It’s a case that would reduce stoic Sgt. Joe Friday to tears. You want just the facts? Good luck determining what is or isn’t factual about Frat House, an HBO-financed one-hour exposé of collegiate hazing that now faces permanent suspension over allegations that it contains staged and otherwise compromised footage.
Largely on the strength of its ferocious, shocking scenes of hazing abuses, Frat House shared a Grand Jury documentary prize at 1998’s Sundance Film Festival last January. Judges and festival-goers were amazed at the lengths to which Frat House‘s codirectors, Todd Phillips, 28, and Andrew Gurland, 27, had gone to demonstrate how hazing thrives on college campuses despite being illegal in most states. To gain full access to the secret excesses of pledge ”lineups” and Hell Night, the filmmakers agreed to ”pledge” and are shown doing push-ups in a pukeish substance; Phillips is pelted with beer, tobacco spit, and cigarette ashes while confined in a dog cage.
In the weeks and months after Sundance, the filmmakers’ evident capacity for punishment paid off big time. Phillips jumped into directing TV spots for Virgin Cola and Miller Beer, among other clients, got hired to do the rock & roll documentary Phish vs. The World, and landed a production deal with Ivan Reitman; Gurland’s working on several comedy screenplays.
HBO also basked in the post-Sundance glow, showing its prizewinner to the press at a luncheon and making plans for an August debut. But as midsummer approached, it quietly yanked the film from its schedule, offering little explanation as to why. Not until Dec. 22 did HBO reps finally drop this bombshell: They said their own execs have been struggling to disprove a welter of post-Sundance allegations about fakery from students involved in the film, as well as from national fraternity groups outraged at what these students did on camera.
The most serious charge? That the humiliated ”pledges” shown in a countdown to Hell Night in the film’s final third were actually full-fledged brothers of the Alpha Tau Omega house at Muhlenberg College in Pennsylvania. According to one Muhlenberg student involved in the filming (he appears on screen, though like all the Frat House subjects he’s not identified by name), the pledges were not only ringers but choreographed ringers. ”They told us exactly what to do,” claims the student. ”They’d call and say, ‘We’re coming in, like, two hours; think of some stuff we could do.’ When it came out as a documentary, I was shocked because [our segment] was all staged. They would retake scenes and everything.”