Pledge Night (1990)

OCTOBER 10, 2019


Since original slasher movies were no longer really hitting theaters by the late 80s, the few that were still being made (more or less exclusively for the video market) tend to be a bit "off" in one way or another. The lack of having to care about mainstream appeal, the drive to do something different in a genre few were still paying attention to... there were several reasons why these films don't bother to stick to the proven formula. And with Freddy escaping the pack to become the most commercially successful of the horror icons (hitting his box office peak in 1987-88), it's no surprise that the killer of Pledge Night, Sid (played by Joey Belladonna from Anthrax) is cut from similar cloth, i.e. he's horribly burned and has a tendency to say something "funny" before and/or after a kill.

But again, the movie's carving its own path, so he also doesn't show up for almost an hour (there are two killers - a crazed pledge at first, then Sid). The elements are all there for a standard kind of slasher movie; our protagonists are the pledges for a fraternity, on their final night of hazing before being sworn in as brothers, and the "little sisters" are hanging around to prepare the food and other things they need to do for their oft-disgusting trials - the fodder is established quite quickly. But writer/producer Joyce Snyder was more interested in showing what frat hazing was like than the killer stuff, despite the objections of director/editor Paul Ziller, making it come off as more of a comedy as there's almost nothing to even hint at this being a horror movie in the first 40 minutes or so. Naturally, that might be too much to ask for some folks.

In fact, even though it's a standard "victim of a prank comes back" type of backstory, they don't even show you that part until quite a ways into the runtime, as opposed to the opening scene like pretty much every other revenge slasher like this, which could have bought them some time. And with the relatively large cast, the late start for the carnage means the killer works his way through everyone fairly quickly once he finally gets going, so don't hope for much suspense or chase scenes (it's been a dire week for well paced slashers here at HMAD). It's almost like they just wanted to make a movie about hazing and got forced to add some horror elements in the last week of production.

That said, the hazing half of the movie actually kind of works on its own, despite the lack of slashing. Per Snyder, they're all real things that frat pledges have to go through, and they never make it look particularly fun - sleeping on the hard floor with no blankets, digesting things that probably shouldn't be digested, etc. There's even a bit where they pour honey on the pledges' faces and then drop cockroaches on them - and yes it's actually done for real on camera, making it the most horrifying thing in the movie by far. And it's not just a string of dares; they occasionally have to pep talk one another to get through the next step, allowing the movie to actually humanize (slightly) a frat guy, which is no easy task. The humor is a little dated of course, but it's earnest and in line with frat comedies of the 80s, so there's a sincerity that I found charming. And while they aren't exactly "woke" they're not horrible human beings either - only the head guy who was carrying out some of the harsher punishments (including an ass-branding) fell into "I want to see this guy die" territory; the others were all more or less in that sweet spot of "I don't love this guy so much that I'll be sad when he dies but I'm not rooting for his death either."

So it's a shame that Sid (the killer) doesn't have any real motive for killing them specifically, as they weren't the ones who killed him 20 years earlier. With the Freddy influence apparent I guess it's more of a "revenge on their kids" kinda deal, but with the only parent we see being the mother to the one person Sid doesn't want to harm (for very obvious plot reasons), if that was the intent it doesn't land. It actually worked better when it was Dan, the aforementioned first killer who is just a frat guy who snapped and started offing his brothers. With the simple "he's crazy" plot, it all works just fine - but suddenly Sid just tears through Dan's body (think Freddy's Revenge), and it's like you're watching the sequel already, where the human killer had been offed so they had to go the supernatural route for part 2.

Had the movie been paced normally, this might have worked just fine, but it's like we waited too long for Dan to start killing as is, only for him to be unceremoniously removed from the film in favor of a different killer. It feels like a bit of a reset, so by the time Sid hits his own groove, the movie's basically about to end. I wish Ziller had put his foot down and gotten to the horror sooner - I think this would be easier to recommend if not for Snyder (who put up the money as well) insisting that they basically make two different movies and stitch them together out of nowhere at the halfway point. Closest comparison I could make is From Dusk Till Dawn, but at least there the vampire twist was basically another obstacle between Seth and freedom - this lacks that kind of character journey to keep following.

Vinegar Syndrome's disc looks quite good and has some nice extras, so existing fans shouldn't be disappointed. It lacks a commentary unfortunately, but Ziller, Snyder, and some of the cast all appear in lengthy interviews, and there's a quick piece on how the shooting locations look today, plus the trailer, which unsurprisingly plays up the horror stuff as if it was a throughline for the entire movie as opposed to its final 25 minutes or so. Luckily, I was warned that it takes a while to get going, so I didn't mind it too much - I was more disappointed that the slasher stuff wasn't all that great once it finally started. It's kind of like Killer Party in that respect, but at least that movie's weirdo nonsense (not to mention earlier introduction of the supernatural plot) kept it better paced overall. So I dunno, it's kind of amusing, and there's nothing particularly bad about it, but it never fully finds its footing either. Your call!

What say you?


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