American high school is a terrifying place if horror movies are to be believed, stuffed with violent, latent homoeroticism, systematic bullying and victimisation, and hedonism not seen since the final days of the Roman Empire. Clearly this is not true, real life squeezed through an unnatural filter, but school life in genre movies is a frequent playground for filmmakers. High school, or the outward bound trip, is the starting point for the majority of slasher flicks – from Carpenter’s ‘Halloween’, to Craven’s ‘Nightmare on Elm Street’, via a whole sea of mediocre copies and homages, it is fertile, if familiar, ground. Occasionally, a movie comes along that does something different with the setting – the menstrual werewolves of John Fawcett’s wonderful ‘Ginger Snaps’, Andrew Fleming’s angsty ‘The Craft’, or even Karyn Kusama’s underrated succubus movie ‘Jennifer’s Body’ – but even then it is difficult to shed the character archetypes that savvy audiences expect. Increasingly common in recent years is a strange subgenre within high school horror; the horror / teen comedy. Seeking to mix the light-hearted, snarky dialogue and tech savvy jargon of teen movies with the blood and guts of the best horror movies is a difficult task; sometimes it goes badly wrong, as with John V. Knowles’ ‘Chastity Bites’, but in other instances audiences are left with an excellent movie like ‘All Cheerleaders Die’.
Filming a documentary about her high school cheerleading squad, outsider Maddy witnesses her childhood friend Alexis die during a display. When Alexis’ boyfriend Terry moves on to her friend Tracy, she is outraged and plans revenge on both the cheerleading squad and the disloyal ex from within. Once on the team however, she finds that the girls are not as horrible as she thought but that Terry and his football friends are every bit as suspicious and dangerous as she had feared. After an argument goes tragically bad, and the cheerleaders are killed in a car accident, Maddy’s Wiccan friend Leena steps in and, using mystical gems, brings them back from the dead; gifted with new supernatural powers and a thirst for human blood, the team set about getting even with Terry and the boys.
‘All Cheerleaders Die’ throws an awful lot of disparate plot elements at the screen, borrowing much from other sources over its rather brief runtime. In parts, it is very much the child of ‘Jennifer’s Body’, borrowing its ‘beautiful-girls-as-monsters’ motif, as well as the mechanic of the disapproving and odd best friend; in others, it is heavy on the witchcraft, spells and curses, borrowing liberally from both ‘The Craft’ and TV show ‘Charmed’; add in elements of lesbianism, body horror, frat comedy, and you have a movie that is a very odd beast. It also aims for the fast-paced, sarcastic dialogue of ‘Mean Girls’ and it is here that ‘All Cheerleaders Die’ has one of its greatest successes; it is genuinely funny, dialogue sparkles between the cheerleading team, developing them into more entertaining versions of the stereotypes to which we have become accustomed. Even when the movie drops the light-hearted, fun tone of the first two acts for its denouement, introduces some fairly harrowing torture and date rape subplots, and goes for flat out horror, the dialogue remains sharp and engaging. The tonal shift at the end is abrupt and, before the final act, there is little in the way of blood but the character interactions are so fun to watch that audiences will simply go along for the ride. The script’s major success, one of the big draws for genre audiences, is how creative it is with one of the narrative’s major mechanics – once revived, the girls are all psychically linked. What starts off as a fairly ordinary concept – what happens to one girl, the others all experience – is used to startling effect, leading to one of the film’s standout moments involving PE class and a school toilet; to go any further would be spoilerific but suffice to say it is genuinely funny. Similarly, McKee and Sivertson make equally inventive, yet contrasting, use of this plot device during the films climax when things get violent and bloody. The biggest issue with the script is the ending; it doesn’t have one. Essentially, the film rounds out its narrative arc in relatively satisfying fashion then throws in a curveball towards the end, jumps straight to credits, then flashes up a ‘Part One’ card. Whilst more of ‘All Cheerleaders Die’ is an enticing prospect, it gives the movie an unfinished air which is unfortunate; it could lose the final curveball – signposted at various points throughout anyway – and end on a more satisfactory note. This is a minor gripe however.
For such a young group, the cast of ‘All Cheerleaders Die’ do excellent work, and many will no doubt be stars of the future. Caitlin Stasey, as main girl Maddy, puts in a convincing and layered performance; in many ways it is a difficult role that requires her to be convincingly vacuous as a cheerleader but, simultaneously, strong-willed and forthright as someone motivated by hatred and revenge. Sianoa Smit-McPhee, Darby in TV porn comedy ‘Hung’, plays Wiccan best friend, and Maddy’s ex-lover, Leena who could well be this generation’s Fairuza Balk, whose off kilter look and performance suit the kooky character to a tee. Amanda Grace Cooper and Reanin Johannink play sisters Hanna and Martha who, victims of an unfortunate body swap during the revival process, give solid and amusing performances that are largely physical in nature. The female standout here though is Brooke Butler, an unknown actress with few bit parts on her resume, as the deliberately named Tracy Bingham. Initially starting out as a cut-and-paste of Lacey Chabert’s Gretchen Wieners, she develops into so much more over the movie’s running time, becoming a sultry and sexual creature whilst maintaining the naivety and comedic timing she showed before; she also meets a protracted and violent death which Butler manages to convey in a manner that avoids being overwrought and screechy. Male leads are few and far between and subscribe to the ‘asshole-jock’ stereotype with the exception of Terry Stankus, played by Tom Williamson. Another unknown, Williamson does an excellent job of portraying his character’s development from oily love cheat, through violent misogynist, to repugnant rapist; Terry is never a sympathetic character but the manner in which he transitions from creepy to nasty is shocking, and Williamson deserves credit for his compelling performance here.
‘All Cheerleaders Die’ is helmed by duo Lucky McKee and Chris Sivertson and is based on their debut short of the same title from way back in 2001. As a piece, it is well shot, well organised and well lit, as one would expect with input from the director of the now-legendary ‘May’. The fact that the last thirty minutes of ‘All Cheerleaders Die’ is incredibly brutal and harrowing, not because it is especially graphic – it isn’t – but because of the strong attachments the audience has to the characters, is not a surprise either given that the directors have both ‘I Know Who Killed Me’ and ‘The Woman’ in their past. ‘All Cheerleaders Die’ has much thematic common ground with ‘The Woman’; sexual abuse, the use of metaphorical masks, the dichotomy of appearance and truth, sexuality as a weapon, all feature strongly here. What is most surprising is how well McKee and Sivertson understand comedy. The script is genuinely funny, and they are helped by a hugely talented cast, but they have a great eye for Raimi-style physical slapstick horror. They even find humour in the banal; a scene in which the superpowered undead cheerleaders bicker over internet access is an unexpected, lo-fi highlight of the movie.
Sadly, in ‘All Cheerleaders Die’ wonky CGI rears its ugly head once again. In a film packed with visual effects, there is an imbalance between physical and artificial; the CGI is distractingly poor at points, almost detracting from the overall impact. The film is inherently silly and so, very much like the previously reviewed ‘Savaged’, audiences are likely to be ultimately forgiving of variable effects but, still, it is a shame for the film to be let down in this way. The physical effects, when they are used, are excellent and, as always, are infinitely more convincing that anything created on computer. The sound design is excellent and the soundtrack catchy; the music played over the end credits perfectly mimics the film’s schizophrenic nature, hopping rapidly between upbeat pop songs and heavy metal.
Much has been made of the feminism aspect of ‘All Cheerleaders Die’ and whether it puts a positive or negative spin on the objectification of women; essentially, it does neither. By using cheerleaders as the main protagonists, there is an inherent objectification but one that speaks to setting and society rather than filmmaker intent. It is certainly true that almost all of the main cast are female and that they are working within a script that gifts them multi-layered characters who subvert expectation of their archetypes. What most audiences will find with ‘All Cheerleaders Die’ is a strange little movie, balancing genuine wit and humour with a harrowing and brutal last act, and made by a directing team who clearly love the concept. It has issues – that tonal shift is very abrupt and many of the effects are very poor – but it is an easy movie to love. It is funny, entertaining throughout, the cast are both beautiful and excellent, and it offers an interesting take on the high school horror genre; check it out. Highly recommended.
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