Thursday, August 28, 2014
Director Report Card: Lucky McKee (2014)
All Cheerleaders Die
Co-directed with Chris Sivertson
“May” was the break-out film for Lucky McKee and the foundation for the director’s loyal and growing cult following. This is good because “May” is brilliant. However, true McKee fanatics know that it wasn’t his first feature-length film. That honor falls to oddball, micro-budget zombie riff “All Cheerleaders Die.” Co-directed by McKee’s buddy Chris Sivertson, whose promising career was unfairly jackknifed by that Lindsay Lohan stripper movie, the original “All Cheerleaders Die” is fun but not much more than a goofy, extended in-joke. For followers of the director though, it’s fascinating. Even that early in his career, the themes that would reoccur throughout all of McKee’s films were present. So when news trickled out that Lucky and Chris, wiser and more disciplined now, were reuniting to direct a new version of “All Cheerleaders Die,” I got excited. Excited enough that the film topped my list of most anticipated films this year. This is before the middling reviews started to roll in. Actually sitting down to watch the newest version of “All Cheerleaders Die,” I kept my expectations measured.
For a low budget horror movie that’s a remake of a lower budget horror movie, “All Cheerleaders Die” has a surprisingly complicated plot. The film begins with obnoxious cheerleader stereotype Alexis dying in a brutal accident, all caught on-film by her childhood best friend and would-be cheerleader Maddie. A year later, Maddie integrates herself into the cheer team, planning to take revenge on the insincere cheer bitches. Instead, she becomes genuine friends of the other girls and even starts a budding lesbian romance with cheer captain Tracy, much to the chagrin of Maddie’s wiccan ex-girlfriend Leena. After getting the squad to collectively turn on the football players, especially the overly macho leader Terry, all four girls get run off a cliff. Using crystal-driven witchcraft, Leena resurrects all four cheerleaders as blood-sucking revenants. Magical mistakes and bloody vengeance, wrecked by both genders, follows.
As a remake, “All Cheerleaders Die” is actually fairly successful. The original revolved around the cheerleaders and the football players taking a retreat into the woods and playing a game of “boys vs. girls” that soon turned deadly. The only female survivor of the massacre, a foreign exchange study with magical powers, returns a decade later during the high school reunion to revive her fallen comrades as vicious zombies, who tear apart their killers in bloody ways. The remake, smartly, rejects the time jump, which was one of the original film’s biggest problems. The football players facing off against the cheerleaders is maintained but only as a thematic concept. The witchy exchange student becomes a witchy outcast, which probably makes more sense. Many of the character names are reused and one of the original’s nastiest gore gags, involving a bear trap, is ramped up to include four bear traps. 2014’s “All Cheerleaders Die” is certainly bigger than its predecessor.
It takes time for the viewer to ease into the film. We are introduced to enough characters in a short enough time span that the audience is thrown off. Blonde Tracy has inherited Alexis’ queen bitch position as cheer captain, as well as her star jock boyfriend Terry. Maddie’s motivation, joining the cheer team with the intention of ruining Tracy and Terry’s senior year, is established early but doesn’t inform most of her actions. Sisters Martha and Hanna are reduced to broad stereotypes. Martha is a devout Christian, an attribute we don’t hear about until Terry mocks her for it. Hanna, meanwhile, is the school mascot and always in her big sister’s shadow. Leena floats along the edge of the story, cradling a dead cat, until she becomes important at the half-hour point. With so much going on, the film doesn’t have time to even give the football players broad stereotypes. “All Cheerleaders Die” is jam-packed with stuff and, considering its 89 minute run-time, doesn’t have time to explore it all.
All of this is before the supernatural juju is activated. After bringing the girls back from the dead, the movie throws in even more weird shit. Hanna and Martha switch bodies, the shy little sister now in her hotter older sister’s body. She immediately takes advantage of this by jumping the bones of Martha’s patient boyfriend. The original “All Cheerleaders Die” featured an incredibly awkward sex scene. The bathroom-set fucking session featured here is nearly as badly framed, including an obvious body double shot. For vaguely defined reasons, the five girls share intense emotions. So when Martha gets off, they all get off, no matter how inconvenient it might be. The shared consciousness subplot comes up a few times and never feels like more than a contrived plot device. The girls are resurrected by magical stones, still embedded in their bodies, that glow when intense emotion is felt. Surely there would have been a less clichéd way to show that the five zombie cheerleaders share a connection.
Calling “All Cheerleaders Die” a horror-comedy is a correct assessment. The movie freely mixes morbid plot points and blood and gore with surreal laughs. Except when it doesn’t. The first half-hour follows the expected plot beats of a high school drama, with bitchy betrayals and budding romances. The big car crash that follows is a grim moment of horror, showing how easily cruel sexism is supported by the high school system. The screw turns again the next day, with the film completing its transition into out-there horror/comedy. In the depth of the last act, the film attempts serious horror again. We discover how deep Terry’s villainous streak goes and a horrifying memory from Maddy’s past is revealed. The bluntness of the reveal is near tasteless and the way the film goes back to its high-strung genre shenanigans left this watcher with tonal whiplash. Lucky McKee is a smart guy and has pulled off successful genre mash-ups before. I can only assume he did this on purpose.
That last act proves especially problematic. I’m uncertain how to feel about Tom Williamson as Terry Stankus. As a misogynistic high school jock, he’s most effective, casually dismissing the women in his life and not pausing to use violence. Even after committing murder, he remains steadfast in his casual sexism. However, upon discovering the girls’ secret, Terry becomes a full-fledged supervillain. That’s not an exaggeration either, as a last-minute plot twist has him gaining genuine super powers. Just as the audience is becoming invested in the cast members, Terry slashes through the girls with a knife worthy of Michael Myers while throwing out lame one-liners. The resolution of the plot involves another character discovering mind-blowing magical abilities. After building him up as a serious villain, Terry is bluntly disposed of.
The movie is also a proud member of the high school horror sub-genre. A less squirrely film probably would have focused more on how Maddy, formally an outcast, infiltrates the cheerleading squad so easily. Here, it only makes up one or two scenes before the film has to move on to other business. One of the sharper critiques comes when Terry, newly freed of his girlfriend, decides to manipulate his way into some freshman girls’ panties. Maddy appears and quickly defuses his attempted seduction. Once again, the movie has to get to more things before this plot point can develop any breathing room. “All Cheerleaders Die,” had it been more focused, could have been a biting horror-satire about cliques and social ladder climbing, a horror-riff on “Heathers” if you will.
There are other minor complaints too. The film is full of overly obvious musical cues which has, admittedly, always been something of a problem with McKee. Even the musical score, which blatantly quotes “Rosemary’s Baby,” isn’t free from this problem. The film also lacks much of the visual sense McKee has displayed in his previous films. The colors are muted and, save from one surprisingly frank lesbian encounter, the film’s direction is lacking in energy and intimacy.
“All Cheerleaders Die” doesn’t know what type of movie it wants to be. It’s an outrageous horror comedy, an indictment of male entitlement, a roasting of high school bullying, and a big-and-bloody genre exercise. Unlike McKee’s best films, he can’t balance these ideas into a coherent whole, producing a jittery, highly uneven final film. Maybe the addition of Chris Sivertson threw the equation off. The movie ends on an unpromising sequel hook. Hopefully, that’s only a joke, as I imagine McKee’s time would be better served on a different project than “All Cheerleaders Die II: Cheer Harder.” [Grade: C]