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Pledge
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by Jay Seaver

"Fraternities are still a horror movie-worthy thing, apparently."
3 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2018 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: College fraternities and secret societies are in a weird place now, and have been for years - when you hear about them, it's for something ridiculous and/or awful, but that you never really hear a guy mention a concrete way one has opened a door for him (just that they have) makes them sort of sinister as well. There's probably a good movie to be made from this dichotomy, and "Pledge" probably has the right idea, but never finds the great hook that would lift it above average.

It opens with three freshmen - David (Zack Weiner), Justin (Zachery Byrd), and Ethan (Phillip Andre Botello) - going to various fraternity rush events and, as they're far closer to awkward nerds than confident athletes, having the doors shut in their face. At least, that is, until one girl tells them about a party going on the next night, and while it seems like an obvious prank - the house of the Krypteia "social club" is well off-campus - they're welcomed in, and told to pack a bag for a weekend stay with two other candidates. It soon turns out that this group's hazing is pretty extreme; off-campus, one of the girls from the party (Erica Boozer) is getting very worried that she hasn't heard from a friend who accidentally opened the wrong door since.

There's a twist to this movie eventually, but is it worth investing the time to get there? I'm not certain. It's a good twist, which actually gives the audience more to chew on when it appears rather than just adding complication onto what had come before, but the lead-up to it never really manages to play with the parts that maybe aren't right to be really intriguing. Even before they upend things, it seems like the filmmakers could be taking a closer look at fraternities as an institution that plays off young men's crudest desires, or doing more with Rachel (it seems like there's a real missed opportunity to play with her going from eye candy to active participant, but the story treats her as much as a thing to be used as the fraternity does). David's desire to be part of this cool kids' club is taken as a given, but as the thing that makes the story go for the first chunk of the movie, it's pretty thin.

As a result, much of the film winds up just being cruelty, and while that must be a part of the story, it doesn't build as well as it could, escalating the violence quickly and not really playing the psychological torture that comes later as its equal. It's not bad, in terms of being effective - the film earns its occasional winces and when the violence does get bloody, there's a lot of bang for the buck - but the film goes from shocking to grossing out quickly. It picks up a little steam as the plot heads in another direction, but eventually winds up in a weird sort of no-man's-land where the reversal is neither fully surprising nor exactly expected, and maybe doesn't really matter: It's still the vehicle for the upperclassmen tormenting the freshmen, and doesn't realign how the viewer looks at things that much.

It's got a pretty good cast, though: For the most part, the freshman are easy nerd archetypes but well done, and the upperclassmen do a good job of layering their motivations and intentions. It's the sort of movie where there's usually a lot more overlap between the characters, if only so you can keep doing certain things after somebody has been killed off, but the large cast works as a good ensemble, and I suspect individual performances will look even more impressive on a second viewing.

It's too bad I didn't quite enjoy it enough to give it that second chance. Things play out capably enough, but it feels like there are one or two hooks that could make it more engaging on the first run-through, and if you don't remember being that excited while watching it the first time or floored when something is revealed, it's hard to justify not just treating it as an average-to-decent flick and moving on.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=32398&reviewer=371
originally posted: 07/28/18 04:35:38
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2018 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2018 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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Directed by
  Daniel Robbins

Written by
  Zack Weiner

Cast
  Zack Weiner
  Zachery Byrd
  Phillip Andre Botello
  Aaron Dalla Villa



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