×

Film Review: ‘Pledge’

A hazing initiation proves life-threatening for three hapless college guys in this blunt but effective low-budget shocker.

Director:
Daniel Robbins
With:
Zachary Byrd, Phillip Andre Botello, Zachary Weiner, Aaron Dalla Villa, Cameron Cowperthwaite, Jesse Pimentel, Joe Gallagher, Jean-Louis Droulers, Erica Boozer.
Release Date:
Jan 11, 2019

1 hour 18 minutes

Official Site: http://www.ifcfilms.com/films/pledge

“Privilege comes with sacrifice” says one character to another in “Pledge” — exactly the kind of noble sentiment authority figures always voice to hush the protests of those about to be sacrificed. This third feature for director Daniel Robbins is no delicate flower of cinematic art, but a lean and mean shocker that tells its tale of collegiate hazing run amuck with brute efficiency. IFC Midnight gave the quasi-horror meller a limited theatrical run simultaneous with its VOD launch on Jan. 11.

It’s Rush Week, and freshmen David (screenwriter Zachary Weiner), Ethan (Philip Andre Botello), and Justin (Zachary Byrd) are hot to pledge up and party down. Well, really it’s just one of them who’s dead set on both activities: Black, bespectacled nerd Ethan and plus-sized nerd Justin understand they are probably not at the top of any fraternity’s wish list. They’d be happy to get drunk in peaceful social isolation, as usual.

But David — who’s nerdier than the others put together, and an irksome, strenuously trying-too-hard personality to boot — insists they knock on exactly the doors where they’re bound to be least welcome. After a few gratuitous humiliations, they’re improbably invited to a shindig that night by passing-by hottie Rachel (Erica Boozer). The address turns out to be somewhere disturbingly remote, hidden well behind a rusty, locked gate. But it’s a splendid manse where they’re duly treated to the most decadent evening of their young lives, complete with many lissome babes in teeny cocktail dresses being improbably attentive to the three shlubs.

The guys and their hangovers are packed off to the dorm in the morning, having been invited back for more the very next evening. Upon returning, however, they find things have changed: This time there are zero girls present, bars (noticed too late) on the windows, and a candle-lit ambiance more Satanic than Bacchanal. Whether this is even a legitimate fraternity is an open question.

Our heroes, joined by fellow newbies Ben (Joe Gallagher) and Sam (Jean-Louis Droulers), are told they must now endure 48 hours of being “tested” to prove themselves worthy of permanent membership in the “club.” No longer feigning good fellowship, task-masters Maxwell (Aaron Dalla Villa), Ricky (Cameron Cowperthwaite), and Brett (Jesse Pimentel) make it clear this will be no walk in the park: The very first challenge forced upon their hapless “pledges” involves a red-hot branding iron.

Things rapidly escalate from sadistic to life-threatening, as it becomes obvious (if it wasn’t already from the film’s brief “fate of a previous victim” prologue) that the game being played is something considerably more sinister than rote bullying and reckless substance abuse. Though the climactic action is conceptually a bit pedestrian, despite its hint of the supernatural, “Pledge” nonetheless sustains an admirable, straightforward intensity for most of its short runtime.

Apparently Robbins and Weiner were partly inspired by Todd Phillips and Andrew Gurland’s 1998 “Frat House,” the Sundance Documentary grand jury prize winner that became notorious when it emerged that many of the “hazing” excesses it depicted had been staged for the camera. “Pledge” makes no bones about being pure pulp fiction, but it does soften its lurid goings-on (and heighten their impact) by eliciting credible performances from the actors in not-entirely-stereotypical roles. Byrd is particularly good as a “fat kid” who’s more droll, soulful, and resilient than a dismissive first glance would suggest.

Though after a point contained to the (admittedly expansive) house interiors, William Tracy Babcock’s cinematography diversifies its widescreen look with some impressive early drone shots. Other tech/design contributions are also above average on modest means, with Jon Natchez’s original score eschewing too campy a note while tipping hat to the familiar reference point of synthy ’80s horror soundtracks.

Popular on Variety

Film Review: 'Pledge'

Reviewed online, San Francisco, Dec. 29, 2018. Running time: 78 MIN.

Production: An IFC Midnight release of a Stag Pictures presentation in association with Boulderlight Pictures. Producers: Mark Rapaport, Keaton Heinrichs, Akira Nemetsky. Executive producers: JD Lifshitz, Raphael Margules, Cherie Vogelstein, Matthew Barrett. Co-producer: Michael Gelfand.

Crew: Director: Daniel Robbins. Screenplay: Zachary Weiner. Camera (color, widescreen, HD): William Tracy Babcock. Editor: Nik Voytas. Music: Jon Natchez.

With: Zachary Byrd, Phillip Andre Botello, Zachary Weiner, Aaron Dalla Villa, Cameron Cowperthwaite, Jesse Pimentel, Joe Gallagher, Jean-Louis Droulers, Erica Boozer.

More Film

  • So Long, My Son directed by

    Wang Xiaoshuai's 'So Long, My Son' Earns Six APSA Nominations

    Chinese drama, “So Long, My Son,” was nominated in six categories for this year’s Asia Pacific Screen Awards. The unprecedented haul makes it a clear favorite. The Wang Xiaoshuai-directed drama about separation, secrets, a lifetime of regret, and the consequences of China’s one child policy, had its premiere in February at the Berlin festival. There [...]

  • Alan Rickman

    Film News Roundup: 'Galaxy Quest' Documentary Set for Release

    In today’s film news roundup, rescue drama “Not Without Hope” is back in development, a “Galaxy Quest” documentary is set for release, “The Two Popes” wins another award, and Ella Joyce gets cast. PROJECT REVIVED U.K.-based financing-production outfit Goldfinch has bought feature film rights to Nick Schuyler’s “Not Without Hope” and signed “The Fog” director [...]

  • Ryan Reynolds John Krasinkski

    Ryan Reynolds, John Krasinski in Talks for 'Imaginary Friends' Movie

    Ryan Reynolds and John Krasinski are in talks to board the fantasy comedy “Imaginary Friends” at Paramount Studios. Paramount recently won the bidding for the property over Lionsgate and Sony. Krasinski will write, direct,  produce and star while Reynolds will co-star if the deals go through. The story centers on a man who can see [...]

  • Willem Dafoe attends the "Motherless Brooklyn"

    Willem Dafoe Joins Guillermo Del Toro's 'Nightmare Alley'

    Willem Dafoe has closed a deal to join Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara in Guillermo del Toro’s adaptation of “Nightmare Alley.” Collider had first reported that Dafoe was being considered for a role in the film, but sources now say the “Lighthouse” star has closed a deal to join the cast. The “At [...]

  • 'To the Ends of the Earth'

    Busan Film Review: 'To the Ends of the Earth'

    “To the Ends of the Earth,” the story of a young Japanese journalist’s experiences in Uzbekistan filming a report for a Japanese TV travel show, was originally commissioned to celebrate 25 years of cordial diplomatic relations between director Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s hyper-developed island homeland and the less affluent, landlocked Central Asian nation. As such we might [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content