Spoilers galore, so beware!
In Rush Week (1989) a transfer journalism student investigates the disappearance of a young woman at a mostly sedate college, at the same time a rowdy fraternity house is reopening, which may or may not be connected. The film begins with a nighttime vista of the empty campus, set to creepy background music, showcasing a sense of emptiness and isolation, before shifting to a frat party full of (mostly drunken and immature) camaraderie.
Unlike Monster on the Campus, the emphasis in this film is solidly on the students. The adults are unhelpful, exploitative, or downright sinister. Like Dr. Blake in Monster on the Campus, this college’s Dean Grail is concerned with civilization and the danger of regression: “Fraternities, sororities tend to accentuate the very worst, the most degrading influences.” He wants to guide the students instead toward “productive futures,” but this is clearly part of his mental instability. An attitude of “don’t trust anyone over 30” is ingrained even in young people who, certain Animal House-style shenanigans notwithstanding, dress like yuppies and are far removed from the hippies who popularized that idea.
In that 1958 film, the lead was a professor distracted from his classroom duties by higher research; here, they’re students distracted by their extracurricular social activities, which certainly seem more important than their schoolwork. In the case of protagonist Toni, she’s a journalism major, but she spends all her time at the campus newspaper office and the computer lab, not in class. And how quaint are those early CRT computer terminals! Awwww!
One thing I appreciate about Rush Week: it contains actual female friendships, and recognizes that the characters involved in sexual "transgressions" are motivated by financial need. The roommate of the sexy first victim (last name McGuffin, by the way!) sincerely worries about her, describing her as a responsible young woman, and is reluctant to reveal her friend's sideline in amateur porn, knowing she’ll be judged negatively for it. New student Toni is immediately befriended by Jonelle, who introduces the audience identification character to the campus and its various groups. Thanks to film conventions, when she first appeared, I half expected her to be a “bitchy girl,” but this film didn’t have one! sings with the band at a frat party (LINK!); a fun featurette with actress Courtney Gebhart on the Vinegar Syndrome blu-ray talks about this as one of the highlights. The famous L.A. punk band the Dickies also appears, and “Baby Doll,” the parodic Devo pop song featured in Tapeheads, is also heard in the background, so I like to think these films take place in a shared universe.
In some ways I wish the fun-loving and multifaceted Jonelle were more the focus than Toni, although that’s not the fault of Pamela Ludwig, who’s fondly remembered, especially, from 1979’s teen rebellion classic Over the Edge. As the most serious and stolid character, Toni comes across as something of a straight woman to her campus peers. She’s hampered, too, by her relationship with frat president Jeff (Dean Hamilton), a red herring who’s never called on his awful behavior in condoning his frat brothers’ cruel pranks on a prostitute, which, in the worst of frat boy stereotypes, they do just because they can. When the young woman goes missing and Toni worries about her, Jeff says, “Hey, she’s just a hooker,” and she should have dropped him right there.
In response, she overlooks his Jekyll/Hyde qualities, gives in to his persistence, and out of nowhere says she’s falling in love with him. He might not be the killer, but the fact that he’s such a plausible red herring is still a red flag about his potential as a boyfriend. He’s also involved in the film’s gay jokes, which are unfortunate but certainly period-appropriate.
I do like the scene where the two have a date at a campus hangout, because it brings back fond memories of places like Minneapolis’ Valli Pizza, all of them long-gone, and Jeff’s musing about how for the students, “most of ‘em have no idea what they wanna do with their lives.” While his frat house seems to be 100% dedicated to crazy pranks and mooning, there's one interesting aspect in that Jeff’s heart really isn't in it anymore. His best friend has to keep nagging him to do the responsible thing by taking part in fun and debauchery, where he presides over the ceremonies, announcing “I sever the bindings of social constraint.”
This brings up a question of what that even means. The frat's resistance to social constraint is itself ritualized, a tradition, and it’s the authority figure on top of the org chart who is actually freed from social constraint to the point of ax murder.
The social upheavals of the ‘60s clearly affected the popularity of Greek life, which then saw a revival in the ‘70s; a frat house like the one seen in Rush Week would probably have gotten their ideas from movies like Animal House as much as from local tradition. By this time, there was a lot concern about alcohol abuse and hazing. As late as 2020, AHS: 1984 includes a fraternity hazing death in one of the characters’ back stories, so this still comes up in pop representations, although social and economic changes probably do more to influence the decline of interest among new students.
Overall, while there are certainly slashery elements, like hooded guys committing ax murders, Rush Week's plot gives it more of a mystery/thriller feel, creating more forward motion than some of the more bare-bones slashers do. I’m not arguing that it's real lost masterpiece, but it was still a fun new discovery. Sometimes “You need something new, yes you do,” as Jonelle sings at the frat party (voiced by Addie, of the Addie Band).