Pledge


The cast of a raunchy teenage sex comedy suddenly realizes they’re in a horror movie.

(2018) Horror/Thriller (IFC Midnight) Zachery Byrd, Phillip Andre Botello, Aaron Dalla Villa, Zack Weiner, Erica Boozer, Cameron Cowperthwaite, Jesse Pimentel, Jean-Louis Droulers, Joe Gallagher, Melanie Rothman, Jim Calello, Steve Lipman, Billy Thomas Myott, Sam Naismith, Jason Polinsky, Max Schuster, Emerald Toller, Keith Weiss, Natalie Walsh, Jackie Taylor. Directed by Daniel Robbins

 

Part of the college experience is rush week. Various fraternities and sororities try to lure potential members with parties, free booze and the promise of social acceptance and lifetime friendships. Of course, in some cases there is always the implied promise of a college career full of debauchery but that’s not always the case. However, those that do choose to pledge generally have to go through a series of tests that will test their limits, often to the breaking point.

Not everyone is accepted though. In the case of Ethan (Botello), Justin (Byrd) and David (Weiner), they have gone to party after party, often not even getting in the door. The three are freshmen who not only are socially awkward they wouldn’t seem out of place at either a sci-fi convention – or a raunchy sex comedy.

Disillusioned (although hope springs eternal for David), they are walking back to their dorm, with Ethan and Justin ready to spend the night there drinking when they meet Rachel (Boozer), a gorgeous and sexy coed who invites them to a party at a house somewhat more remote than the others they’ve seen. When they get there, they are treated to a party of well-dressed preppy sorts, and wonder of wonders the three (and two other seemingly less socially awkward guys) are accepted into the frat – excuse me, it’s a social club, not a frat – and the hazing begins.

Except the hazing starts with actual branding and goes downhill from there. The three pledges realize that they are in a world of hurt and in way above their heads. The three frat brothers – I mean, club members – diminutive Max (Dalla Villa), intimidating Bret (Pimentel) and enigmatic Ricky (Cowperthwaite) don’t seem disposed to letting anyone out the door but out the door the boys must go if they are to survive the night.

Frat hazing gone wrong movies are not in and of themselves anything particularly new. Sometimes these movies are fairly tame when considering the actual shenanigans that go on in college campuses nationwide. Weiner, who wrote the movie and conceived it along with Robbins and executive producer Matthew Barrett, seems to have based the lead characters on himself, Robbins and Barrett. However, their role model for the social club seems to be more Skull and Bones society rather than Greek.

The acting is solid if unspectacular and the violence here is occasionally unnerving. Robbins proves to be an adept director who does a lot with very little budget; every penny looks to be onscreen, and Robbins doesn’t waste a moment with unnecessary dialogue or exposition. He introduces the characters by showing how they are perceived by the frat brothers of the various fraternities they visit and eventually we get the sense that while their main character traits are pretty standard (overweight guy, minority and eager but clueless ringleader) Ethan and Justin show some pain at the way they are treated. They just don’t laugh it off. In fact while there are some decent comedic moments, the movie is pretty much played with a straight face.

Unfortunately, that’s where the real innovation ends. For the most part it’s a standard slasher film with a side of torture porn. It’s not going to rewrite the horror book – but it is pretty entertainment and most horror buffs should end up appreciating it. Those who are a bit more discerning may find it overly familiar.

REASONS TO GO: Robbins packs a lot of tension into the short run time; not a moment is wasted.
REASONS TO STAY: This film really doesn’t add anything to the subgenre.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a lot of violence, much profanity, some sexuality and plenty of teen drinking..
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The producers found the house they used as a filming location through AirBnB.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/12/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 78% positive reviews: Metacritic: 53/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hell Night
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Rockaway

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Burning Sands


Here’s a different kind of human centipede

(2017) Drama (Netflix) Trevor Jackson, Alfre Woodward, DeRon Horton, Octavius J. Johnson, Trevante Rhodes, Malik Bazille, Mitchell Edwards, Racquel Bianca John, Steve Harris, Adriyan Rae, Quentin Plair, Christian Robinson, Nafessa Williams, Davyon St. Usaire, Rotimi, Serayah, Daimion Johnson, Tosin Cole, Imami Hakim, Segun Akande, Sidney Freeman. Directed by Gerard McMurray

 

Fraternities and sororities have a time-honored place in the environment of higher education. They are brotherhoods (and sisterhoods) that develop outstanding young men and women, developing them for leadership positions in the future. Unsurprisingly, it takes a great deal of self-discipline and inner fortitude to gain admittance to these institutions.

Zurich (Jackson) is trying to do just that. Pledging the prestigious Lambda Phi fraternity at historically black Frederick Douglass University which claims Dean Richardson (Harris) as an alumnus, he and his four fellow pledges including Square (Horton) and Frank (Cole) undergo ferocious beatings and ritual humiliations that push their endurance beyond their limits. All of them endure these things with near-animal grimaces, telling one another that the rewards will be worth it. Dean Richardson tells Zurich that he is one in a long line of fine gentlemen to survive these rituals and that they serve to toughen them and give them the resilience he needs to be successful in life.

Zurich is not so sure. He suffers a broken rib during one of the beatings and is having increasing trouble with his breathing. His steady girlfriend Rochon (Hakim) is having problems with the amount of time he is devoting to his pledge brothers and is suspicious that he is cheating on her, although Zurich has not been. Keeping up his studies has also been difficult during Hell Week, a fact not unnoticed by his English professor (Woodward).

Each of the pledges has their reasons why becoming accepted by the fraternity is important to them. Zurich just wants to make it through Hell Night, which will end their pledge status and make them full-fledged Lambda Phi brothers but the Hell Night ritual is the most dangerous of all and the five young men will end up risking much more than their dignity to make it through.

While hazing has been outlawed by most colleges and universities, it still exists and there have been instances where students have died as a direct result of hazing rituals. These types of films are an opportunity to examine the mob mentality of human beings and how the desire to fit in sometimes overrules even the most basic of common sense. Sadly, Burning Sands doesn’t take advantage of the opportunity as much as it might.

That isn’t to say that the movie is a failure – far from it, in fact. There are some really outstanding performances here, particularly from Jackson and Horton who not uncoincidentally have the most well-written characters. The movie is mostly Zurich’s point of view as a matter of fact and this is his story much more than it is the other young men. Woodward, one of the best actresses of her generation doesn’t get a lot of screen time but utilizes every moment to weave a most satisfactory appearance in the film.

The women here are essentially ornaments which has been a disturbing trend lately; their characters are given little to do but kvetch at their boyfriends or screw whoever happens to be handy; harridans or whores is what they boil down to here and neither characteristic is particularly flattering. The not-so-subtle sexism dilutes the message somewhat.

Despite these glaring issues I still recommend the movie highly. There is an emotional payoff that ends up being earned – more than that I will not say so as to allow the movie to have maximum impact upon its viewer. While it’s not exactly rocket science to figure out well ahead of time that the pledges of Lambda Phi are headed down a road that leads to nothing good, how that plays out grips the viewer tightly even though it isn’t especially groundbreaking in terms of plot.

Sometimes a movie is greater than the sum of its parts and this is one of those occasions. The movie is flawed, certainly but strong performances can overcome a lot of sins. McMurray, one of the producers on Ryan Coogler’s brilliant Fruitvale Station, doesn’t reinvent the wheel here but tells the story well and show’s not a little potential in the process. While some of the violence may make those sensitive to such things a little faint, the rest of us will be left to wonder why such promising young men are willing to endure so much. There is a fine line between sadism and character-building and established ritual doesn’t excuse crossing that line. This isn’t always easy to watch but it is worth watching all the same.

REASONS TO GO: Jackson, Woodward and Horton all deliver fine performances. The movie takes on a very real issue of fraternity hazing.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the things the pledges go through are sadistic and disgusting; the sensitive viewer may have trouble watching these.
FAMILY VALUES: There are all sorts of violence, sexuality and profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie debuted at this year’s Sundance Film Festival; among the producers are rapper Common and comedian Reginald Hudlin.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/23/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews. Metacritic: 63/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Goat
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Restless Creature: Wendy Whelan

Raw (Grave)


Meat is murder.

(2016) Horror (Focus World) Garance Marillier, Ella Rumpf, Rabah Nait Oufella, Laurent Lucas, Joana Preiss, Bouli Lanners, Marion Vernoux, Thomas Mustin, Marouan Iddoub, Jean-Louis Sbille, Benjamin Boutboul, Virgin Leclaire, Anna Solomin, Sophie Breyer, Daniel Utegenova, Bérangére McNeese, Morgan Politi, Alice D’Hauwe. Directed by Julia Ducournau

 

There are certain taboos that are fairly universal across the species. One of them is that we don’t eat our own flesh; we don’t eat the flesh of other humans either. While there are small pockets where cannibalism is practiced it is frowned upon by nearly every human on earth. So why do some people develop a taste for human flesh?

Justine (Marillier) is a mousy young woman headed off to college at the prestigious veterinary school where her parents studied (and where they met) and where her older sister Alexia (Rumpf) is currently enrolled. Justine comes from a long line of militant vegetarians and when at a roadside lunch stop a piece of meat is found in her mashed potatoes, her mother (Preiss) goes ballistic, much to the chagrin of her father (Lucas).

Once at school, Justine and her classmates including her gay roommate Adrien (Oufella) are subjected to cruel hazing rituals, including having their bedding thrown out of the window of their room and being forced to crawl into a party/orgy, being forced to eat rabbit kidneys (which Justine break out into a nasty-looking rash) and having blood dumped on them a la Carrie.

But the taste of meat has brought out something strange in Justine. She begins to crave meat and not just the cooked stuff but raw, bloody meat. She begins to raid Adrien’s refrigerator and makes midnight runs for sandwiches at truck stops. At first ashamed of her newfound taste, she begins to revel in it and as her craving for meat increases so does her craving for another kind of meat – the kind that she takes in another part of her body. Justine, shamed for being a virgin, goes in an entirely different direction much to the bemusement of Alexia who seems to have a love-hate relationship with her sister but when she tries to give Justine a Brazilian, a terrible accident wakens something even more primal in Justine, something more horrible. And, as it turns out, she’s not the only family member with a horrifying secret.

This first feature by Ducournau is about as disturbing as it gets. The first words out of my mouth as the lights came up were the first sentence of Reasons To Go, and I wasn’t the only one with that sentiment. This is clearly not for the squeamish or the faint of heart but it is for those who love intelligent horror movies.

The movie’s themes use cannibalism as a metaphor for emerging feminine sexuality and the taboos of enjoying sex as much as enjoying eating meat. The movie is very involved with the physical body of both animals and humans (particularly the latter) and spends a lot of time focusing on the bodies of the actors both male and female. Even when being brutalized, I don’t think I’ve seen a mainstream film (if you can call this that) as loving with the camera to the human body as this one.

One of the reasons the film works so well is the performance of Marillier. At first I thought she was way too bland for the role but as the movie progresses it became very apparent that this was done on purpose to make her metamorphosis all the more startling. By the movie’s end, Justine is far from the mousy somewhat plain vegetarian of the movie’s beginning; she becomes seductive, strong-willed and dangerous. It’s truly hard to believe that she’s only 19 years old for real; performances like this are hard to come by from even seasoned actresses.

There are a few plot points I had issue with. For example, the hazing at the veterinary college seems a little bit extreme at times. I don’t know how realistic that is but then again hazing wasn’t very prevalent where I went to school so I’ll just give them the benefit of the doubt for the moment. Also, Justine develops a sexual obsession with Adrien who has sex with her on more than one occasion; while it isn’t unheard of for gay men to have sex with straight women, generally those men have a bisexual tendency that Adrien doesn’t appear to have. I could be wrong, but to my eye the sex scenes between Justine and Adrien didn’t feel very authentic.

Once again, think really hard about this one before going to see it. If your tolerance for gore, taboo subjects and sex is not that high, this might not be the film for you. There are scenes that definitely not only push the boundaries but gleefully leap past them and you need to be prepared for that. While I have some healthy skepticism about the fainting stories (see Trivial Pursuit) it isn’t beyond the realm of possibility that it might be true so be forewarned. For those who feel they can handle it, you’ll be rewarded with a smart, sexy and terribly disgusting horror film that will not only appeal to your more prurient interests but make you think as well. That’s a combination you don’t find very often.

REASONS TO GO: Man, this is some f*cked up sh*t! The film links sexuality and body-obsession in a unique way. Marillier starts off as a bland wallflower and morphs into a strong, powerful and sexual woman.
REASONS TO STAY: This is definitely not for the squeamish or the sensitive.
FAMILY VALUES: Oh, my goodness. There’s a tremendous amount of gore, sexuality, disturbing images of cannibalism, graphic nudity, profanity…it’s a smorgasbord of depravity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: When the film was shown at the Gothenburg Film Festival in Sweden last year, it was reported that two audience members fainted, several ran to the toilets to vomit and more than 30 people walked out on the film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/10/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews. Metacritic: 81/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Repulsion
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Seed