John Berardo loves scary movies. He considers Sidney Prescott to be his horror alter ego, and leaves offerings at the altar of Casey Becker during the first five minutes of Scream. He’s well versed in the genre and he can see fear lurking where it may not be apparent as we see in his feature film, Initiation.
Initiation is a film about a college campus that is rocked by an onslaught of sudden murders. Along the way, hidden motives are exposed along with the frayed edges of a campus coverup. Berardo delivers classic ‘90s teen horror-comedy with today’s technology and he’s found new and exciting ways to deliver the scares.
During a class assignment at USC, Berardo was asked to make a short film that dealt with social change, and his first choice was to make a horror film about the dangers of social media. Even in the early 2000s when Facebook was the main outlet and Instagram was in its infancy, social media wasn’t considered to be a scary thing. Facebook was letting everyone in and nearly everyone in his class had a profile. It was mainstream, what’s so scary about that?
The question was presented to Berardo, and he took the challenge with true mischief in mind.
John Berardo: I went on Facebook and I followed every single classmate and they all accepted a fake account I created with Max’s character [Maxwell Hamilton who played the lead character in the short]. I told him, “yo, just create this fake account and I’m gonna scare everybody in class with it.” And it worked! Because after seeing the end of the movie, 90% of the people that accepted my friend request, unaccepted it, and checked their privacy settings, all from watching a short film.
The short film was Dembanger and became the project that Initiation (spelled“Init!ation” on the poster, to great effect) was based on.
Starring Maxwell Hamilton as Wes Andrews, the short explored the dangers of putting too much of your personal life online. Berardo was excited about expanding the idea to a feature-length when Unfriended, the Blumhouse horror project, was released.
Berardo: I was like, well sh*t! I said, “Okay, well you know what? My idea is a good idea, I’m on the right track. How can I make this a different story?”
While fleshing out the film, Berardo wanted to make sure he avoided some pitfalls of the genre.
Berardo: Slasher films are inherently misogynistic; a giant man with a phallic sharp thing chasing a half-naked girl who’s too stupid to be going out the front door when she’s going up the stairs, it’s insulting. I’m quoting Scream, but how could we take those stereotypes and spin them and turn them on their head and make like, I don’t want to say a feminist slasher film, but a movie that challenges those stereotypes?
One way was through the casual use of diversity the film offers. Berardo is from Norman, OK (Home to Oklahoma University which fits in politically with the university in the film) and talked about the allure of greek life. The parties, the culture. It was something that all of your friends were involved with so it was easy to get lost in the Greek-letter community. Berardo noticed right away it wasn’t always all white.
Berardo: I got a little taste of diversity – for Oklahoma – but then I came out to LA and I went to USC and I learned that you must accurately portray what it is that you know the story calls for, but you also need to reach everybody on a diverse level and create identifiable characters. We have a female white lead, I couldn’t change that, so I thought, how can I make it a character that isn’t a stereotypical female white lead and put her in a world where she understands diversity and is sensitive to it? And it’s just part of the world?
He went on to explain that Lindsay LaVanchy who stars as Ellery, really had a hand in writing and forming the role. In the short Lindsay played Wes’ girlfriend and had a very small role. Years of discussions later and Lindsay is a full-fledged heroine, but one that is also extremely relatable. She’s not angry or tough as nails, and she doesn’t dismiss the other women around her.
Ellery is best friends with Shayleen (Shireen Lai) and together they help initiate Kylie (Isabella Gomez). Both are women of color and are prominent roles. And they’re never treated like cultural stereotypes, by the plot or the other characters. It’s refreshing because it’s real. College is the perfect setting because people from completely different backgrounds are then thrust together. It’s the ultimate socialization test. Having diverse characters means that horror and the drama of survival isn’t just something that happens to white people! It’s something that can affect anyone and only adds to the frights the film presents.
The other way the show eschews stereotypes has to do with the subject matter. One thing that always interested Berardo was the idea of Greek-letter chapters and culture. While sorority/fraternity slasher films are hardly new, what interested Berardo wasn’t necessarily the archaic and spooky rituals some movies focus on, but instead the dominating importance of legacy and reputation.
In Dembanger, Wes’s girlfriend (LaVanchy) calls Wes, “Mr. Facebook” before saying he’s a friend hoarder. He has thousands of connections that solidifies his social status. In Initiation, Wes Andrews (Froy Gutierrez) is part of a frat that uses marks on social media to tag which girls are sluts. It’s behavior that’s instantly checked in the film, but it’s the type that doesn’t exist without pre-existing tradition tainting it.
Ultimately the plot is a lot about legacy and status, both on and offline. There is a ‘90s vibe to it that makes it reminiscent of thrillers like Scream, and I Know What You Did Last Summer that put the focus on the female characters. Ellery is our heroine, but she’s flawed in a Sidney Prescott sort of way. But unlike Sidney, she’s popular and openly vulnerable and empathetic. Ellery isn’t a superhero, but just a resourceful young woman who has more experience than meets the eye.
She grapples a lot between the idea of protecting her family, and her found family. And it’s that struggle that grounds her decisions as the movie carries on. In much the same way that we see the dean, Bruce Va Horn (Lochlyn Munro) pay for the decisions he makes, we see Ellery’s consequences are a direct effect of seemingly impossible choices.
The conflict between respecting the past (legacy and tradition) and protecting the future is one that works in concert with the themes that drive the tension. Wes is an Olympic hopeful swimmer who joins the fraternity companion to his sister’s sorority. Beau (Gatlin Griffith) is legacy and frat president. There’s a stated difference in the way the two interact with each other and the fact that Wes’ privilege comes from his sports advantage and Beau’s come from his legacy advantage, that only intensifies as Initiation progresses.
There’s an incident in the opening scenes that sets the stage for the whole film. It’s a typical frat party, with lots of drinking and pledge shenanigans. Ellery is likely a junior or senior and Wes appears to be a sophomore. Ellery takes care to coach the girls in not drinking too much, staying with their buddy at all times and having fun. Beau, before the party, initiates the system that tags girls as sluts which makes some of the recruits uncomfortable, though they agree anyway. It’s a very interesting scene in which one brother starts to complain and another, older, chapter brother begins chanting their Greek letters. All of the disagreement is forgotten and it’s very unsettling.
Near the end of the night, something occurs between Wes, Beau, their friend Dylan (played by Berardo’s brother, James Berardo), and Kylie who is one of the new sorority pledges. The event is bad enough, but the next morning we see that Kylie is marked (with a bright dembanger or exclamation mark) as a “slut” by Wes on social media. Ellery instantly chastises him and he takes it down, insisting it was a brother who took his phone and posted. But the damage has already been done.
The Geekiary: I have a question about the cyclical nature of “frat shenanigans”. There’s a very long stretch of time that’s devoted to setting our environment. We find out that they mark the girls they allegedly hookup with as sluts. I understand social media exacerbates these things; it’s posted, screenshot – people get receipts immediately – then it spreads like wildfire. It does damage people and everyone knows it’s trash, yet it still happens. What do you think is the impetus for that? That makes people want to participate in that scene over and over.
Berardo: That’s a really great question. I come from the school of thought of “If they’re not paying your bills, you don’t give them bitches any mind!” Like somebody’s going to say something about you online, you can’t control it. People are going to say things to make them feel better about themselves. People will put other people down. People will make other people look weak or vulnerable or slutty or whatever to make themselves feel better, make themselves feel more macho, put themselves higher and other people lower. That’s just, unfortunately, the rhetoric of the internet a lot of times and to call people out and to smear them.
The coupling of this attitude of internet dominance coincides with the need to establish a reputation and hold on to status. This really comes into play as we see the school react to the incident. Dean Van Horn has a stake not only in keeping alumni and their legacies happy but also in fostering the chance for one of his students to go to the Olympics. What happens when the need for clout and reputation outweighs the need for justice? Both he and Ellery deal with this in different ways and to different ends.
Another way Initiation is different is the way it was filmed. Every character got a phone and opened up social media accounts based on their characters. Every exchange in the movie was live on social media and the phones recorded constantly allowing for footage to be used in the final edits. It creates an atmosphere that is very now and very real but still allows the nostalgia creep of the phones going down when the killer disables service. Left with their wits and little else, we find the remaining members of our core group in a fight for their lives.
Earlier I mentioned a little bit about diversity, and while I mostly meant ethnic and gender diversity, there is something to be said about the type of characters in Initiation. We deal not just with the students, but faculty, their parents, and even co-workers. Max Hamilton played Wes in the short but wanted a different challenge for the film. He plays Tyler who is Ellery’s boss in the lab where she works. He’s instantly suspect, but you spend a great part of the film wondering if he’s a creep or another Brian Krakow.
My So Called Life certainly didn’t invent the oddball, outsider/sidekick, but it did refine it for the ‘90s. Brian Krakow (Devon Gummersall) was the consummate side character. He was clearly in love with Angela Chase (Claire Danes), but also realized she was out of his atmosphere. Yet, he cared. Within every Brian, there’s social anxiety and just enough resentment of that anxiety that makes you instantly wonder which way the character is going to go. It’s so fun to watch and the conclusion definitely pays off.
Initiation manages to slyly take on a list of issues while still being intense and fun. Ultimately though Berardo wants it to make you think.
Berardo: I want people to walk away from this movie to create a conversation on multiple topics, but also just understand where they stand and to think about them. But also, I just want it to be a fun ride that takes you back to the ‘90s.
Initiation is a modern movie that will make you sentimental for the movies we love so much.
Initiation is currently traveling in festivals, having been featured at South by Southwest, Screamfest, and SITGES. The movie will be distributed domestically by Saban Films and will hit theaters early next year.
As a special bonus, I asked Berardo about the significance of the original title Dembanger and why the exclamation mark is such a large part of their imagery.
Find out his answer below!
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