverly Rivera) is wickedly hammy as the bloodlusty and attitudinally challenged social outcast. Juliette (Nicole Cinaglia) is an acceptable caricature of bookishness. April (Kara Zhang) stole the show for this reviewer. She is the most convincing of anyone who appears on screen. Her cynical attitude is authentic and her performance nuanced. When what happens to her…..well…..happens to her, it feels like a true loss. Morgan (Falon Joslyn) ostensibly the star of the film, has a meek charm that gives the audience a sentimental shred to hold onto. I more or less believe her on an emotional level, and can sense the wounds of her past in all that she does and says…. even before she explains it to us. Ultimately that is what renders the drama of the film. The fact that this cast is about 99% female (and doesn’t degenerate into an unconvincing lesbian escapade) is a strength for sure. As is the inversion of our expectation that the sorority itself will be the principal aggressor against the pledges, not the other way around. Lastly, it is worth repeating that this is a Philly film, and that sense of place – at least to a local – is highly palpable. It causes one to realize that even the doors and stoops of this city are idiosyncratic.