Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Review: Initiation (2020)

Initiation is a thoughtful new slasher film that offers an interesting twist on an old formula. 

The setting is familiar: a university campus, dorm rooms occupied by frat boys and sorority sisters looking for a good time. The party gets out of hand and things go too far. There's an assault, a cover-up, and then the murders begin, perpetrated by a masked killer who uses an impact driver to impale his victims with long metal spikes. 

It's not surprising to find out that the director of Initiation, John Berardo, has adored Scream, Wes Craven's reinvention of the slasher genre, since he saw it as a ten-year-old in 1996. Just like Craven flipped the script on expectations 25 years ago, Berardo has brought his own post-modern twist to the slasher film through the addition of social media itself as a character in the film. 

Scream invited viewers to play along by acknowledging the rules of the horror film. Similarly, Initiation brings things into the social media age where everyone holds onto their phones like lifeboats in the middle of the ocean. It's actually a clever addition that brings a lot of freshness to a genre that's been explored, reimagined, and innovated seemingly to death. The audience is privy to every text message, blocked call, and even decision to go into Do Not Disturb mode from each of its characters. The filmmakers have thoughtfully chosen to add these elements to the movie screen itself via special effects so that we're fully immersed into this digital hell. In some scenes, it even adds to the tension as we see characters that can't call for help because they have no service. 

Initiation stars Lindsay LaVanchy (who is also one of the writers), and she's a breath of fresh air: independent, smart, and strong yet vulnerable. Her character begins the film as a carefree personality, but she becomes more withdrawn and traumatized as the story unfolds. Like Neve Campbell in Scream, LaVanchy plays things internally. She's a scream queen, but she belongs to a new era. The movie also co-stars Lochclyn Munro, who older fans will remember from 1998's Dead Man on Campus. He portrays a university authority figure here, but this movie brings him full circle with a touch of irony.

The movie succeeds as a slasher whodunnit with a list of suspects a mile long. It has interesting and creative kill scenes, including one that I don't believe audiences have ever seen before and that will stay with viewers. The film is deliberately paced, and some may be surprised at how much time and energy is spent on non-horror elements like the relationships among the characters themselves (which some would argue is simply a different kind of horror). 

The new Blu-ray from Lionsgate (this independent film was distributed by Saban Films) includes two behind-the-scenes features which run a combined 36 minutes and offer a really fantastic, honest look at the production of the film itself. Through these supplemental materials, we learn about the director's deep love of Scream, that he is a graduate of USC, and that making this one film has been the director's life-long goal, with it taking seven years to get made. 

We also learn that this was conceived under the title Dembanger (a slang term for an exclamation point) and even exists as an earlier short film under that name. Shame that the Dembanger short film wasn't included as an extra feature here! In fact, after learning so much about the production of this film and knowing where it came from creatively, I'm come to the opinion that Saban Films and Lionsgate have done no favors to Initiation in their release of the movie. The new title is fairly generic and the poster art is uninspiring, giving us little to separate this movie from the hundreds of bottom-shelf direct-to-streaming horror films that occupy store shelves and digital services. This movie is better than that. 

Initiation is an interesting and fresh take on a very familiar subgenre of horror. It's acted well, the script does a wonderful job at showing how much more complicated the lives of young people have become thanks to smartphones and social media, and it's a horror film that takes lots of time to display what our characters are thinking and feeling. For some, this will be a negative, but for me, it's a positive. It's also clearly a work of passion from a small team who spent years of their life making this story a reality. There's a lot that the movie tries to unpack: changing societal norms, the #MeToo movement, a deconstruction of horror movie misogyny, and an awareness that social media has changed how we interact with each other forever. There's no shortage of ideas here--there may actually be too many ideas for one movie--and the more I think about Initiation, the more I admire it. 

Initiation is now available on Blu-ray and digital

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