‘Pledge:’ Dying to belong, then just dying
All kidding aside, Pledge is undoubtedly a cut above most of its slasher ilk. Boasting crisp cinematography by William Tracy Babcock, an effective score by Jon Natchez and cool, confident direction by Daniel Robbins, it’s a shocker with more on its mind than just shocking … at least initially.
The set-up is the formula: Three college freshmen are desperate to pledge a fraternity, thereby belonging to something and, to their way of thinking, being something.
This trio of lovable losers could have been culled from any number of teen comedies: David (screenwriter Zack Wiener) is the neurotic Jewish geek always trying to put a positive spin on things, no matter how bad they get; Justin (Zachery Byrd) is the quintessential “fat kid” whose girth makes him the constant butt of jokes; and Ethan (Phillip Andre Botello), the decidedly un-hip African-American who’s the only one to recognize their sub-zero status on campus. In several early scenes, Botello’s deadpan reactions – tinged with humiliation – are nicely mined for laughs.
Just when all seems lost, they are invited to a big, expensive mansion a few miles away from campus (which should have sounded alarm bells – but not for these guys), and welcomed, with more enthusiasm than expected – or even warranted – by a trio of hipsters too clean-cut and accommodating to be true. (Guess why…)
At the introductory gathering, David, Justin, and Ethan are plied with premium vodka, pretty girls and other party favors – then told to return the next evening, where the real initiation ceremony would commence. Eager for more fun, they gleefully comply – and blithely walk into what the audience already knows is a trap.
The first order of business is to brand each pledge, and things rapidly escalate – or deteriorate, depending on your point of view – from there.
At this point in the narrative, the villains become more dominant. There’s Max (Aaron Dalla Villa), he of the pompadour hairstyle, who appears to be the leader; Ricky (Cameron Cowperthwaite, in his feature debut), whose amusingly phony overtures of concern for the pledges they fail to see through; and Bret (Jesse Pimentel), whose only overtures are threatening ones. They embody the sort of privileged, spoiled brats who have skated through life on their families’ wealth and believe they can get away with murder … because, after all, they have. They revel in toying with their victims, stringing them along as far as possible – and then going in for the kill.
Although gorehounds will surely revel in the diabolical tricks played upon the pledges, the filmmakers exercise a measure of restraint in the depiction of violence, allowing the viewer’s imagination to do some of the dirty work. In the aforementioned branding scene, for instance, the effect is achieved less through special effects than the panicked, shrieking reactions of the victims. That said, however, the squeamish are advised to tread very carefully. Pledge may hold some things back, but it doesn’t hold everything back.
As the film narrows its focus to become more straightforward, it tends to become just another genre exercise, albeit a well-made one. There’s the palpable feeling that, by going full-tilt horror, the filmmakers have perhaps sold themselves a little bit short in jettisoning its satirical elements. The characters lose all nuances and simply become killing fodder. There’s a twist ending, of sorts, but this too presents some problems as it strains credibility and leaves a lot of unanswered questions.
Admittedly, credibility is not a particularly important component to a horror film, but for one that started with such promise and seemed to be taking a different tack, it renders Pledge routine. Nevertheless, for those looking for 80 minutes to kill, Pledge fills the bill rather well, and it’s very likely we’ll hear from the filmmakers again. They demonstrate considerable promise, to say nothing of steady professionalism. This may not be a cult classic or even an entirely successful endeavor, but it will garner deserved attention.
– Pledge opens Friday at RED Cinemas, 1305 Battleground Ave., Greensboro
See Mark Burger’s reviews of current movies on Burgervideo.com. © 2019, Mark Burger.