When I was a freshman in [time redacted], I did what a lot of college freshmen d and pledged two frats. Yes, I was a frat boy. But before you act too surprised, the first one was a music fraternity and the second was an inclusive theatre frat/society. And while both are a far cry from the fraternities you probably were thinking of, they both had their own hazing rituals.
In the music frat, the pledges had to dress up in drag and perform as backup singers to the brothers as they rocked a version of “Play That Funky Music,” on stage at the college talent show. The theatre frat was less inspired. They brought us down into the bowels of the “haunted” theatre at midnight, plunged the room into darkness and scared the shit out of everyone not named Terry (i.e., me; I was laughing too much).
All this to say that the hazing I experienced was a whole hell of a lot different than the poor pledges in Daniel Robbin’s Pledge.
A brief prologue introduces us to the mysterious frat, as a camera slowly zooms over a forested area, lined with cornfields. A college kid runs through the woods, his white shirt dampened with blood. Suddenly, someone knocks him unconscious with a blow to the face. As he’s dragged away, his shirt lifts to reveal the cause of the blood to be a painful-looking brand. Then we cut to four years later where a bunch of impossibly good-looking college students are partying.
Into this world of Abercrombie models come three quintessential nerds, Justin (Zachery Byrd), Ethan (Phillip Andre Botello) and David (screenwriter Zack Weiner), who are looking to join a fraternity. They all feel like typical archetypes; obviously fish out of water, and constantly dejected and given the runaround from each frat party they try to get into. But a beautiful woman named Rachel (Erica Boozer) seemingly takes pity on them and invites them to a party that night.
They know it’s probably another cruel joke. But she’s hot, their libidos are raging and, desperate for attention and acceptance, David convinces his motley group to go to the party. At a mansion. Far from campus. Nestled at the end of a dirt road that’s protected by a chain-locked gate. Completely isolated from everyone. I’m just saying that the obsession men have with getting lucky is obviously going to be our downfall.
But they are greeted warmly by Max (Aaron Dalla Villa), Bret (Jesse Pimental) and Ricky (Cameron Cowperthwaite) and are subjected to booze, women and the crazy partying they’re looking for. They are asked to pledge. And once they enter back into the house for the 48 hour hazing ritual, the three friends find out they are in for more than they bargained for.
From the beginning, Pledge does its best to disarm you. The three guys at the heart of the story are the kinds of characters we’d follow on wacky sex adventures in the 80s. They’re the kinds of boys who, in high school, probably made a pact to lose their virginity.
They’re affable and adorkable and even though we know that things aren’t going to end well for some, if not all, of them, we still really want them to get into a fraternity. The filmmakers wisely give each character a good amount of screen time and character beats. The story surprisingly changes focus between the protagonists so when the deaths come, they actually have weight and are oftentimes surprising.
I'm some ways, Pledge reminds me of Hostel...well, without the blatant homophobia and misogyny. And better writing. Like Eli Roth's torture porn, we have three college students, trying to get the college experience. The first act could almost be a comedy, but even as the story takes its dark turns, the script continues to surprise and twist expectations.
While the movie does revel a bit in torture, Pledge feels more connected to the slasher/home invasion subgenre than it does the expected torture porn one would expect from a movie with hazing. It shows restraint, possibly due to budgetary reasons, but I think it works in its favor. Putting the onus of creating horror squarely on the characters.
Credit should also go to the actors playing the three main villains, each of whom showcase varying degrees of male toxicity. There's the coolly collected but emotionless Ricky. The unhinged and barely contained seething pile of rage that is Bret. And the disconcerting and almost feylike quality of the intense (but charmingly cute) Max. Aaron Dalla Villa as Max truly was the most entertaining to watch because he felt like a wildcard, where you didn’t quite know how he will respond in each situation.
It's hard to talk about Pledge without recognizing that fraternities continue to make headlines, with debauched hazing rituals that turn deadly. Whenever it happens, it's usually chalked up to “boys will be boys,” instead of truly examining the toxic masculinity underneath. There’s an inherent toxicity to the idea of hazing in fraternities, where the idea is to form a group of men who will be friends for life…after they’ve been dehumanized and tortured, of course.
In film, this idea was thoughtfully examined in the movie adaptation of Goat (which is also worth a watch). But while Pledge does address similar failings in fraternities, it does so in a much more subtle, horror movie kind of way.
As the secret society continues to torture the protagonists, the reason why begins to emerge. If viewed through a real world lens, the reason becomes chilling to consider. We're told early in the film that this society is the upper echelon of talent in all fields. And if the requirement to be the best of the best is to lack any sort of empathy or human emotion…well, I think you can connect the dots.
So yes, while the filmmakers might seem mostly interested in setting up a bloody conflict in this frat house of horrors, some late story beats add wrinkles to the story. Just what is this fraternity? What happens to those who join it? Who is running the thing? To what purpose?
Pledge is (sometimes frustratingly) ambiguous. With such an incredibly brisk run time of 78 minutes, the movie never has a chance to stop for a breather or exposition. It’s both its strength and weakness, as it feels like the first part of something much larger. I have to give it credit, though. It’s a scrappy little thriller that kept me entertained and enthralled the entire time. And it left me wondering, what’s next?