Pledge Night (1988)

Pledge Night

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Larry Bonner is getting ready for Hell Week at his chosen fraternity, where he and his new pledge brothers will be forced to degrade and humiliate themselves, all in the name of bonding and brotherhood. But Larry’s mom isn’t all that keen on him joining a fraternity house. Or rather, she isn’t too keen on him joining THAT particular fraternity house. You see, about twenty years ago, during the height of the 60s, Mrs. Bonner’s then boyfriend Sid was accidentally killed in a hazing prank at that very fraternity house when one of his future brothers seemingly got drunk and mistook a bottle of acid for a bottle of vinegar. But Larry brushes off his mother’s concerns. After-all, the fraternity Sid pledged to was dissolved after his death, and a few years later Phi-Epsilon took up residence in the house instead. So things aren’t like how they used to be…. or so he claims. But apparently Sid’s restless soul doesn’t agree with him, because on the last night of Hell Week a vengeful Acid Sid returns from the great beyond to wreak hippie-quippy havoc on the new fraternity members residing in the house where he met his demise some twenty years earlier.

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Groovy

Okay, so, have you ever read a movie’s description, started it, and made it a good third of the way through before thinking “….Is this the right film?”, then furiously looked for the remote control to make sure you didn’t accidentally sit on it and change the channel or something? Cause that’s what watching Pledge Night feels like: two separate movies that couldn’t possibly be related, crammed into one. It makes for a very interesting, though highly confusing, viewing experience, and that’s only assuming you have a lot of patience to get through the first crap half of the film. Though, perhaps I really shouldn’t have been surprised by that, since the movie literally starts with the sound of a toilet flushing. That ominous noise should have probably been my first clue.

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Yeah. This is basically how you’ll sit through most of the film. Prepare yourselves.

If you’re starting this film thinking you’re in for a horror movie, then the first half of Pledge Night is not only going to confuse you, but also bore you to freakin’ tears. The first 40+ minutes of the movie are composed almost entirely by a series of juvenile pranks and tasks that the fraternity brothers play on the new pledges during Hell Week. The pranks vary in severity from making the pledges do push-ups for answering questions incorrectly, to making them swallow worms, to pretending that they’re forcing them to eat shit (which is really a banana covered in anchovy paste that they dropped in a toilet.) Most of them are harmless, but some of them really push the boundaries of “prank” and veer a bit too much into “sick mind-game” territory for my tastes, and watching this film makes me once again wonder why anyone would ever be interested in participating in Greek life on campus beyond snagging a pita at the food court.

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I mean, honestly…. why?

Though the real question is, why is so much of the movie taken up by scenes like this, to the point where it feels like we’ve somehow turned on some weirdly specific docu-drama by mistake? Part of the answer lies in the film’s writer and producer Joyce Synder, who it seems meticulously researched the inner workings of fraternities and documented all their hijinks. Meaning all of the cases displayed on screen actually come from real-life examples of fraternity hazing. Which is kind of cool, in an odd, creepy sort of way, when you think about all the background and detail that must have gone into putting all these scenes together. But impressive research ability aside, none of it is cool enough to force the viewer to spend 40 minutes of their life watching a bunch of guys do weird crap in their underwear and trying to pick up cherries with their asses. I mean, unless you like those kinds of really awkward, homoerotic undertones. In which case, have I got the film for you!

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….No comment.

Thankfully things finally pick up once Acid Sid suddenly pops out of a plumbing fixture to cause some bloody havoc. And by that I mean he literally reaches out through the bottom of a toilet, grabs a very confused fraternity member and kills him. I’m not exactly sure how he killed him, mind you, but considering his randomly chosen method of entry and the amount of blood in the after-scene, I’ll just assume he ripped off a vital piece of anatomy and left the guy to bleed to death. Regardless, after over half an hour of being forced to watch a bunch of scantily clad dudes do god-knows-what to humiliate themselves, and with not even so much as a suggestion of horror to be seen up until this point (unless you count all the crotch shots of guys in tighty-whities), suddenly our fraternity hijinks film seems to have remembered it’s initial premise, and it immediately turns into a supernatural slasher. And yes, the transition is just as awkward as it sounds, because it literally almost comes out of nowhere. Up until he finally shows, Sid is only mentioned briefly, as a warning to Larry about the dangers of fraternity hazing. His story is thrown at you so quickly that he can almost be treated as nothing more than a lame cautionary tale. The only reason the viewer even expects anything more from him is because his name is in the film summary, so they’ve been praying for him to make an appearance and add some damn plot to this movie for the last 30-minutes. ‘Course, once he does show up, then you kind of feel a little bad for everyone, because all of a sudden – BAM! – there’s Sid, and now the poor debased pledges have to deal with a super pisssed-off ghost on top of all of the hazing they’ve already put up with. Those poor suckers just can’t catch a break.

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To say the film improves after Sid’s appearance is both the truth, and a fib. Afterall, up until this point the viewer has been subjected to nothing more than a series of hazing rituals in something claiming to be a horror film, so the movie could really only go up from there. But after Sid shows up the movie turns into a cheesy supernatural slasher with a wisecracking ghost, so the improvement is only marginal at best. The main cast of characters is still as dimwitted as ever, and Sid walks around making jokes and references to the 60’s that aren’t nearly as clever or funny as the movie seems to think they are. BUT, on the plus side, we do finally get some gore and some amusing death sequences, so the second half of the film isn’t a total wash. People die via electrocution, hand mixer, and there’s even one involving a cherry bomb shoved up someone’s butt. There are even some nice visual touches included, like the fact that Sid’s clothes are constantly smoldering, as if he just stepped out of his acid bath. None of it is enough to make up for the first half of the film of course, or explain away Sid’s questionable motives for suddenly returning from beyond the grave, but hey, at least it’s something.

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The only boppin thing about this movie is it’s soundtrack, which was provided by US Heavy-Metal band, Anthrax. Why was Anthrax so involved? Because their lead vocalist at the time, Joey Belladonna, has a small role in the film as a young, pre-acid Sid. So I guess out of that the film managed to snag some tunes too. Not that I necessarily think the music fits a film about a hippie ghost coming back from the dead to torment a bunch of yuppies, but at least the music cues helped keep me awake during the boring parts of the film, so I guess their inclusion had its benefits.

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Pledge Night carries on the fine film tradition of sorority and fraternity pledges getting offed by some sadistic serial killer. Sid walks around smugly making jokes and tormenting his prey like a cheap rip-off of Freddy Krueger, all under the guise of protecting one of the pledges, despite nearly killing that very same pledge he claimed to be protecting…twice. Meanwhile his obedient victims fall in line thanks to the multitude of cliches and tropes written into the scrips. But before you even get to any of that, you have to sit through 45-minutes of toilet jokes, vulgarity and exaggerated humor that has nothing to do with the second part of the film. In short, the second half of the movie is fun enough, thanks to all the blood and the cheesy villain, but sitting through the first half feels like a chore. I admit, I admire the film’s dedication to authenticity, but if they’d cut all that hazing down to a third, the film’s story and pacing would have been better for it. Well, at least the pacing would have been better. The story is still pretty crap. But hey, they didn’t, and here we are. So if supernatural slashers are the kind of horror you’re interested in, and you absolutely MUST see every one of them, either be prepared for a long slog, or have the fast-forward button at the ready. Otherwise I think most people would likely want to skip this one.

Pledge Night is available on a variety of streaming services.

Pledge Night is also available on DVD and Bluray.

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Michi

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