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“Initiation” is an intriguing slasher film with an old-school horror feel; an amazing debut from first-time director John Berardo.

In Initiation (stylized as INIT!ATION), during a university’s pledge week, the carefree partying turns deadly serious when a star athlete is found impaled in his dorm. The murder ignites a spree of sinister social media messages, sweeping the students and police into a race against time to uncover the truth behind the school’s dark secrets…and the horrifying meaning of a recurring symbol: a single exclamation mark.

Whiton University is a “killer” place to go to college.

Students use a cruel social media game where women are rated badly when you see a mysterious exclamation point behind their name. I immediately knew that something needed to be done about these slimy jerks at the college. They were either responsible for some horrible acts, or guilty because they knew about them and did nothing about it. Either way, vengeance was on the horizon. Revenge can be brutal and, in the case of Initiation (Init!ation), very bloody.

First-time director John Berardo co-wrote the thriller with Lindsay LaVanchy and Brian Frager.

Fraternity dudes calling out girls on social media? It seems like guys just never stop coming up with new ways to try to slut shame women. And in movies, even non-horror films, just about anything based in a fraternity is not going to go well. Alcohol, drugs, and oversexed, horny young people often lead to people doing very bad things — and very dumb things in order to impress the folks they perceive as popular or powerful.

I wish I could say this wasn’t somewhat grounded in reality, but there are people everywhere who are terrible and cruel. I would like to blame it on the younger generation, but when I was in college it managed to happen even without social networking sites. What surprises me is that people are still getting away with it even in these supposedly more enlightened times. The #Metoo movement is really just the tip of a very deep iceberg.

The premise kind of reminds me of the insidious Facebook origin story. 

Before it was Facebook, it was Facemash, a website to rate students on campus to determine if they were “hot” or “not”.

In Initiation, girls are rated with an exclamation point after they hook up with one of the guys, so other dudes know who not to date. Even after a student is assaulted, that girl gets the exclamation point posted on social media. In this college, women do not have a chance.

With the feel of both a classic slasher film and a very modern one with a focus on new technology, Initiation starts with a scream of happy college students ready to party.

Homecoming is always a crazy time, and this year is no different. The party turns ugly when sorority girl Ellery (Lindsay LaVanchy) finds her friend Kylie (Isabella Gomez) passed out in a bedroom with a bunch of guys. Kylie has vague memories that lead her to believe she has been sexually assaulted. Ellery’s brother Wes (Froy Gutierrez) is one of those guys, and it is hard for Ellery to believe her own brother could be a part of such a horrible deed.

Unfortunately, the happy screams turn to those of terror after Wes is found brutally murdered at the same frat house.

Ellery must face the ugly truth that her brother might not be the nice guy she believed he was. In order to cope, she does her best to try to find out the truth, no matter how much danger that puts herself and her friends in.

More bodies keep turning up, all savagely brutalized, nailed to walls, and posed. Most of the people that die pretty much deserved it,  so it was hard to get too upset over any of the deaths. One thing was clear, however, someone in a mask and hoodie was out for vengeance, and it’s the audience’s job to figure out who.

I was totally astonished when the identity of the killer is revealed, which was very unusual for me. I kept leaning towards one character or another because several folks were used as red herrings to throw us off.

Overall, the acting is great.

These kinds of movies only work if the actors can hold their own while performing basic horror tropes, including running, hiding, and a lot of screaming. The standout for me was Lindsay LaVanchy. Even though the story was not incredibly deep, I still believed her very emotional performance.

Using social media and cell phones to give a teen slasher film a modern twist worked in this case. I liked the way they showed the phone messages in little animations all throughout the film, allowing the audience to be connected to the conversations, too. That was a great touch.

The practical effects were gory and fantastic — a real plus for this gorehound. I always love unusual film deaths, and each one was original, merciless, and very inventive. You gotta love a murder scene that can make a jaded horror fan like me, gasp. Kudos to the whole SFX team!

I’m not usually a fan of rape films or revenge porn, and I hate that social media bullying is such a frequent happening. But I think that Init!ation handled it well without being too exploitative.

Overall Rating (Out of 5 Butterflies): 4

Saban Films released Init!ation theatrically, On-Demand and on Digital, May 7th, 2021.

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