Where I went to college (Columbia College Chicago, don’t go, terrible school), we didn’t have frats. Which was okay by me. The idea of being hazed, aka tortured for an indeterminable amount of time just to fit in with a bunch of bros, has never been my thing. After all, these are people who you are “earning” the friendship of by letting them do whatever they want to you. IFC Midnight’s Pledge shines a dark light on just how sinister of a practice this can be…
…Directed by Daniel Robbins (Uncaged) and written by Zack Weiner, Pledge concerns a group of your average, dorky college freshmen who want nothing more than to join a frat, party and get laid. There’s a reason some say college is life’s golden years. But when the group is denied by frat after frat, they find themselves invited to be a part of a selective “club”, one which promises a life of ultimate success and all the partying and babes these guys could ever ask for. It isn’t long before the guys realize they’ve gotten into something much deadlier than they ever could have imagined.
Together, Robbins and Weiner have delivered with Pledge a timely horror film which, as horror usually does when at its best, reflects the atrocities of the modern times in which we live. Look through the news over the past few years, and you will find countless stories revolving around college hazing and parties involving rape, drug overdose, and unintentional manslaughter thanks to kids forcing others to literally drink themselves into a coma. These sorts of things have always been an issue on college campuses, but it’s only recently that these horrors have really begun to come to light. And when you think about it, it really is a terrifying situation, for parents and their kids, because college is supposed to be safe. Parties with friends are supposed to be safe. Yet so many kids find themselves in the worst possible scenario: the need to fit in and be accepted, even if it means putting their lives in the hands of a bunch of drunk, irresponsible assholes.
And that’s really what it comes down to, isn’t it? Acceptance. Most of us are willing to go against every instinct in our bones if it means fitting it. Smoke this cigarette or get lost. Down twenty shots in a row or be lame. Do this line of coke off this hooker’s ass or you’re fired. And on and on it goes. We learned nothing from our mothers when they told us not to jump off a bridge just because everyone else is. All we’ve done is prove that the Facebook invite to some party is more important than our better judgement. Again, films like Pledge make me utterly thrilled that I never had the pressure to participate in the sort of hazing present at campuses across the country.
In essence, that’s why our main cast in Pledge is so relatable. If you’ve ever been the new kid, or the outcast, which, let’s face it, we’re horror fans so we’ve all been there, then you’ve probably had a friend group like Justin (Zachery Byrd), Ethan (Phillip Andre Botello), and David (Zack Weiner). These guys all feel exactly like the ones I hung out with in college-though I dread to think I may be David in this case-and it’s in that which, no matter how bad of an idea it may seem to go into that basement with three creepy frat guys, I get why they do it. Weiner’s script boils these guys’ wants and needs down to pure collegiate basics: get laid. And while characters like that can normally come off as obnoxious or even unlikeable, especially in the much needed #MeToo climate of today, Justin and co. never come off too strong, and all three are far too innocent and endearing for their sexual attempts to turn off an average audience.
The members of the frat, or the “club”, as they call it, are just the opposite. Each of them, particualarly Max (Aaron Dalla Villa) and Ricky (Cameron Cowperthwaite), practically scream serial rapist/murderer with every stare, grin, and eventual maniacal laughter. These are the sorts of guys that any sane person wouldn’t want to be within a hundred feet of, yet our protagonists venture into their home, despite the obvious warning signs. It’s between these guys that Robbins and Weiner bring a male-centric vibe to the film that can be off-putting at first, but ultimately feels relevant as a commentary on what is hopefully a dying breed of men who view women simply as objects. These “bros” talk, treat, and touch women as if they are nothing but property, but the disgust we end up feeling for them is intentional, and expressed through the reactions of at least Ethan (they can’t all be perfect).
Robbins and his crew present a dark, grimy look to the film which coats each reel with a sort of underground presence. Imagine the basements where memebers gathered in Fight Club, and you’ll have a good idea of the seedy, shadowy look dominating Pledge. The first rule of murder club is don’t talk about murder club, or whatever. Pledge oozes with sinister tendrils that creep up your back and leave you feeling dirty and in need of a hot shower. In many ways, Pledge is like the horror version of the film we should’ve gotten in The Skulls. Remember that PG-13 flick released in 2000, with a bunch of D-bags driving around in Lambos and starring the late Paul Walker? Of course you don’t, because that movie is terrible. But the point is, Robbins and Weiner have finally done the whole plot of a college secret society justice by presenting fans with a gritty horror film that really delivers on the uncomfortable and the inhumane.
While Pledge is light on impressive gore or “fun” kills, Robbins isn’t shy about finding ways to make us squirm in our seats. Weiner’s script eases audiences in with some light humor and some everyday horror like our cast of pledges getting branded or being fed rat smoothies, you know, normal hazing bullshit, but once things really get going, Pledge quickly becomes a relentless, violent, ugly film that starts to feel like the show Fear Factor if it had been produced by Freddy Krueger. The bloodshed does lack creativity, as Weiner’s script incorporates some old tricks that we’ve seen one too many times before, but Robbins displays the violence from a raw, intense viewpoint that doesn’t let up and will keep the audience clutching the arms of their chairs, afraid to look, even if the gore itself is rather limited.
Pledge may not feel all that inventive at times, but the filmmakers impress with a script that contains a few surprises. Pledge, after all, is a film not only about testing one’s limits, but about what happens when limitations are no longer as such, and we’re free to do what we want. Because Weiner creates such simple yet somewhat charming characters, the film is allowed to shock audiences in the same manner as say a show like Game of Thrones. Just because a character is the most likeable or the perceived hero, doesn’t mean they have what it takes to survive a night of punishment and death. Ultimately, Pledge comes full circle with its main theme, asking how far is someone willing to go to fit in, and the implied answer is nothing short of chilling.
Robbins takes a massive leap forward with Pledge, improving on elements of style and intensity that were not as present in his previous works, and I look forward to seeing how uneasy Robbins will aim to make us in the future.
By Matt Konopka