Synopsis: Whiton University unravels the night a star-athlete is murdered, kicking off a spree of social media slayings that force students to uncover the truth behind the school’s hidden secrets and the horrifying meaning of an exclamation point.
Stars: Lindsay LaVanchy, Jon Huertas, Isabella Gomez, Froy Gutierrez, Gattlin Griffith, Patrick Walker, Bart Johnson, Shireen Lai, Kent Faulcon, Yancy Butler, Lochlyn Munro
Director: John Berado
Running Length: 96 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review: Not for lack of labored trying, but it seemed like the old-fashioned slasher film had truly kicked the bucket. Sure, studios could gussy up a subpar effort with all the fancy marketing they wanted and produce a slick trailer to make their hokey low budget cash grab appear to be a terrifying classic in the making, but once the butts were in the seats it didn’t take audiences long to realize they’d been duped. Having been burned one too many times, horror fans stopped taking the bait and when the money pool dried up, so did the clamor for more slice and dice copycats of far more prestigious films from the heyday of the genre.
I’d certainly found myself five minutes into what I honestly believed would be at least a decent time waster only to discover I was watching yet another uninspired rehash of the same old schtick. Of course, there have been exceptions over the last few years like the excellent Haunt which did frightening wonders with a small budget and the surprisingly scary The Rental from, of all people, Dave Franco. Even an ultra-low budget entry like The Last Laugh managed to drum up creativity by harkening back to useful giallo tricks of the trade. That being said, the slasher genre and their central task of uncovering the identity of a masked killer had largely been pushed to the side in favor of supernatural and creature features to elicit shrieks.
My initial instinct when Initiation arrived in my inbox was to resist the urge to get too excited. Wasn’t I just setting myself up for another round of disappointment thinking this film shot in three weeks could possibly break a long streak of losers? The whole “killer on a college campus” bit wasn’t anything revelatory (take Happy Birthday to Me, Urban Legend, Scream 2, The House on Sorority Row, and even the unrelated The Initiation from 1984 to name a few), the movie would need to have some heft to it in order to muscle its way past already established properties.
If puny dreck like March’s Dreamcatcher and last year’s Backwoods are noodle limbed attempts to put their stamp on the slasher genre, then Initiation is the Arnold Schwarzenegger, or better yet, the Linda Hamilton in Terminator 2. What we have here is an intelligent, well-made, perfectly decently acted return to what makes these types of film so much fun in the first place…the mystery of it all. Everyone’s a suspect up until they meet a gory demise, and even if you’ll likely be able to spot whodunit and unravel some motive long before they are uncovered, it won’t matter much on account of the other elements coalescing so nicely. The most exciting part of it all is that it’s done without it seeming labored, like it was a joyless chore to imbue a modern slasher suspense with the structure of old-fashioned plot devices.
Take, for instance, the opening of the film which finds the fraternities and sororities at Whiton University getting ready for a big bash at the most popular frat house on campus. Obviously, the frat guys and sorority girls are going to be a bunch of duuuuuudes and bimbos ready to be picked off, right? Well, you’d be half right because the sorority sisters are more responsible than we’ve seen onscreen lately, actively watching out for one another, and steering clear of any drink they didn’t pour themselves. They’re aware of a nasty bit of social media tagging going on within the fraternity which assigns crude ratings based on their intimate encounters. And they’re not having any of it tonight.
At the party, head sister Ellery (Lindsay LaVanchy) loses track of one of her newest recruits but finds her in a room with her brother Wes (Froy Gutierrez) and some of his friends. The girl is out of it but seems ok otherwise. Still, of all people Ellery thinks Wes, an Olympic swimming hopeful, should know better. Apparently, someone else thinks that too because the fallout from the events of the night turn deadly quickly when one of the partygoers is murdered in a most heinous fashion by a masked killer. Police and campus security try to intervene but a plot for revenge has already been set into motion and it’s up to Ellery to find out who is slashing through her friends and stop them before they get to her.
If you groan when I say Initiation is a slasher film with a strong feminist slant then a) OMG, it’s 2021, get over it and b) don’t write this off because it has a point of view and sticks to it. It’s not agenda pushing in the least but does have some aim in subverting what we know about these types of films. Men are put into just as much jeopardy as women and, gasp, shown in vulnerable states of undress as well. There’s not a fixated effort into forcing the issue but you don’t have to look very hard to see that’s what the filmmakers were going for. At the same time, that doesn’t have any major impact to the bloody old school slashings that continue on for a number of unlucky souls.
Director John Beardo co-wrote the script with Brian Frager and star LaVanchy, another way the film kept our lead performer walking a similar but somewhat different path than the same old scream queen that has come before. An active participant in uncovering clues on her own time (she’s a lab assistant on campus that uses her job to do some sleuthin’), the character is not afraid to be seen as smart, unapologetically say what she means, and yet she still winds up running for her life from a psychopath like they all do in these films. The rest of the cast turn in solid work, with Gattlin Griffith (Labor Day) appropriately sleazy as the dirtiest dog in the frat and a Shireen Lai as Ellery’s best gal pal who proves to be a welcome presence in some of the film’s more harrowing moments.
Above all else, Initiation delivers the goods on a consistent basis. The action doesn’t seem to drag and Beardo and crew maintain a nice tone that doesn’t demean its characters or devolve into silly voids of laziness. It also looks pretty snazzy too, with cinematographer Jonathan Pope utilizing interesting camera angles to heighten the tension with just a slight imbalance or flooding our view with the colorful lights at the early party that kicks off all the madness. It’s just an all-around well planned and executed (pardon the pun) horror film made by people that knew what they were doing – and this is the reward.