What I'm Watching: All Cheerleaders Die
Happy Halloween! To celebrate, I am here with a huge treat; a review of one of my absolute favourite movies in recent years. I passed on it at first, but a friend kept hyping it up and it was always at the back of my mind to someday give a look. So I finally grabbed the DVD cheap, and was not disappointed. I then proceeded to not review it for like six months, and here we are!
In retrospect, I should've reviewed this YESTERDAY since it goes well with my yearly watching of The Crow on October 30th, but it works just fine today. And in random coincidence land, I am amused that yesterday's review and today's both star characters named Maddy.
We start off with our main character Maddy Killian doing a video report on her high school's cheerleading squad, with the typical viewpoint that cheerleading is a joke and not a real sport, but she quickly finds out just how dangerous it can be when the captain of the squad dies in a horrible accident.
The movie jumps ahead to three months later, after summer break and their senior year about to begin, with the former dark and broody outsider Maddy surprisingly trying out for the team to take Lexi's spot. However, it's all a ruse for her to get in deep with the group, and do an expose about just what's going on behind the scenes that no one knows about.
In a normal movie, this would lead to Lessons Learned about the cheerleaders being real people and not stereotypical bimbos, and Maddy learning about herself while changing, and alienating her true friends. We've seen so many movies that have done exactly that. And surprisingly, All Cheerleaders Die actually DOES get into all that while also adding in bullying and sexism on top of everything else.
Oh, but before we get too much into Afterschool Special territory, there is Yet Another Tragic Accident largely thanks to the actions of the football team and some goading from Maddy. The entire cheerleading squad dies, Maddy included. And before you can say, "Well, that was short!" Maddy's Actual Witch former girlfriend Leena, discovers magic is actually real, and brings the squad back to life with the help of some handy magic wishing stones.
But things aren't so rosy and simple. Resurrection never is, right? It seems the girls are now all linked with the magic stones used to bring them back, and with Leena who cast the spell, as well as with each other, so they feel and experience what everyone else feels at times, especially in times of extreme emotion and stress...and sex. Oh yeah, and they also kinda develop a taste for humans. It doesn't quite go full on zombie with that angle, but they do get restored with the consumption of human energy and blood.
"My crazy wicca bullshit...it WORKS!"
This is already a setup that could go ANY number of different ways. The obvious one is 'zombie cheerleaders rampage around the school' and the movie almost completely eschews that route, which STILL would've been a fun movie. Instead it goes for a bit more revengey tone, a la the Crow, but even that isn't much of the focus. The movie chooses as its antagonist, the football captain Terry, who is the source of everyone's problems it seems. He discovers the source of the cheerleaders' newfound power, and wants it for himself, rallying the remaining cheerleaders to try and stop him before its too late.
The movie ends up being a deep look at high school culture, and sexism, and privilege,. Surprisingly deep, considering what this movie is. I really wasn't expecting it to tackle such heady topics, and I almost wish it went at them harder, as it seems a bit hesitant to really get into things at times. But it is so refreshing to see a movie tackling some of the topics AT ALL, even with glancing blows. It's not until the final act when we get insight into why all this is even going on, does it really start to dig into things.
I will admit, as much as I love this movie, the tone is ALL over the place. It's almost trying to be too many things, but fortunately the focus is largely on the black humour of it all, and that creates a strong through-line. The pacing is also a bit of a mess, as it goes from one idea to the next, and not really settling down into just what we're going to deal with until the final half hour. I almost wish the movie was longer, so they could've spent more time with the ideas they shift through as they try and introduce cast, then magic, then the new status quo, and finally an actual conflict appears.
"Somebody got fucked, somebody got killed, I'm going to P.E.!"
However, the movie is just so much unashamed FUN and it knows it, that I really don't *care* about those problems. It may bounce from here to there and back, but you're just so entertained and enjoying this stuff, even when it gets REALLY dark, that screw it, it's enjoyable. The movie has a LOT to get through, and a ton of setup, but the writing and characters are so much fun, that it's still entertaining as the movie builds this world.
The strongest part of the story is when it focuses on Maddy, and her quest to bring down Terry, and just WHY she was doing her little undercover work in the first place. When the movie homes in on the rivalry between Maddy/the cheerleaders and Terry/the football team, is when the story is at its best, since that's a solid conflict to actually base a story around. It allows the movie to deal with its magical cheerleader zombies AND the high school/social commentary and satire it really wants to talk about. This is also where the movie is at its darkest, and the tone between Maddy's horrifying story, and stuff like one of the girl's having her magic stone removed really shouldn't work, but the truth held up against metaphor is also one of the movie's strengths.
The movie also has a strong cast to carry these ideas, with the necessary depth and darkness some of it requires, all lead by the amazing Caitlin Stasey. She is perfectly cast as the no nonsense Maddy. You absolutely believe that she would be one of those outsiders at the start of things, just as easily as you believe she's a cheerleader. She moves between the two with little effort shown. Tom Williamson as Terry is deliciously, unabashedly evil. You never once like him, but you can still sense the charisma and power of the character that makes the footballers and the rest of the school fall in line behind his lead. And the way both of these actors can hold their own against each other gives the story strong performances to build the main conflict around. When the pair are on screen and facing off against each other, neither one of them backing down or giving an inch, the screen practically crackles.
Each of the girls is also wonderfully crafted and cast, and while you can see some of the broad stereotyping character traits of each girl, the movie also gives them a lot of depth of nuance, which is necessary for Maddy's eventual discovering that they are people too, and not just what everyone assumes them to be. Which is the entire point. They're supposed to be stereotypes at first, and we discover the truth along with Maddy. Much the same can be said for the football team, but I think they suffer a bit more and aren't quite as strongly characterised, but that's mainly because this movie is already packed with so many people, and the cheerleaders and Leena are the ones who really need the depth. The focus is rightly on them.
This movie is dark, it's a black comedy, it's horror, it's a little bit zombie, with a hint of Crow, and even a bit of a superhero origin story in its way. Which makes it similar to The Scribbler in that regard, in being a stealth origin story, even ending with a frustrating reveal of slapping a "PART ONE" on the movie. I would be super pissed, but the movie does resolve it's major conflict, and the tease of part two is just that, a tease. You still walk away with a complete story, just laying that little hint of something more to come. And I desperately want more. This movie was so much fun, with so much to say, that its work is far from over, and this world needs more to be done with it.
All Cheerleaders Die is sexy, smart, super clever, and doing stuff that no one else is really going near these days. The movie manages to somehow be dark AND fun, which is a tough line to walk. It has so much going on that it could easily be a dozen different movies besides the one we got, if it went in a different direction, but the movie as is, turns out to be a ton of fun with surprising depth than you would have expected from the title, trailer, or anything you might hear about the idea. It's a breath of fresh air amongst everything else coming out, and if you haven't seen it, it really is a must.