Thursday, May 8, 2014

Review: All Cheerleaders Die

by Patrick Bromley
I love Lucky McKee, and I tried to love his new movie All Cheerleaders Die. I really did try.

There are few directors in horror more concerned with the victimization of women than Lucky McKee, a gifted and quirky filmmaker whose May and The Woman are among the best horror films of the 2000s. His movies are fascinating character studies that just happen to deliver bold commentary on gender politics AND deliver the goods on the horror end. I'm a huge fan, so it brings me no pleasure to report that All Cheerleaders Die is basically a feature-length episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. And not, like, one of the really good ones like "Hush" or "The Body."

For All Cheerleaders Die, McKee has teamed up with Chris Sivertson (the director of I Know Who Killed Me) to remake their own shot-on-video 2001 film, still unseen by me. After a cheerleading accident kills her childhood friend Alexis, rebel chick Maddie (Caitlin Stasey) plots to join the squad and drive a wedge between Alexi's boyfriend/football player Terry (Tom Williamson) and his new girlfriend, squad captain Tracy (Brooke Butler, stealing the movie). But the plan works all too well, and as Maddie and Tracy grow closer than either expected, the football players retaliate with violence. The cheerleading squad is murdered and then brought back to life with witchcraft courtesy of Maddie's estranged girlfriend Leena (Sianona Smit-McPhee, older sister of Let Me In star Kodi). Now, the undead cheerleaders are all connected by magical stones and share a thirst for human blood. Luckily, the football team has plenty of it.
For its first half, I was doing my best to be on board with the movie. Sure, it feels a little shapeless and takes a long time to introduce its central premise, but it's fun to watch McKee (and Sivertson) riff on high school horror. This is Lucky McKee's teen movie, filled with bold colors and dreamy montages set to upbeat pop-rock songs. I might have enjoyed it even more had my mind not constantly filled with memories of The Craft and Jawbreaker and Jennifer's Body, all movies that have tread similar ground. The cast of girls is great, led by the rock-solid confidence of Stasey and the vampy sexiness of Butler. The movie has a sassy sense of humor, attitude to spare and plenty of playful energy -- all good stuff. But it's basically a mess.

I don't know where to start with the inconsistencies. There are long sequences devoted to plot threads that don't amount to much. Character relationships are ill defined and don't always make sense, and little attempt is made to iron them out in a way that makes them work. Major deaths occur basically off screen. The sexuality of the characters is fluid without much commentary on fluid sexuality. A late-movie revelation is tossed off to an almost criminal degree, presumably included to reframe much of what has come before but failing to do so for a whole bunch of reasons (chief among them being that knowing it up front would affect everything that happens to such a degree that waiting to the end for a reveal doesn't play fair, only stacks the deck). And then there are even bigger problems I dare not go into for fear of spoilers, so I'll just say that All Cheerleaders Die is another in an unfortunate filmmaking trend right now affecting everything from Harry Potter to Troma and it suffers as a result. At least Lloyd Kaufman has the courtesy to let us know what to expect upfront with the title.
Several of McKee's movies have focused on the way that men can be horrible to women, so the fact that for a time it seems like All Cheerleaders Die will be about the ways that women can be horrible to women had me intrigued. After all, few settings lend themselves more to the competitive, cannibalistic environment between women than a high school cheerleading squad. Ultimately, it's not really that -- instead it's about the ways in which women must band together in a world that wants to pit them against one another despite the greater threat posed by men. So sometimes it's about that, except when it isn't. The women fuck each other over. The men fuck over the women. The women fuck over the men. The politics are confused.

What are we to make of long, protracted shots of teenage girls in bikinis, or a tracking shot that follows Brooke Butler's swim-suited ass (besides being a reference to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre)? Yes, these kinds of images are commonplace in all kinds of horror movies, particularly high school horror featuring teenagers as its protagonists. Because McKee is behind the camera, I'm tempted to rationalize moments like that as commenting on the thing more than being the thing, but that's me pulling in his previous films to inform his current work. In the context of All Cheerleaders Die, the cheesecake moments serve little function other than to embrace the tropes of the genre -- it passes itself off as a cheerleader movie by being a cheerleader movie, albeit one with horror elements.

Perhaps I'm holding All Cheerleaders Die to too high a standard. Not every one of McKee's movies can be as charged as The Woman, and that's ok. Maybe this is just supposed to be his fun little lark. I could accept all of that if the movie wasn't so messy -- it's not lack of ambition for which I'm faulting it, but rather failure of execution. I can deal with glowing green magic stones, even if that's not what I want to see in a movie. I can accept the slow motion walks down the hallway and cliffhanger ending if the story and the characters are sound, but the movie plays like a collection of disconnected ideas and false starts. Even lighthearted "lark" movies need to follow their own internal logic.
It bums me out to not love All Cheerleaders Die; between this and The Sacrament, that's twice in one week I've felt disappointed by new movies from horror directors I really love. I'll still get excited to see whatever Lucky McKee does next, especially if he continues to make smart, feminist horror movies. At least All Cheerleaders Die pretends to be those things.


  1. I have you to thank (thanks!) for really introducing me to both Ti West and Lucky McKee and I think we both love them for similar reasons, so I'm predicting I'll have a similar lackluster reaction to both - still want to support them so I'll definitely be VODing them as soon as they're available in Canada, but I've lowered my (high) expectations a bit so maybe that will help!

    Two Questions: (1) If you could only see one of the All Cheerleaders Die and The Sacrament which would you say is the better (maybe too different to really compare)? And (2) as just horror movies in general (rather than West/McKee movies) are they at least pretty solid relatively speaking?

    1. I can't compare the two at all because they are VERY different in tone and execution, but I think The Sacrament works better as a standalone movie. Doesn't necessarily mean I liked it more (though I think I did), just that it's a more sound piece of work.

  2. I had the privelage of attending a live commentary of May by Angela Bettis at Flashback Weekend 2004 and have been a McKee fan ever since. Will definitely check this one out, although sounds like this one falls more in The Woods category, than May and The Woman.

  3. The Smit-McPhees should not be allowed to name children without a chaperone present.

    Oh, and it's SmitH, Parents of Sianona...