You never forget your last hazing.
One of the many powers that cinema holds is its ability to create worlds we’ll never visit and characters we’ll never be. There are far more exotic locales than college, but a person actually wanting to be in a fraternity/sorority so badly they’ll degrade themselves is as foreign to some of us as a 12th century Italian monk with a third nipple. Movies help bring them to life, and these sweaty souls have become something of a caricature on screen in films both funny (Animal House, 1978) and thrilling (Brotherhood, 2010). The characters haven’t changed over the years though leaving story and execution to pick up the slack, and it’s in the latter where Pledge succeeds best.
David (Zack Weiner), Ethan (Phillip Andre Botello), and Justin (Zachery Bird) are nerdy college guys desperate to be welcomed in by a fraternity. They haven’t had much luck, though, and just as reality is starting to set in an invite to an off-campus party from an attractive young woman lifts their spirits once more. Optimism renewed, the trio heads to the remote house where they’re greeted by a few members of a fraternity they were previously unaware of, and while the group’s leader Max (Aaron Dalla Villa) gives off an immediately smarmy and untrustworthy vibe they can’t argue with the party favors. Women, drugs, and carefree abandon take hold of the night, and when they leave the next morning it’s with invites to return for an initiation.
What follows is pretty much what you expect as their hazing involves various forms of degradation, cruelty, and gross-outs, and depending on your familiarity with the concept and setup this is where the film either takes hold or leaves you wanting more. It’s an overly familiar story path, and while dramas on the subject are horrifying enough an actual horror film is predictably going to push things even further. Pledge does just that, and while its execution is strong it’s ultimately doing a good job delivering exactly what we expect for most of its running time.
That same running time, though, is one of the film’s strengths. At under 80 minutes the film flies by, and that pacing is paired with energy in the performances and film-making to make for an entertaining thrill-ride where all but the final turns are visible well in advance. Weiner, who also scripted, crafts a film where only the punchline feels fresh, but its bones are strong enough for director Daniel Robbins to hang an attractive and engaging thriller on.
Our three leads are cliche-stuffed caricatures, but the actors make them lively and believable in their desperation, growing concern, and fear. The performers on the flip-side — the questionable frat boys — feel a bit more exaggerated and hammed up, but their lack of sincerity actually aids the film’s back half once the shit starts hitting the fan. Our hopeful heroes are joined by a few other wannabe inductees, and their weekend fall from heaven to hell sees them struggling to work together in the hopes of seeing another cafeteria meal.
While you won’t be surprised by much here you’ll most likely be entertained. The characters aren’t around long enough to offer up any real depth which ultimately works against the film’s lasting impact, but in the moment the awkward humor, ratcheting tension, and full-on thrills work to engage viewers through to the bitter end. It’s a bloody ride, but that’s college for you.
Pledge never tries (or succeeds) at breaking the sub-genre mold, but it executes the familiar so well you’ll wish it had.