Exclusive Interview: filmmaker John Berardo on his new horror Initiation “we put men in vulnerable half naked positions because the slasher genre does that to women”

If you’re a fan of the slasher movies of the 70s and 80s like Black Christmas and The Slumber Party Massacre, or their post-modern dark comedy incarnations like Scream, you’ll likely appreciate the edgy, contemporary social media fueled spin that filmmaker John Berardo puts on the subgenre with his gripping and gruesome debut feature Initiation. As a kid growing up in Norman, Oklahoma, Berardo first encountered Scream on VHS and was both terrified and entranced by the movie, convincing his grandmother to buy him a copy of the film so he could rewatch it to the point that he knew it verbatim.

After graduating from UCLA and USC, that obsession eventually led him to making the chilling horror short Dembanger in 2013—coinciding with the filmmaker coming out—and ultimately spawned Initiation. With his movie, Berardo twists the slasher picture conventions, playing with our exceptions, to explore the issue of sexual assault on a college campus, examining who is protected and who is believed, while delivering a gory thrill ride, with some stunning visual flourishes, a committed young cast, and boasting an iconic reflective metallic killer mask.

John Berardo on the set of Initiation. Courtesy of the filmmaker.

Ahead of the release of Initiation in theaters, on VOD and digital this Friday May 7th, The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann had an exclusive conversation with director John Berardo about his early passion for horror, why Scream’s Sidney Prescott, played by Neve Campbell, is a superhero to him, and how his love for the work of Tennessee Williams helped shape him as a gay artist.

James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: could you take us back to when you watched Scream for the first time and how that impacted you and shaped you?

“I first saw saw Scream when I was very young, it was back in 1997 I think because the second one was coming out later that year. I was at a friend’s house for his birthday and it was my first experience watching an R-rated film. We went to the Blockbuster and Anaconda was the movie that we wanted to see, but that was out, so we ended up with Scream. I remember sitting there and obviously recognizing Drew Barrymore, but having no idea what was about to happen to her.”

“It ended up being one of my first experiences of seeing of violence in movies and when the movie was over this paralyzing fear took over, but it was almost like this thrill ride kind of fear, like I’d just gotten off a roller coaster. That fear was instilled within me and I couldn’t sleep for days because I had crazy nightmares, it was very difficult and really trying on my folks. About a week afterwards though I ended up talking my grandma into buying the video of Scream for me behind my parents’ backs, so I could watch it over and over again and desensitize myself to it until I wasn’t so afraid of it anymore. Over time, it ended up becoming my favourite movie, I could even recite the entire movie at one point, and years later I decided I wanted to start making horror movies myself, so it’s definitely the starting point.”

John Berardo on the set of Initiation. Courtesy of the filmmaker.

Grandparents are great like that! I first saw The Shining, one of my favourite movies, with my Italian grandmother. She covered my eyes when it came to the naked woman in the bath tub, but she let me watch all the scary parts.

“Yes, they are amazing aren’t they! My parents would ask me, ‘Why do you spend the night with her all the time?’ Little did they know it was because I was watching all of these R-rated movies over the years that they wouldn’t let me watch. They caught on to the fact that I’d go to this one friend’s house to watch movies though, so they told his parents not to let me watch anything R-rated. It was a constant battle with them over what I could watch.”

There’s a killer on campus in John Berardo’s Initiation. Courtesy of Saban Films.

Do you think that there’s a link between your passion for horror movies and being a young gay kid or a young gay man who was starting to become aware of his sexuality?

“Yeah, absolutely. I think that if anything horror movies were kind of an escape from facing that to a degree. I was the kind of kid that was so driven and wrapped up in what I wanted to do with my life and as an artist. I’ve always been able to draw and I’ve always had a creative flair which my parents encouraged. I think that when I saw Scream it definitely spoke to me, the characters spoke to me, I always like to say that Sidney Prescott was like my superhero.”

“With Sidney I identified with a superhero in a way that I had not identified with them in the comics and in books that I was told I should read as a kid. It was a really powerful moment. I actually did not come out of the closet till much later in life—I know that may not be the appropriate term nowadays, but for my generation that’s what we called it—I think a huge part of of it is because I was so driven and focused on my career in school and my ambitions. But I did not start directing horror again until I came out of the closet in 2011, that was when I made the short film Dembanger, which is how this feature Initiation started. I do think that being a gay kid you identify with horror. I mean specifically for me with Sidney Prescott—secrets of the past, things you don’t want to face—but just horror in general, that element of this other side of you. I do think there is some sort of linkage there for sure.”

John Berardo and Gattlin Griffith on the set of Initiation. Courtesy of the filmmaker.

A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge get cited as exceptional in being essentially a gay horror film—and there’s a brilliant recent documentary Scream Queen! My Nightmare on Elm Street about that—but as a genre, and particularly with the teen slasher subgenre, horrors tend to objectify and victimize female bodies. There isn’t much male nudity in American cinema generally, so we tend to really notice it when we do see it, and with Initiation it doesn’t feel gratuitous, it’s very naturally and believably incorporated into the action, but we do see some hot guys with their shirts off, and then there’s a half naked guy at one point and I just wondered how intentional that was?

“It was really more what the scene called for. At the beginning I knew there was a scene where he was masturbating and the actor really steered what he was comfortable with. So rather than having a goal of putting male nudity in there, that happened organically, but it happened organically from the fact that we started the movie with the intent of putting men in the position that females are put in in the slasher genre. It’s inherently a misogynist genre, and you’ve got a man chasing a woman in a precarious, vulnerable position with a giant phallic object, and so what better subgenre to deliver a message about sexual assaults than a slasher film, and to gender flip it so then you can push the subject matter and the thematic elements of what you’re going for a lot further. So, yeah, we did that totally on purpose, to put men in vulnerable half naked positions when they die, because the slasher genre does that to women.”

John Berardo on the set of Initiation. Courtesy of the filmmaker.

The mask that the killer wears is incredible, really striking, how did that design come about, what were your references?

“I read an article as a kid about the Ghost Face mask from Scream and some reviewers commented on the way the characters were looking at themselves right before they die. That’s stuck with me my entire life because I wondered why is that mask was so scary. As I developed Initiation, I always knew that I wanted the mask to be reflective, taking the theme of what I read about Scream as a kid and carrying it into a more modern day style with a mask that wasn’t just a Halloween mask, but a mask that kids within this world would use in reality when they party. It began as a half dome metallic silver mask, like a fencing mask almost. We did a test screening and there was a lot of issues because you could see the camera and everything in it.”

Gattlin Griffith and James Berardo in Initiation. Courtesy of Saban Films.

“Literally right before production began we decided that we wanted this fragmented image, we wanted it to be distorted to push the themes of the film. We were really lucky because our producer’s uncle is an engineer and he ended up creating this mask for us a week before production. It turned out better than I could have ever imagined. He took the idea and the direction I gave him of having this sort of pseudo masculine kind of facial structure and these panels and ran with it. It reminded me of Jason’s mask from Friday the 13th in a way too, and it was just so cool. I could not have been more pleased. I think it’s iconic, I love it and I’m happy to hear that it resonated with you because that’s what the horror masks do. The slasher masks must do that, otherwise the slasher movie itself doesn’t have as much pickup as it could.”

John Berardo and Lindsay LaVanchy on the set of Initiation. Courtesy of the filmmaker.

The cast is great including Lindsay LaVanchy whom you’ve worked with before on some shorts and she’s also a co-writer on the film, tell me about your collaboration with her.

“Lindsay LaVanchy and I went to UCLA together and we both got cast in a play called The Devils. I was a directing major and she was an acting major, so I only had a small part in the play but she had a lead. She was just so magnetic to watch. My very first directing scene was A Streetcar Named Desire, and I cast Lindsay in it as Blanche DuBois and the rest is history. When you’re a director and you find an actor that you work really well with that makes your directing so much better. Over time I would write projects for her as we both grew as artists. I got into graduate school at USC and put her in my movies, and then as I got this feature written and started pitching it she would come to script readings for me to help me work on it. She started providing such great dialogue for these characters and really helped steer her character and the story in such an honest and realistic way. I said, ‘You’re not only a freaking talented actor, you’re an incredible writer too, you should come on as a writer with us’. It became a really wonderful, collaborative effort that would not have happened if I was trying to do it solo, or just with Brian Frager. It was a magical process.”

Tennessee Williams and Frank Merlo. Photo credit: Tennessee Williams Collection, Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Columbia University.

What’s your favorite LGBTQ+ piece of culture or a person who identifies as LGBTQ+; someone or something that’s had an impact on you and resonated with you over the years?

“I have to say Tennessee Williams and postwar melodrama in general. Studying theatre as an undergrad, I think what really helped me identify as a gay man, and a gay man who’s an artist trying to navigate the world with their art, was reading Tennessee Williams’ texts and being able to break them down and direct them myself, it gave me a whole new understanding. It’s not just one play of course, but A Streetcar Named Desire is the play for me, but every single one of his plays has done that. Before I went back to horror I was always asked why I was so drawn to postwar melodrama and I think a huge part of it was me coming out as a gay man. Everything about that era was just so magnetic to me and it’s definitely a huge influence on the horror that I direct today and the characters that I create.”

By James Kleinmann

Initiation is released in US theaters and available on VOD and digital Friday May 7th 2021.

Initiation is set during a university’s pledge week, as 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!

Initiation Official Trailer (2021). Saban Films.
Initiation Official Poster. Saban Films.

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  1. The trailer isn’t as I envisioned the movie would be after reading the article on the gender swap of the typical slasher victim.

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