“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.