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'Initiation' Review: A smarter slasher than expected

John Berardo's 'Initiation' sharpens both its themes and its tool shed weaponry, as collegiate hookup culture comes under fire with impact.

Isabella Gomez and Lindsay LaVanchy in Initiation.
(Image: © Saban Films)

Our Verdict

'Initiation' honors its socially resonant messages while delivering a multifaceted horror experience that's bloodthirsty, enticingly shot, and vocally unafraid of calling for societal change.

For

  • 🧪 Some gnarly kills.
  • 🧪 Sexual assault not used as a storytelling crutch.
  • 🧪 Horror that's built on responsibility.
  • 🧪 Sustains its mystery.

Against

  • 🧪 Aggressive college tropes.
  • 🧪 Melodrama can sometimes overreach.
  • 🧪 The mix of subgenres can be overwhelming.

I think it’s telling how today's hormonal hookup narratives like Initiation favor horror maliciousness over American Pie comedies as society reassesses blackout, binge-drinking initiations that have endangered lives. An entire generation of male adolescents laughed along as horny pre-college virgins objectified and recklessly pursued women during substance-heavy parties, but now the Road Trips and Euro Trips have turned into Promising Young Womans and Initiations. John Berardo, alongside co-writers Brian Frager and Lindsay LaVanchy, emphasizes the trauma that occurs behind locked doors guarded by stoned Greek life cronies—where sorority vixens are stripped of their innocence then branded “sluts” or “whores.” Horror extends to slasher bloodiness and hooded assailants, but it’s never a must. There’s enough anxiousness within another after-party assault that instigates conversations about sorority sisters as prey that shockingly nails most talking points—a blend of drama and grimness that makes the grade.

At Whiton University, the brothers of Sig Nu Pi prepare their pledges for this year’s Homecoming bash as their sorority counterparts preach buddy system protection. Ellery Scott (Lindsay LaVanchy) is shuffling her sisters home around 3AM when she realizes her “Little” Kylie (Isabella Gomez) has been smoking weed in private for quite some time. She locates Kylie in Sig Nu Pie alpha Beau Vaughn’s (Gattlin Griffith) red-light quarters on the brink of unconsciousness, along with her past-inebriated sibling Wes (Froy Gutierrez). Beau chivalrously offers the girls a rideshare, Ellery carries Kylie on her shoulder, but the morning brings an implication—Kylie believes she’s been assaulted. One wasted undergrad’s word against an equally foggy Olympic swimmer hopeful’s denial.

Horror needn't stretch further, but nevertheless becomes a whodunnit hinged on revenge and punishment as an identity concealed behind a reflective mask starts assassinating Sig Nu Pi members. Initiation introduces characters like the “Violent Crimes” agent (Jon Huertas as Officer Rico Martinez), Whiton’s two-faced chancellor (Lochlyn Munro as Bruce Van Horn), and Ellery’s lovestruck classmate admirer (Maxwell Hamilton as Tyler) to thicken diversion tactics. Berardo does well ensuring that Kylie’s victimization isn’t undercut by toolbags in Hawaiin shirts getting drilled to wooden doors and ensures that motivations for retribution are broad and bountiful. Countless independent comparisons struggle to uphold suspenseful guessing games, yet Initiation is genuinely elusive in red herrings and intentional suspects. The mysteries of machismo are rich and unsettled themes are served with force.

I hold Initiation in the same regard as Pledge, two distressing institutional education glimpses about fraternal rituals with archaic barbarism at the forefront. Berardo goes the extra mile to show how sorority incumbents have adapted per survival rules since “Big Sisters” shifted their focus onto shielding their newbies from freeflow horniness while brothers from chapters like Sig Nu Pi still play modern versions of The Scarlet Letter. In this case, an exclamation point is posted under social media pictures whenever brothers notch a takedown because “bros warn about hoes,” which happens under one of Kylie’s Instagram (knockoff) masterpieces after whatever inappropriateness occurred in Beau’s bedroom. The script identifies how fraternities remain slaves to misogynistic traditions while sororities have evolved to erase their bimbo representation in mainstream media. Initiation is always a better, more responsible massacre within these gender-demoralization parameters.

Berardo’s shining accomplishment is mixing Kylie’s reliving of vague memories and student body chastising with Sig Nu Pi’s relentless death sequences. Initiation is graphic in slasher doses as Beau and Wes flee from consequences come for their throats, but emotionally charged as Ellery, Kylie, and more grapple with accusations that adults in positions of power negate with he-said, she-said misdirects. It’s the actresses who elevate Initiation from just another date rape trial used as a thriller backdrop, when—for example—Lindsay LaVanchy crumbles stammering in front of Rico upon being dealt an informational blow that typically would glance over genre caricature types. I won’t go as far as to say the tank-top king of Sig Nu Pi or “Stoner Roommate” are immaculately developed, but once again, that might be an appropriate contrast to the Kappa females who are conceptualized with targets on their back just because of their sorority designation.

In short, Initiation has no right to be as poignant and proficient in addressing once-embraced dangers around alcoholic bedpost rocking while still assuring the unknowns of narrative intrigue stay out of sight. It’s a slasher that keeps audiences guessing, violently embraces catharsis via a blade’s edge (commence wincing), yet retains the overall commentary on Kylie’s excessive physical and mental abuse. How sorority babes who drink too much are “asking for it,” but their fraternity counterparts are just “having a good time.” Initiation succeeds where similarly intended comparisons either diminish triggering talking points or fumble horrific elements that don’t immediately require stabby accents, if only by remaining attentive to its own scathing condemnation. A plea for survivors, a rattle of the cage for others, and a lingering sensation that wraps everything from white knights to family values into a terrifying vision of where private institutions side when it’s one girl’s word against an entire campus’ immaculate reputation.