By Jason Sawyer – Jan. 12, 2019

Released Jan. 11, 2019
Unrated (equal to rated R for violence, torture, sadism, thematic elements, and language) – 1hr 17min
Directed by Daniel Robbins
Starring Zachery Byrd, Phillip Andre Botello, Aaron Dalla Villa, Zack Weiner

College freshmen and social outcasts Justin (Byrd), Ethan (Botello), and David (Weiner) are having no luck in their attempt to rush a fraternity – that is until they are invited to an exclusive gathering off-campus. There, they enjoy a wild and raucous party, courtesy of the charismatic Max (Dalla Villa) and his accommodating bros. The trio are invited back to pledge for membership the next evening, but when they arrive, they find the group to not be so accommodating anymore. How much will these young men endure to prove they belong?

Pledge is a fast and nasty thriller that wastes virtually nothing in its spartan 77-minute runtime. Both stomach-churning and thought-provoking, it deftly poses a host of uncomfortable questions about numerous social matters, all while moving at a sprint.

Narrative: In a word, Pledge is economic. The story makes the most of each scene, be it setting up its premise, building its characters, establishing its setting, or putting everything into motion with an agonizing gauntlet of atrocities. It’s not mere voyeurism though – it has a lot to say about the dynamics of social elitism, masculinity, peer pressure, and conformity. It’s telling that the fictional frat’s mascot is the rat – when it sees what it wants, it will pursue that thing with a voracious tenacity, stopping at nothing and plowing through anything to get it. That’s an example of the economy employed in the script – much is conveyed when that is the core value of the university’s most elite social group. Now, there’s not a wealth of surprises to be had throughout – a twist here and a turn there that aren’t exactly mind-blowing – but the ending is a gem. The proceedings are wrapped up in such a way that the movie manages to gnaw its way into the brain and make a nest there.

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Circumstances certainly go from bad to worse here.

Acting: Everybody involved does what they need to when they need to do it. In a movie with nine principal characters and no solo moments to be had, no one steals the proverbial show, and that’s to the benefit of Pledge. It allows for the emergence of a convincing us-vs-them ensemble that succeeds to be compelling. Again, going back to being economical, each member of the cast communicates a lot of context with single lines of dialogue or individual facial expressions and body language. The early scenes of the protagonists are cringe-inducingly awkward. Their despair, once they are hapless pledges, comes across as genuinely uncertain, which motivates their compliance, as does the authentic Jekyll-and-Hyde mannerisms of the frat bros. In short, the actors give the film a sickly realism that allows its themes to thrive.

Direction: While certainly helped by an efficient script from co-star Zack Weiner, it’s uncommon to see a film that moves as fast as Pledge while remaining fully cohesive. Director David Robbins pulls the effort together with style too. The opening shot is especially commendable – presumably filmed with a drone, it brings the camera in from VERY far down into the middle of an obviously unfortunate situation already in progress. It’s an effective introduction. Later, when the going gets rough, Robbins utilizes techniques that successfully invoke a claustrophobic feel – while the setting itself is not especially confined, it captures the vibe of the vicious confinement that the pledges have willingly volunteered themselves for and the distinct social pressures that keep them compliant. He also possesses a keen instinct as to when to shift perspective, uncomfortably cycling the audience through the roles of fellow victim, co-conspirator, and complicit witness. Later, as things become more desperate and frantic, he adeptly delivers the action in a tense and satisfying manner. It’s a seriously impressive effort.

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Please see the previous caption for reference.

Horror Elements: Those looking to Pledge for outrageously gruesome torture and kills are going to leave disappointed. The movie keeps its feet firmly planted in a utilitarian realism – which benefits an immersive atmosphere – favoring a simpler brutality over wildly elaborate gore-tacular scenarios. It does have a couple standout moments though, particularly at the point of no return, but those scenes are still played very straight, forsaking any over-the-top splatter. Given the other components of the film, it’s the right approach here. Further, there’s nothing secretly supernatural here or any reliance on jump scares – the emphasis is strongly, if not exclusively, on disturbing discomfort.

Sound: The retro synth score is very much back in favor right now, and Pledge has one too. I’m not complaining though – I happen to love that style and composer Jon Natchez provides a fittingly tense effort.

TL;DR: This will likely prove to be a love-or-hate experience for viewers. Those who aren’t turned off by the gut-wrenching content or problematic themes on the one hand might be rashly irritated by the existence of another socially woke horror movie. If that doesn’t sound like you, then watch it now. It’s incredibly solid from start to finish and an exceptionally grueling horror experience. 2019 is still very young, but it’s going to be difficult to remove Pledge from our year-end Top 10.

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Would You Rather

By Jason Sawyer – Jan. 10, 2019

Released Feb. 8, 2013
Unrated (equal to rated R for violence, sadism, thematic elements, and language) – 1hr 33min
Directed by David Guy Levy
Starring Brittany Snow, Jeffery Combs, Sasha Grey, John Heard

Iris (Snow), struggling financially and desperate to help her very sickly brother, accepts an invitation to a dinner party from wealthy tycoon Shepard Lambrick (Combs) to discuss the possibility of becoming a beneficiary of his charitable foundation. What she doesn’t know is that she will be fighting for her life with 7 others in a deadly game of ‘Would You Rather’, conducted annually for the rich man’s entertainment.

Would You Rather is a tense and grueling examination of the depths of desperation. While not necessarily gory, it is a fairly vicious movie that doesn’t hold back on the consequences of the characters’ decisions or the dark contempt that the host holds for those he views as his lessers.

Narrative: If Would You Rather played Would You Rather, the question might be, ‘Would you rather be a splatterfest with characters being ironically punished for their perceived sins in spectacularly gory ways or be a strait-laced social commentary about American class warfare with an emphasis on uncomfortable realism?’ The movie picks the second choice, and as such, manages to carve out a unique identity for itself, despite being initially dismissed as yet another torture porn piece that, by 2013, was too late to the party. While it would qualify as part of the New Extremity movement that dominated global horror cinema throughout the ’00s, the film favors a simplicity in premise over the elaborate murder machines or often convoluted scenarios found throughout the sprawling Saw franchise and the legion of clones it inspired. There’s eight people desperate for money, four ghastly choices, and one winner – all orchestrated with a showman’s zeal by a wealthy, charismatic, enthusiastic sociopath. While it could have benefited from taking more time to develop supporting characters, thereby becoming somewhat less predictable, there are still enough twists and turns throughout to be thoroughly engrossing, complimenting what is a very solid story, if not particularly successful ending.

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“Welcome to my dinner party, everyone! I totally promise there will be absolutely no abhorrent acts of self-harm or bloodshed here at this table tonight and that’s probably a pretty off-putting introduction so, moving along…who wants to play a game?”

Acting: This is Jeffery Combs’ movie – full stop. While already a genre icon from his roles in the Re-Animator trilogy, The Frighteners, From Beyond and more, his performance in Would You Rather is worth seeing by itself. His character, Shepard Lambrick, is a smooth-talking and congenial man of wealth whose blood can turn ice cold without warning. He revels in his secret tradition – this game which he frames as a philosophical examination of the human condition, a proving ground of the most worthy of his resources, and a lark for his cynical amusement. Combs manages to project all these things together in a complex person that seems real, and therefore, effectively chilling. Lead star and co-producer Brittany Snow makes for a sympathetic and convincing protagonist, yet she, like the rest of the cast, is mostly left to emote and react to Combs’ puppet master. However, she, and the rest of the cast, do so sufficiently, but her and Combs are the only with much actual depth (although late veteran actor John Heard has a small yet memorable role too).

Direction: The presentation is not particularly stylish visually. Director David Guy Levy does have a distinct approach to distance – using close-ups on reactions and relevant objects while opting to frame the violence from across the table or room, shifting the emphasis from the visceral to the dramatic. The pacing in Would You Rather is exceptional though – flying through its runtime at a fast clip.

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“Maybe if I look at the guy next to me like this, she’ll think he farted instead…”

Horror Elements: Based upon its premise and promo art, it would be fair to believe that this film would be packed full of deliriously gory sequences, and that is simply not the case. While doubtlessly violent, it’s delivered in a very matter-of-fact manner that even backs up or cuts away entirely from the couple of nastier fates that are doled out. It could have perhaps used an all-out squirm-inducing moment to put it over the top, but with a thick and tense atmosphere and fast pace, it’s difficult to complain too much.

Sound: While the score takes a back seat throughout, the opening and closing themes are really enjoyable. Daniel Hunt and Bardi Johannsson deliver a neat ’70s-synth style with rock drums that captures the proper aesthetic – ominous but playful, even slightly evoking a game-show-music vibe in the mix.

TL;DR: Would You Rather is a compelling suspense thriller heavy on timely social commentary yet lighter on horror than one might think at a glance. Given its reliance on more dramatic elements, it could have gone deeper on developing its characters and it has an ending that leaves something to be desired, but still is very much worth watching.

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