Written and Directed by: Lucky McKee and Chris Sivertson
Directed by: G.E. Furst
Starring: Caitlin Stasey, Sianoa Smit-McPhee, and Brooke Butler
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
You can't kill their spirit.
Since it sports a title like All Cheerleaders Die, you’d expect Lucky McKee’s newest film to be tailor made for the outcast goth kid who spent way too much time scrawling odd doodles in their notebook and watching The Craft. Such an assumption would be half-right—the angst-ridden yawp of disaffected, unpopular youth is prominent here, but it’s not the only voice featured in McKee’s latest articulation of female anxieties through the prism of the horror genre. While it isn’t McKee’s most clearly stated exploration of this theme, All Cheerleaders Die is arguably his most breathless, rambunctious film—in many ways, it’s the cinematic equivalent of an ADD-addled pep rally.
Originally conceived as a scrappy, low-budget debut feature by McKee and fellow USC alum Chris Siverston (who is also in tow for this remake), All Cheerleaders Die has received a makeover, which is an appropriate fate considering its initial conceit: in a cutthroat high school where the cheerleading squad (or self-proclaimed “bitches”) rule, AV student Maddie (Caitlin Stasey) keeps a low-profile and chronicles the alpha-females’ exploits for a documentary project. When the head cheerleader takes a fatal header, Maddie takes the opportunity to infiltrate the group in order to exact revenge on star football player (Tom Williamson). In the process, she shuns her lesbian, goth girlfriend Leena (Sianoa Smit-McPhee), whose Wiccan obsession comes in handy after a fateful encounter between Mattie’s new cheerleader buddies and the football team.
All Cheerleaders Die has a lot on its mind but has to contend with a bit of a marble-mouthed delivery, the latter of which is rather forgivable thank to the former. At least there’s something going on here to appreciate, both in the film’s thematic ambitions and its sheer audacity. What begins as an update of Heathers quickly escalates into something else altogether when things take a supernatural turn, at which point the film starts to feel like Pet Sematary by way of Bring it On. Sometimes D-E-A-D is radder. Ignoring for a moment its subtext (which actually acts more as the super-text), All Cheerleaders Die is a wicked, black-hearted romp that’s concerned with morbid humor as much as it is gore (though there’s plenty of both). Stripped down to its (undead) bones, it’s a slick horror-comedy preoccupied with making mince-meat of dumb teenagers in the most gloriously high-school-drama manner possible, with awkwardly outrageous sex scenes and ridiculous back-stabbing providing fuel for the fire.
But as unhinged as the film feels as it hurtles along from one over-the-top scene to the next (let’s just say that a sequence where a squad of dead cheerleaders is resurrected by Wiccan gem stones isn’t even the most outlandish), the film rarely loses sight of the characters at its center. With its roving focus, it never quite locks in on just the comparatively unpopular Maddie, choosing instead to take stock of all the girls orbiting her. That said, Stasey provides a compelling center of gravity with a performance that always feels a little too cocksure to compensate for the vulnerability lurking beneath the characters’ exterior. Her glib posturing hides the hurt and anger boiling inside, which reflects the film’s general demeanor—All Cheerleaders Die might feel like a gory goof, but it’s concealing a very concentrated sense of outrage.
This is most apparent in its sympathy for every female character, including those initially portrayed as conniving, shallow Valley Girls. As Maddie begins to turn to the dark side, it appears as though the spurned Leena will become the avatar of underdog suffering. She does for a while (and Smit-McPhee finely inhabits the awkward-girl throne once claimed by Heather Matarazzo), and it’s fascinating to watch the film explore female relationships in such a weirdly titillating, almost trashy fashion (between its bursts of sultriness and bloodiness, the film almost echoes Rollin at times) that practically reinforces the male gaze (this is not to mention the extensive ass shots). It’s almost as McKee and Sivertson have crafted the ultimate adolescent male fantasy, full of attractive girls clawing, scratching, and kissing each other—and then it’s suddenly morphed into something exactly the opposite: a movie where literally heartless girls band together to take down the dumb boys who absolutely deserve to have their dicks ripped off.
With this turn, the film’s aim becomes obvious and patently unsubtle, yet it hits the mark rather sufficiently. Where the film initially feels complicit in the boys locker room culture running rampant, it soon turns its gaze upon the pack of clueless, misogynist assholes that have treated the cheerleaders as accessories throughout high school. This is a film that rightfully refuses to lump in cheerleaders with the jocks; while the former might often conjure up unseemly (dare I say “catty”) stereotypes, the latter are truly sinister pieces of work. Granted, McKee and Sivertson play it up to unnecessarily parodic levels by revealing the ringleader to be a full-bore psychopath, it’s an on-point observation, especially when one considers the rape culture engendered by this sort of environment (one only has to look to the recent Steubenville saga as evidence of the real-life corollary).
All Cheerleaders Die confronts it head on via expected violence but less expected comedy, with the laughs highlighting just how clueless the arrogant boys are when it comes to sex (one has no idea that his girlfriend’s vagina isn’t supposed to be frigid, but that doesn’t stop him from proudly proclaiming his conquering of her “freezebox,” much to his buddies’ bemusement). Again, this isn’t McKee’s most graceful tackling of the female condition—at times, it’s beyond obvious, and it often feels like the film’s wacky, meandering plot threatens to overtake the themes driving it (all the way until the end, when it teases a sequel promising more silliness). Despite this and a few other missteps (such as some ill-conceived digital gore work), All Cheerleaders Die is an indelibly subversive effort that continues to prove that horror films actually concerned with women are much more captivating than those that just happen to superficially feature them. Forget final girls—here’s a film where girls deliver the final word on the indignity of high school, even if it is a messy, frenzied yell not unlike the chaotic scrawls in a teenager's notebook. Buy it!
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