There’s plenty of horror to be wrung out of the idea that something is “too good to be true.” In director Daniel Robbins’ latest film, Pledge, the phrase is put to the test when a trio of College freshmen discover a social club whose seemingly perfect facade proves to be a front for something far more malicious and sadistic.
As a concept, there’s not much lurking beneath the surface in Pledge, the new IFC Midnight thriller about a social club that puts its pledge group through the physical, mental and emotional wringer. The trailer, in particular, is overtly spoilery; in truth, however, it’s evident from early on that bad things are waiting in the wings for David (Zack Weiner, also the film’s screenwriter), Justin (Zachery Bryd), and Ethan (Phillip Andre Botell).
The boys are stock character types of classic nerdy College guys: David is the ringleader, despite being physically the smallest, Justin is the portly non-drinker, while Ethan is level-headed and slightly uneasy. Following a quick cold open that establishes the tone and the stakes, the action jumps ahead four years to introduce the protagonists.
David is determined to find them a house to pledge on fraternity row, but after being misled about the timing of a mid-day mixer at one house and getting kicked out of another for being “weird”, the trio is well on their way towards a future of video games and solitary drinking.
Cue the timely appearance of a random girl who provides them with an address for a party that night.
At this point even the characters seem wary of the convenience of this event. Both Justin and Ethan plead with David not to make them go, and when he insists, they steel themselves for a prank. Still they persist, collectively ignoring all of the obvious warning signs, including the incredibly remote location of the house on the other side of the corn field (ominously glimpsed in the open), the fact that they’re welcomed with open arms by the same kind of guys and girls who treated them with contempt earlier in the day and, most nefariously, club president Max (Aaron Dalla Villa)’s disproportionate outrage when Ethan and his date Stacey (Melanie Rothman) accidentally open the off-limit door to the basement. A few montages of raucous drinking, dancing and making out washes away their concerns, however.
When they’re woken up in the morning, Max and his lackeys, Ricky (Cameron Cowperthwaite) and Bret (Jesse Pimentel), invite them – along with two other boys, Sam (Jean-Louis Droulers) and Ben (Joe Gallagher) – to return that night and stay over. As they pack their bags, the trio’s delusional aspirations (which include blowjobs on yachts) are intercut with bars being installed in the windows of the club house and creepy ceremonial candles being lit.
The tenor of the film changes dramatically from this point on as 48 hours of hazing rituals begin. From this point on Pledge morphs into a traditional endurance test of pain, humiliation and escalating tension. Weiner’s script and composer Jon Natchez’s score don’t attempt to mask this new direction. The thrills of watching the film lie not in wondering if something terrible will happen, but rather when and how. In this way, the film casually follows in the familiar tread of Eli Roth’s Hostel, a title that is notoriously synonymous with co-creating the “torture porn” label that defined horror in the mid to late 00s. While Pledge is nowhere near as mean-spirited, homophobic or graphic as Roth’s film, the DNA – a trio of boys out of their element and lured into danger by a group who aim to profit from their suffering – is not dissimilar.
What works about Pledge is that our main trio (and to a lesser extent the other two pledges) are inherently likeable. The film’s condensed timeline doesn’t allow for a great deal of character development outside of their rapid physical and mental disintegration, but each actor carves out a distinct set of traits that not only sets them apart from the others, but makes it easy to root for their survival. Even David, the most validation-and-acceptance-driven of the three (even when it comes at the expense of their safety) doesn’t deserve the trauma inflicted upon him by Max, Ricky and Bret.
The film’s violence is sure to be a talking point – in part because hazing rituals remain front and center in real life and cinematic depictions of fraternities (see: The Skulls, GOAT), but also because the entire narrative questions what the boys are willing to endure in order to achieve the popularity that they so desire. Will they break if they are literally branded with the club’s insignia? What about if they’re forced to consume disgusting ground-up animal remains? Is the torture easier to accept if their captors occasionally seem reluctant or apologetic? This is the fine line that Pledge walks, which makes it easier to accept why the boys don’t immediately vacate the premises when things start to go disastrously wrong.
Robbins’ direction is crisp and effective, especially his staging and framing of action sequences. Weiner’s script is at times a little workmanlike and could have used a little more emphasis on the psychological effects of the torture (one sequence when the boys begin blaming each other for their situation is insightful, but only occurs in passing).
Overall, however, there’s enough here to satisfy fans of screw-tightening thrillers and those seeking some light commentary on the dangers of placing popularity over personal safety. At its core, Pledge is an uncomfortable examination of the conflicts that can arise when desire and power intersect in bro-social situations.
Be careful who you pledge!
Pledge is out in select theatres and VOD Friday, Jan 11, 2019