★★★1/2 out of ★★★★★
Slasher-film fans should have a great time with this whodunit thriller — set on a present-day university campus — that shines a light on some ugly social issues.
Directed by John Berardo
Combining ‘90s whodunit slasher film and university-set–horror vibes with crime thriller elements, director John Berardo’s Initiation takes a more critical approach to its sorority and fraternity members and university faculty staff than standard college-killer fare. The result is a solid outing that tackles cyber bullying, toxic masculinity, institutional cover-ups, sexual abuse, and other social issues while delivering bloody kills at the hands of a masked marauder.
During what initially seems like an introduction of yet another cast of hard-partying, vapid college characters — stick around, because things definitely get more complex — viewers meet sorority girl Ellery (Lindsay LaVanchy) and her Olympic hopeful swimming-star brother Wes (Froy Gutierrez), who show their affection for each other and for their parents in a nicely done scene. We also meet several other sorority sisters and fraternity brothers, many of whom are either friends or uneasy acquaintances, including Kylie (Isabella Gomez), who later believes she was assaulted during the party.
Despite Kylie being reluctant to alert the authorities about her predicament, the police quickly become involved when two fraternity brothers find Wes murdered. Viewers know that it was the work of a masked killer, but for all of the characters, it is the beginning of a mystery that will claim more victims in bloody manners and see a lot of finger-pointing as people work to find out what happened, while others try to sweep matters under the proverbial rug.
Berardo and fellow cowriters Brian Frager and LaVanchy have crafted a compelling screenplay that addresses the aforementioned social issues and some of their devastating results. Almost every character has a secret or dark side — and naturally there are a couple of big red herrings at play — but the protagonists are written with a solid touch of humanity that grounds the film.
With his first feature film after an admirable catalog of short films, Berardo shows a keen sense of horror filmmaking at the helm. He is aided by a sizable cast, whose members all nail their parts no matter the amount of screen time. LaVanchy is terrific as the main character, showing a wide range of emotions — the scene where the police inform her of her brother’s death is especially good, as it is given time to breathe and her reaction unfolds in a unique manner — and avoiding the pitfalls in which most similar characters in fright-fare films find themselves.
With a nice balance of drama and gory kills, Initiation offers solid slasher fare with a good deal of thought behind it.
Saban Films will release Initiation in theaters, on demand, and on digital May 7, 2021.