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Thursday, August 28, 2014

Director Report Card: Lucky McKee (2014)

6. 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.

But at what cost? The tilt-a-whirl tone of “All Cheerleaders Die” is established early on with its opening scene. The film begins with a barrage of obnoxious rap music and shaky hand-held camera work. Alexis introduces herself in as hateful a manner as possible. She insults a zit-covered outsider, displays an anti-intellectual attitude, dresses in revealing clothes to distract her teachers, and is an all-around queen bee super bitch. When the opening scene ends with her taking a head-first swan dive into the football field, sickening cracking sound included, I was revealed. Thank God we won’t be spending the whole movie with this character, I thought. Obviously, McKee and Siverston are making a statement with this opening, that “All Cheerleaders Die” is a movie that won’t tolerate mean girl bullshit. Yet a first scene this off-putting is likely to send audience members fleeing.

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.

Which isn’t to say that “All Cheerleaders Die” doesn’t feature some agreeably gonzo humor. Upon being resurrected, Tracy turns her nose up at Leena’s goat milk and seeks subsistence across the street with her sleazy neighbor. This leads to the zombie squad claiming their first victim. One of the most inexplicable sequences in the film has Tracy joining the high school’s resident stoner in his pot van. The two get high together which, combined with Martha/Hanna’s magically shared orgasm, causes Tracy’s stone to exit her head, fly across the van, and bullet itself through the stoner’s brain. It doesn’t make a lick of sense but provided a refreshing amount of “what-the-fuck” for this viewer. The sister swapping subplot, though totally unnecessary, leads to a few laughs as well. When Martha-in-Hanna’s body confronts her boyfriend about sleeping with Hanna-in-Martha’s body, the boy’s genuine confusion produces a chuckle or two. The last act escalates in such ridiculous ways that the viewer might find himself laughing in disbelief that the movie chooses to go there.

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.

Nearly all of Lucky McKee’s films are characterized by themes of gender relations. “All Cheerleaders Die,” for its myriad of flaws, doesn’t back away on that. The villain is an unrepentant sexist and he attempts to drag his cohorts down into the same venomous mindset. This is best displayed when Tracy confronts Terry about his disgusting attitudes, causing the jock to strike his (soon-to-be-ex)girlfriend. The movie also boldly features three lesbian, or at least bisexual, characters. McKee has featured lesbian romances in enough of his films that you could makes accusations of him fetishizing it. Yet he always cooks up organic reasons to feature girl-on-girl love. The romance that develops between Maddy and Tracy, and the feelings still lingering between Leena and Maddy, are some of the more natural parts of “All Cheerleaders Die.”

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.

The cast is a mixed bag as well. Brooke Butler gives probably my favorite performance in the film. Tracy starts out as a typically vaporous blonde. As the film goes on, she reveals a vulnerable and honest soul. After coming back from the dead, she even displays an upbeat, chipper attitude, which wrings laughs out of the highly uneven material. Sianoa Smit-McPhee is also decent as the gothy Leena. She certainly has no problem playing quirky. Reanin Johannink and Amanda Grace Cooper both show off some decent comedic chops. Tom Williamson can’t make Stankus’ last minute shift into cartoonish super-villainy work but, before that, he’s perfectly convincing as a sexist d-bag. Sadly, the film centers itself around one of its weaker performance. Caitlin Stasey is never convincing as a high school outcast. The character’s revenge quest plays such a small role in the final product that, even if the actress could have made it work, I doubt it would have had much effect on the viewer. Stasey is, basically, another bland leading lady.

“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]

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