John Berardo’s horror flick, “Initiation,” will make you too paranoid to leave your phone on silent.
If you’re thinking that a horror movie called Initiation must be about pledge week, you’d be correct. In his first feature as solo director, John Berardo focuses on the horrors of frat culture, social media, and monetary corruption within universities. He co-wrote Initiation with Brian Frager and Lindsay LaVanchy, who also stars as Initiation’s heroine. The writing team borrows stylistic conventions from years of teen thrillers to create a horror flick that is decidedly about the social media generation. Berardo's love for and knowledge of the horror genre is evident throughout Initiation, which neatly pays tribute to horror classics of the past in both style and form. While it's an entertaining flick with standout technical elements, Initiation struggles to strike the right tone as it juggles important themes without fully unpacking them.
It’s pledge week at Whiton University, where brother and sister Wes and Ellery Scott (Froy Gutierrez and Lindsay LaVanchy) are both active, popular students. The morning after a party, Wes leaves a mysterious comment, a single exclamation point, on a picture of Ellery’s little, Kylie. Ellery knows the symbol means bad news and tries to confront her brother, but she can’t get him to take her seriously. Before they can really discuss it, things on the Whiton University campus take a murderous turn for the worse.
Initiation hits its stride when it gets to that murderous turn, but the road leading up to that point is a bumpy ride. The first section of the movie is a bit flat, drawing out the narrative introduction with predictable tropes rather than suspense or character building. The result is a thematically forced storyline that strikes the same tone as an anti-bullying PSA. There are also bits of dialogue in the first chunk of the film that could have been refined to create a more nuanced tone, although the cast does a terrific job of making the dialogue feel natural. The technical aspects in the first section of the movie are also fairly solid, with several “false alarm” jump scares that set the mood. Berardo incorporates social media into the story with visuals and graphics, appealing to millennials and gen z’s with the communication style we know best. These visuals add just the right stylistic touch to the film, punctuating important scenes with a pop of suspense.
Another factor that carries Initiation through its slow start is LaVanchy’s solid performance. LaVanchy creates a strong and emotionally dynamic heroine who is compelling and easy to identify with. Ellery’s confidence and genuine concern for her sorority sisters makes us want to root for her, and her flaws only make her more believable. LaVanchy works her way through Ellery’s emotional rollercoaster ride with ease, and I’m excited to see her take on more horror roles in the future.
Things begin to pick up after the first big horror moment, and the middle section of Initiation proves to be the most engaging. This chunk of the story is somehow both predictable and satisfying (perhaps because it took so long to get there). The gore itself is a strong and defining stylistic factor for Initiation, but I found myself wondering if it would have worked even better in a campy flick. With all its teen sports and fraternity movie tropes, Initiation is practically begging for a self-aware, tongue-in-cheek treatment. The movie dips its toes into several horror styles and subgenres, but it never quite figures out where to settle down. While entertaining, Initiation struggles to balance style, storytelling, genre conventions, and perhaps most importantly, theme.
Initiation is what it sounds like - a horror film about pledge week. However, it uses the problems of frat culture as a way into the horror genre and then leaves them at the door. Initiation uses rape culture and monetary corruption within universities as a springboard into its plot - but once the story gets going, the film focuses more on shock factor and thrills than unpacking those initial themes. Granted, Initiation works as a horror film overall because it sets up an interesting game where we can’t figure out whose side we should be on or who is the most likely suspect. But at times, this narrative technique distracts from the realities of rape culture and social media bullying. While the plot does take several interesting and original turns, it also leaves several dangling thematic threads that make us want a little something more.
In theaters and available on VOD and Digital May 7, 2021
"Our embodied spectator, possibly perverse in her fantasies and diverse in her experience, possesses agency...finally, she must now be held accountable for it."