Pledge (2019)

I typically despise torture porn as a genre, as I’m sure most people do by now. You’d think that even the “torture porn” label itself would inherently be read as an insult, but there is certainly still an audience out there somewhere for the early-aughts onslaught of grimy, macho sadism with poorly aged nu-metal soundtracks, fluorescent lighting, and pitch-black emotional cruelty. The major thing that always kept me from joining those heartless gore hounds in their appreciation for the genre myself (besides its usual sickly-green color correction) is the way it treats its characters before they’re tortured. Most torture porn premises involve watching archetypes you’re goaded to hate as soon as they’re introduced get their comeuppance at the hands of a cruel sadist with a vaguely defined moral code the victims have supposedly violated. This dynamic is especially grotesque when the victims are scantily clad women with beautiful supermodel physiques (as they often are), adding a bonus layer of misogyny to what was already a grotesque affair. The recent Kickstarter-funded horror cheapie Pledge is a shockingly successful subversion of all these glaring faults in the traditional torture porn dynamic. Not only does the film sidestep the genre’s usual misogynist tendencies by making its basic themes about toxic masculinity; it also takes the time to make its central torture porn victims relatable, pitiable nerds you actually have an affection for before turning around to torture them for a solid hour of gore-splattered mayhem. As a result, its prolonged, grisly deaths are genuinely unnerving, if not outright heartbreaking. On a more superficial level, Pledge also arrives as a welcome subversion of the torture porn genre by ditching the sickly green fluorescent aesthetic of the early aughts in favor of a more muted, realistic color palette. The result is much easier to look at & ingest than the genre’s typical fare, which only makes the cruelty on display more lingeringly effective.

Conceptually, there’s nothing especially fresh or novel about Pledge’s college campus rush-week-from-Hell premise. If anything, the film feels a few years late to the table, as the fraternity-rush torture porn gimmick was already tapped in higher profile arthouse projects like GOAT & Burning Sands. What makes the film exceptional is the extremity & specificity of its execution, not so much its themes or setting. Three hopeless, virginal nerds fail to gain acceptance into any of their college’s fraternities, as the gatekeeping bros therein instantly clock them as weirdo outsiders. Admittedly, the boys are sexually overeager & immature in a way that’s off-putting, even if true to life. They’re still not your typical torture porn victims, though, as (besides not being horned-up, half-naked women) they’re actually kind of charming in their ineffectual nerdiness. That’s why it’s tough to observe them being lured by women & liquor to apply as rushes to a creepy, isolated frat house with severe Society undertones. Once the pretense of the fraternity being legitimate is dropped, the film loses a lot of its more distinct character development touches in favor of increasingly cruel gore gags. By the time it slips into that full-blown torture marathon, however, we’re already attached to the poor little worms. It’s genuinely heartbreaking to see them still express reluctance to quit pledging to the “frat” after they’re forcibly branded, fed rancid roadkill, whipped, and disfigured by rats, as if it’s all worthwhile for their only shot at a healthy social life. The movie makes broad gestures to characterize their tormenters as part of a larger, cultish conspiracy network of the well-connected elite, but what’s more important is those villains’ basic features as handsome, all-American bros. With quaffed bangs and names like Maxwell Peterson III, the villains of Pledge are wealthy trust fund brats with a sadistic streak and an infinitely wide safety net backing up their brutish behavior. The purpose of their cruelty isn’t nearly as important as the perversely gleeful ways they express it and how easily they get away with it.

Last year, the killer clown slasher Terrifier was a frustrating reminder of just how flawed yet interesting the torture porn template can be. That film represented the pros & cons of the genre in irreconcilable extremes: fantastic practical effects gore artistry & pointlessly cruel misogynist violence. Pledge fixed my problems with that film, keeping the impressive low-budget gore effects but finding a purposeful use for the violence with far less icky gender politics. Pledge isn’t perfect, of course. Its opening sequence unnecessarily hints at the upcoming violence in a way that lessens the surprise of its extremity; the back half gradually drops the fraternity hazing gimmick to become more of a generic slasher; the conspiracy network paranoia feels disappointingly undercooked; etc. For a crowdfunded horror cheapie in a genre I usually have no energy for, however, it’s a shockingly successful, impressively upsetting watch. I can’t say that it will change your mind on the torture porn genre if you’ve always found the prospect of it entirely meritless, but I do think it’s an exceptional example of its ilk – a nasty little picture that overcame my own genre biases to wrench out my admiration & disgust in equal measure.

-Brandon Ledet

Burning Sands (2017)

Burning Sands is one of those Netflix-distributed indies that premiered at Sundance in January and then promptly resurfaced on streaming after a brief couple months’ gap. I’m sometimes frustrated with this relatively new distribution path. In the case of I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore in particular, it felt a little defeating to watch one of the best films of the year (so far) never even earn the chance to build up word of mouth momentum in a theatrical run before getting lost in the Netflix deluge. In the case of dirt cheap indies like Dig Two Graves and Burning Sands, however, Netflix distribution can be a kind of saving grace. Without being able to stream these kinds of moderate festival circuit pleasers at home, it’s likely audiences would never have direct access to them and they’d slip away into oblivion. The only problem now that they’re readily accessible, though, is getting them to stand out enough so that they’re not lost in the constant flood of digital content.

Burning Sands distinguishes itself from the overcrowded market of digital era indies in the intensity & specificity of its setting. Following the violent vetting process for fraternity pledges at a Historically Black College at the height of the trials & torments of Hell Week, Burning Sands is both a solemn reflection on the toxicity of traditional masculinity and a loose philosophical exploration of how the horrific vestiges of slavery have carried over into modern black identity in America. Set on a college campus named after Frederick Douglass, the movie frequently looks to his academic writing on the horrors of slavery as a window into black fraternity tradition, often with interesting, but vaguely defined results. It’s not a film that consistently wows or provokes contemplation, but when it does choose to crank its intensity in either its physical violence or philosophical prodding, it leaves a long trail of moments & images that stick around long after the credits roll.

Scenes of romantic, familial, and academic struggle threaten to drag Burning Sands down into forgettable melodrama tedium. The movie authentically captures the feel of a college campus, right down to the red cup parties that break out in the most depressingly bare apartment living rooms (complete with an accurate snapshot of the modern rap radio zeitgeist, Future included). Most of the drama staged in that setting can feel a little flat, though. There is a near unbearable amount of tension built in Burning Sands‘s hazing scenes that feels tonally at odds with its freshman year anxieties over grades & girlfriends, to the point where one half of that divide feels inevitably inferior. Still, each kick to the ribs, drunken experiment with branding, and regimented pressure into sexuality hits with full impact and the power of its strength in imagery & tension ultimately outweighs any of its moments of underwhelming melodrama. Burning Sands feels much more interested in the horrors of hazing than it is in fretting over freshman year anxieties and it’s all too easy to see why.

Burning Sands is far from the Hell Week exploitation of last year’s GOAT, but it’s difficult to pinpoint an overarching theme or message it’s trying to convey in its dramatic narrative. At times, it feels like a love letter to the bonds humans make in crisis. At others, it feels like an alarmist picture exposing the methods that manufacture that crisis on college campuses. Themes of slavery, militarism, police harassment, and even flashes of homoeroticism rattle around in its loosely defined moments of dramatic tension without ever landing with a solid thud. It’s possible that a more solidly defined thesis would have earned the film more attention once it hit streaming on Netflix. Honestly, I’d think that the presence of Trevante Rhodes (who was excellent as adult Chiron in last year’s Oscar-winning Moonlight) as one of the fraternity brothers who torment the pledges to test their loyalty would’ve been its best chance for widespread recognition, but the film has seemingly been allowed to slip into immediate VOD obscurity anyway. The extreme specificity in setting & subject and the brutal moments of violent tension lead me to believe that Burning Sands will eventually find its audience, though, maybe even with people who can better make out the function of its central message & dramatic conflict than I have been able to. Even if it never does, it at least floated enough fascinating images & ideas to remain distinctively memorable, which is a modern indie’s first hurdle to clear.

-Brandon Ledet