By JAMES TUCKER
Starring Caitlin Stasey, Sianoa Smit-McPhee, Brooke Butler
Directed by Lucky McKee, Chris Sivertson
Written by Lucky McKee, Chris Sivertson
Produced by Modernciné
If what you’re looking for is a campy, ridiculous horror movie that is low key a very intelligent and thorough crash course on feminism and dismantling the patriarchy, you might want to “take a bite” out of this one.
And now that I have stooped that low, my professional writing career is over. It was fun while it lasted.
ALL CHEERLEADERS DIE follows Maddy (Caitlin Stasey) after the sudden and shocking death of her former friend Lexi (Felisha Cooper), the most popular cheerleader on the squad. Being the documentarian who witnessed Lexi’s accident and who caught it on film, Maddy decides to try out for the cheer squad to honor Lexi’s memory and punish her ex, Terry (Tom Williamson), who started dating Tracy (Brooke Bingham), the next most popular cheerleader, not five minutes after Lexi was put in the ground. Maddy gets close to Tracy after making her way into the group, telling her that Terry cheated on her with a classmate, and eventually seduces her; all to the chagrin of Maddy’s ex Leena (Sianoa Smit-McPhee), who believes Maddy is going down a path that will get her hurt. If this sounds like it could be the plot of High School Musical 4 so far, you aren’t wrong; but when the cheerleaders (headed by Maddy and Tracy) and the football players (headed by Terry) get together for a party in the graveyard under the full moon, Terry’s wounded masculinity leads to a fight and a high speed car chase that leaves all the cheerleaders dead. But Leena happens to be a practicing Wiccan, and under the light of the full moon… well, maybe all the cheerleaders don’t have to die after all.
“Mediocre films are either smart or entertaining, never both. ALL CHEERLEADERS DIE is not a mediocre film.”
ALL CHEERLEADERS DIE is a surprisingly poignant feminist allegory for the ways in which women are beaten down and controlled by the patriarchy, and suggests a way for women to fight back and reclaim themselves. The film’s high school is treated as a microcosm of the real world, as the cheerleaders and football players occupy rigid roles that come with their own expectations; so long as they abide by their own sets of rules, they get to continue to remain popular. For the cheerleaders, this means allowing themselves to be treated as objects for the football players’ pleasure; show a lot of skin, laugh at their jokes, don’t make trouble or be too “mouthy.” For the football players, this means remaining silent and allowing Terry to get away with abusing who he wants: by perpetuating a culture of silence, they get to keep their status, viewing the women they associate with as replaceable possessions. “So what if Terry assaults the woman I like or kills all of them in a car crash? I can always take my chances with the freshmen.” But when the cheerleaders collectively suffer at the hands of this system, it bonds them together as one entity; when one of them hurts, they all hurt, and they all share the others’ strength as they (LITERALLY) consume the men who attacked them. Perhaps most compellingly, they were all unified by a figure that operates completely outside the bounds of this patriarchal system, a non-straight practitioner of witchcraft that has nothing but disdain for the whole thing. Witchcraft is the ultimate rebuttal of the traditionally white, Christian, straight patriarchy, going beyond it’s reach to a place it cannot control; is it any surprise then that the cheerleaders are resurrected by it, given strength from it?
It will come as no surprise that Terry becomes the symbolic figurehead of this patriarchal system, a high-school aged Harvey Weinstein that (at one point in the film) literally physically gains strength from consuming the souls of women. The climax of the film is entertaining, visually arresting, and tense as Terry becomes this roided-out super predator who goes on a killing spree all his own. The way in which the cheerleaders shut him down should underline and bold the film’s thesis, which (if I had to put it into words) reads something like “patriarchy cannot assume the power of women; it isn’t strong enough. When women join together in solidarity, patriarchy and all the systems meant to bolster it will crumble.” A pretty solid message for a film with magical flying crystals, a freaky Friday subplot, 4 people having simultaneous orgasms, and a last-minute resurrection that implies a part 2. I also really appreciated how sexuality was treated in this film: the cast was packed with LGBT characters who came as they were, label free, implying a certain fluidity to sexuality that isn’t always addressed properly and avoiding a lot of the missteps you see in lesser films (like making a character feel “token” because of their sexuality, not a fully fleshed out character). This movie is fun, campy, just the right amount of spooky, and it rarely takes itself seriously, but it dedicates its plot to dissecting a multiplicity of issues that I have neither the space nor the knowledge to fully explore in this column.
Mediocre films are either smart or entertaining, never both. ALL CHEERLEADERS DIE is not a mediocre film. I’m giving it a 9 out of 10. That might be a little high, but hey, it meets all the criteria for the best films shown in the Sematary: it’s smart, fun as hell, and ticks the batshit box more than once in its hour and a half long runtime. I was already a fan of Lucky McKee, having read his collaboration with the late and great Jack Ketchum (he was an inspiration and a master of horror, and he is missed); ALL CHEERLEADERS DIE has only cemented that for me. Whether you’re looking for something a bit more cerebral or a film you can just turn your brain off with and enjoy the camp, ALL CHEERLEADERS DIE is the film for you.