Initiation (aka Dembanger) (2020)

After they have gang-banged a female member of the student body, the boys at Whiton University’s Sig Nu Pi fraternity like to mark her online account with an exclamation point. This choice of punctuation comes with a lewd pictographic connotation – explained by fratboy Beau (Gattlin Griffith) near the beginning of John Berardo’s Initiation (aka Dembanger) – but the bigger point is that it is a social stigma designed to shame and encoded with a heavily gendered hypocrisy. “Tag the hoes to protect the bros!” as Beau puts it with undisguised misogyny – although only during a secret meeting in the fraternity’s basement, beyond the earshot of any of the women from Kappa Kappa Tau partying upstairs. It might initially sound absurd that Beau should refer to slanderous instagram comments as a Sig Nu Pi ‘tradition’ – but really, for all its digital expression, that exclamation mark is little different from the scarlet letters used by the Puritans of old to mark fallen women. This brand of sexualised vilification comes with a long history but, once online, can spread very fast – and can also readily be traced back to source.

After an incident much later that night at the frathouse in which a heavily intoxicated Kylie (Isabelle Gomez) has almost certainly been raped in Beau’s room and then, adding insult to injury, tagged with an online ‘!’, Ellery (Lindsay LaVanchy) goes about trying to discover whether her own brother Wes (Froy Gutierrez) – drunk in the room at the time and associated with a similar incident the year before – was in any way party to what happened. Her investigation will expose an institution which, under the leadership of its chancellor Bruce Van Horn (Lochlyn Munro), readily closes ranks, succumbing to pressure from protective fee-paying parents to preserve its male jocks’ – and its own – reputation. 

In other words, Initiation is about the struggle of young women against male-oriented power structures – but, this being a genre film, there is a second person, disguised in hoody and mask, who is operating in parallel to Ellery, and taking out fratboys – and others – with hammer, blade and drill. As Ellery and the murderer circle each other, both pursuing apparently similar goals in very different ways, Berardo’s film becomes a classic campus slasher, throwing up an array of red herrings and mixed motives to confound our attempts at guessing the identity of this calculating killer who is determined to make a bloody example of the victims. At the same time, the film never forgets to situate all its slice and dice beneath the long shadow of a patriarchy that always works to the disadvantage of women – and the solution, when it comes, is in equal parts satisfying and dispiriting. For here, everyone – whether innocent or guilty, enemy or ally, male or female – is trapped together in the same closed system.

Summary: John Berardo’s co-ed campus slasher traps its victims in the closed system of patriarchy.

© Anton Bitel