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For a time, Lucky McKee and Chris Sivertson’s All Cheerleaders Die (2013) is a rather nasty piece of work, a combination of the high school clique napalming of Heathers (1988) with the lethal gender conflicts of Donkey Punch (2008). Just as the film seems like it’s really going to dig its teeth in, however, it inexplicably becomes a mish-mash of Warlock (1989) and Dragon Ball Z, which is a much less effective, much sillier combination. As someone who was really blown away by McKee’s last film, the thoroughly uncompromising, jaw-dropping The Woman (2011), I was really hoping that his follow-up would continue the discussion on the battle of the sexes in a similar, uncompromising manner. To say that I was disappointed…well, that might just be the understatement of the year.

From the get-go, All Cheerleaders Die seems to be taking us down a fixed but certainly intriguing path: the film begins with hand-held footage of vapid head cheerleader Alexis (Felisha Cooper) performing a routine before landing on her head with a sickening crunch. Cut to the title, red letters on a black background. From here, we meet Alexis’ “friend,” Maddy (Caitlin Stasey). Maddy was the one filming the opening footage and, for all intents and purposes, seems to be the farthest thing from a stereotypical high school cheerleader: she’s droll, sarcastic, a budding journalist and quite intent on avenging Alexis’ death. To this end, Maddy tries out for (and makes) the cheerleading squad, although she rightfully hides her true intentions from her new “friends.”

Once ensconced within the spirit squad, Maddy goes about trying to detonate the popular girls from the inside-out. There’s Tracy (Brooke Butler), who’s now dating Alexis’ former boyfriend, quarterback Terry (Tom Williamson); Martha (Reanin Joannink), the team captain and Martha’s little sister, Hanna (Amanda Grace Cooper), the team’s put-upon mascot. Maddy blames each of the girls (along with their football player boyfriends) for Alexis’ death but saves the bulk of her vehemence for Tracy and Terry. By wheedling herself in close to Tracy, Maddy begins to drive a wedge between her and Terry, claiming to have evidence of Terry’s infidelity. On the periphery of this toxic little group is Maddy’s former best friend, the Gothy Leena (Sianoa Smit-McPhee), who also happens to be a practicing Wiccan and, apparently, was once Maddy’s girlfriend. Maddy has been dissing Leena, lately, which is all part of her plan to ingratiate herself in with the cheerleaders: this, of course, makes Leena feel like she’s been betrayed by the only person at the school who actually seems to understand her.

Things come to a head when Maddy encourages Tracy to send Terry a nasty breakup text message. When Terry shows up at that night’s cheerleader/football player kegger, the shit really hits the fan. Maddy pressures Tracy into shit-talking Terry in front of his team and you’d have to be completely dense not to see the gathering storm clouds. Indeed, after standing there, emotionless, Terry hauls off and punches Tracy square in the face, a shocking, gritty piece of violence that immediately seems to set the film on a grim track as a visceral examination of violence against women. Maddy tries to get the other football players to jump Terry (they don’t), Martha tries to call the police, only to have Terry snatch away her phone and the cheerleaders jump in their car and take off, pursued at maximum speed by the football players. As Leena watches in horror, the car containing Maddy, Tracy, Hanna and Martha plunges through a railing and straight into a pitch-black lake. Leena does what she can to save Maddy and the others but their bodies are already cold and water-logged by the time she hauls them to shore.

At this point, there were at least a handful of paths the film could have taken: it could have kept the revenge angle, with Leena taking up Maddy’s mantle; it could have had one of the girls survive, making her the avenger; there could have been a falling out among the football players, pitting the more hesitant members against gung-ho Terry and his best buddies. What the film opts to do, however, is to spin the film off into an entirely different direction: namely, All Cheerleaders Die transitions seamlessly from a gritty “battle of the sexes” into an FX-heavy supernatural thriller, sort of a cross between Warlock and Drag Me To Hell (2009). You see, Leena uses her magical powers to enchant the magic stones that she carries around: these stones than “reanimate” the dead girls, as it were, granting them with such things as super strength. The trade-off, of course, is that the cheerleaders must now feed on blood in order to sustain themselves. In other words, the cheerleaders are now zombie/vampire hybrids who are powered by magical glowing stones imbedded in their innards. Suffice to say that any sense of “grit” or “realism” just flew out the window, along with most of the savvy plays on high school cliques and popularity contests.

Instead, we end up with a film that consists of the cheerleaders playing cat-and-mouse, of sorts, with the football players. When the guys return from their little murder spree, they strut through the school like they were, literally, the cocks of the walk. Until, that is, the cheerleaders return to strut through the school. The guys know that the cheerleaders went into the lake, so suspect some sort of teenage version of Gaslight (1944): Terry, for his part, isn’t so sure and gets all the confirmation he needs when one of his guys witnesses Leena levitating her stones in the middle of class (Leena also ended up with a stone in her chest, despite not being dead, which appears to have amplified her magic powers). Every time the cheerleaders kill one of the football team, their power increases exponentially. This fact isn’t lost on Terry, who decides to turn the tables by consuming the cheerleaders’ magical stones and increasing his own powers. Soon, with the ranks on both sides decimated, it’s up to Maddy and Leena to finally put an end to Terry’s reign of terror. Will they be strong enough to stop him, however? And what other tricks might Leena have up her sleeve?

Right up to the point where the film transitioned from a tense, blackly comic drama into a full-on supernatural action film, I was largely, if not completely, on board. In many ways, All Cheerleaders Die plays like a lesser version of All The Boys Love Mandy Lane (2006) or a very light version of Heathers. While I didn’t love the film, I could appreciate where it was heading and looked forward to seeing if McKee was going to get as extreme as he did in The Woman. Once the magic, glowing, floating stones appeared, however, it became pretty impossible to take the film seriously. It doesn’t, of course, help that the CGI on the stones is utterly absurd and awful, reminding of nothing so much as all the damn cheesy “lightning and laser eyes” effects from crappy ’80s-’90s direct-to-video sci-fi epics.

Once the film finds its footing as a silly supernatural tale, it manages to recover a bit, based purely on its ability to grab the concept with both hands and refuse to let go. While the stones never do look any better than the similar effect in Warlock, there are a few eye-candy moments in the latter half that are well-executed (the bit where Tracy’s stone causes Ben (Nicholas S. Morrison) to bleed out in slo-mo, ala liquid droplets in zero gravity, is pretty awesome, as is the final jump-scare, which handily and honestly sets up a sequel). The biggest issue is simply that the two separate aspects don’t really cohere, making this seem like a couple different films jammed together.

In fact, in some ways, All Cheerleaders Die is a tale of several movies: a horror film, an indie superhero tale, a battle of the sexes film, a black comedy set in a high school…the unfortunate truth is that only a few of these films actually work. The horror elements are well-done, with some nicely realized gore scenes, while the “super powers” stuff is hackneyed and trite. The battle of the sexes stuff ends up being fairly negligible (again, Donkey Punch did it much better and pulled, ahem, fewer punches), while the blackly comic high school material ends up being fairly effective. Focused on any one of these angles, All Cheerleaders Die would have been a much stronger film: as it is, the movie lacks focus and coherence, issues that McKee has never had in his previous films.

I really wanted to like All Cheerleaders Die more than I did but, alas, the film was pretty much one continual disappointment. While the acting was solid, there were never any truly stand-out performances, although Stasey did admirably as the protagonist. The film looked and sounded pretty great, which made the ultra-cheesy SFX all the more laughable and obnoxious: it was almost as if the whole concept of the magic stones was added in post-production, which is just about as bad as it sounds.

I will say, however, that I appreciated how the filmmakers managed to marginalize the concept of the “male gaze”: unlike just about every other horror film involving cheerleaders in the history of horror films, the women in All Cheerleaders Die don’t spend the film in various states of undress, the camera lasciviously tracking up and down their nude bodies. In fact, there’s really only one scene that I can recall that broached this in any way and that would be the one where Tracy has just “reawakened” and proceeds to march across the street, wearing only a bra and panties, in order to find some “food.” In many ways, this is the scene that proves my rule: despite Tracy’s attire, the emphasis on the scene is squarely on her ravenous appetite, not the female form. It’s a smart bit and, unfortunately, one that I wish were repeated more often.

Ultimately, I’m probably so disappointed by All Cheerleaders Die because of my experiences with McKee’s other films: May (2002), The Woods (2006) and The Woman, along with McKee’s entry in the Master of Horror series, Sick Girl (2006), are all fascinating examinations of both feminism and male/female violence, with smart, three-dimensional characters and some astoundingly original/shocking elements. The Woman, in particular, was such a gut-punch that it easily ranks as one of the most unpleasant, yet necessary, films I’ve seen in decades. By comparison, All Cheerleaders Die is an entertaining, yet slight and disposable throwaway: by the time the climax rolls around, with Terry and the surviving women fighting like left-over Street Fighter characters, the whole thing feels like a cheap direct-to-video curiosity, rather than a film with an actual agenda.

If only the film were able to stay on the gritty road it started on: there’s definitely a really good movie buried in All Cheerleaders Die…the evidence of that film is pretty much everywhere you look. The problem, of course, ends up being that there are also at least three mediocre films trapped in there and this is, of course, at least three films too many.

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