Satire is a tightrope. Go too far in one direction, and all subtlety, and more importantly the teeth, is gone. Go too far in the other, and you’re just parroting the point of view of whatever it is you’re poking fun at. Hell, even good satire gets mistaken for what it’s parodying. See how many conservatives honestly believed Stephen Colbert was one of them, or the number of people who think Starship Troopers is a stone-faced action film. Yeah, that’s how hard satire his: Paul Verhoeven was once too subtle.
It gets even more difficult when you’re lampooning a piece of the culture to which you belong. While men can and should poke holes in male privilege and the like, it’s definitely fraught. Men are never going to understand it the way women do. We’re going to miss at least some of the details. Hell, we could set out to make an empowering action flick that ruthlessly deconstructs the male gaze, and end up with Sucker Punch. It’s happened before, and it’ll happen again.
This week’s selection, All Cheerleaders Die, is pretty far from perfect, but that doesn’t mean it’s entirely without merit. On the contrary; it’s a damn good time and it does have a few things to say. Sure, a pair of heterosexual men are going to leer a bit when they’re making fun of the objectification of women in horror films, but on the whole, the movie stays on point and most importantly, never wears out its welcome.
The two men behind this flick are Lucky McKee, a presence on the indie horror scene who specializes in creepy weirdos on the periphery of polite society. He made past Now Fear This feature May (a better film which I heartily recommend), as well as the witch-themed The Woods, and the Masters of Horror episode “Sick Girl.” McKee’s co-writer and co-director is Chris Sivertson who made… yeesh… I Know Who Killed Me. As terrible as that movie is, that feels like a no-win situation for a young director, so try not to judge him too harshly. After all, Paul Schrader couldn’t corral Lindsay Lohan, and that was during her alleged recovery.
The movie introduces us to Lexi, who basically seems like Regina George (not to make another reference to a Lohan movie) minus the few isolated moments of tact and taste. She’s being profiled by her friend Maddy, a Hollywood bookworm whose idea of being dowdy is not wearing all that much makeup. The scene Maddy catches on her camera is so heightened that it’s impossible to take seriously: cheerleaders in midriff-baring costumes with leather (or possibly pleather) skirts, proudly calling themselves “bitches,” and ruling the school in the way only seen in teen movies and military juntas. On the other side are the football players, a bunch of dead-eyed alpha males who look like they should be running Oz, not the school itself.
Lexi’s profile looks like the set-up for the villain of the piece, the person Maddy is going to have to humble in order to win. Or murder, considering the title. The video ends with Lexi accidentally getting killed in a freak cheerleading accident. Don’t laugh: cheerleading is dangerous as fuck. It’s basically gymnastics minus the safety equipment and the respect. Flash forward a few months, and Maddy is, for reasons held until a third-act reveal, itching for revenge against Lexi’s ex-boyfriend, Terry, the leader of the jocks.
While the title would lead one to believe that Maddy’s revenge would be centered around murdering cheerleaders, that’s not the case. Instead, she joins the squad in one of those identity makeovers we were all so fond of in our formative years. Only Maddy’s ex-girlfriend (it’s a McKee joint, which means lesbians), the gothy Leena thinks anything is wrong with what’s going on.
Maddy’s plan pretty much instantly goes awry when she pushes Terry too far (in her defense, he’s a monster), and he runs her car off the road, killing her, the other two major cheerleaders, and the little sister who serves as the school’s mascot. Leena, who’s also a witch, manages to bring all four girls back to life. And that’s when things get a little weird. Now the ladies are mentally-linked cannibal succubi, and oh yeah, the two sisters have switched bodies. It’s enough conceits to hang three or four movies on, and McKee and Sivertson just breeze past them with barely a look back.
While the girls have become murderers, and in fact kill at least one innocent person, the film never wavers in its sympathy for them. It is firmly in Maddy’s corner throughout, even before the reveal that justifies what she’s going to do to Terry. Terry is an awful person from the beginning, first framed as a serial cheater who hooked up with his ex-girlfriend’s closest friend just after her death, then into an outright monster whose attacks on the girls are shot and treated like rape scenes. The one troubling part is that Terry is the only black guy in the movie, although in the movie’s defense, he’s not treated as any different from the others. Sill, you know, bad optics. The villain, though, is the culture that spawned someone like Terry, who’s given carte blanche to do whatever he likes with zero consequences, so long as he can throw and catch a leather ball. Terry is a symptom, and the entire poisonous culture is the disease.
It’s appropriate then, that the most wholesome character is the biggest outsider. Leena’s romance with Maddy initially has a few obsessive overtones, but she’s never a threatening figure. While the film waffles slightly over who the One True Pairing is, lingering a bit on Maddy and Terry’s new girlfriend Tracy, it ultimately sides with Maddy and Leena. Leena raised Maddy from the dead after the shattering grief of losing her, and only brings the others back as a side effect. She was most insulated from the “dogs and bitches” culture of the school, and thus had a purity of spirit none of the others have. She also gets the best line in the movie.
All Cheerleaders Die is an example of reach exceeding grasp. There’s something noble in the reach, though, and that helps make this a worthy little film. Besides, it’s a good time and, at only ninety minutes, zips right by.