by Patrick Bromley
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.
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.
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.
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.