All Cheerleaders Die Blu-ray Review (originally published 2014)
Teenage outsider Maddy (Caitlin Stasey) is keeping some dark secrets and holding a serious grudge against the captain of the Blackfoot High football team. When Maddy joins the school's elite and powerful cheerleading squad, she convinces her new friends to help inflict her revenge. After a late-night party goes awry, their plans take an unexpected turn for the worst and all of the girls die. A sinister, supernatural power intervenes and the girls mysteriously appear at school the next day with a killer new look… and some unusual new appetites. (From Image’s official synopsis)
Lucky McKee exploded onto the horror scene in 2002 with his intimate, funny, disturbing, and ultimately very moving variation on the Frankenstein myth, May. Though technically not his first feature-length effort (more on that in a moment), May was the first of the writer/director’s movies to be shot on film with a proper budget and a recognizable cast (some of whom have become more recognizable in the time since its release). McKee followed up May with one of the better episodes of Showtime’s Masters of Horror series, Sick Girl (2006), and a pseudo-ode to Argento’s Suspiria (1977) and Narciso Ibáñez Serrador’s The House that Screamed (1971), The Woods (also 2006). Neither garnered a May-level reaction and McKee sort of disappeared, briefly surfacing to partially direct a little-seen Jack Ketchum adaptation, Red (2008, he was fired, along with May star Angela Bettis, and replaced with Trygve Allister Diesen). His comeback was another Ketchum adaptation – the brutally violent The Woman, from 2011. It wasn’t as good as May, but it garnered notice and the good kind of controversy, leading McKee back to midtier-mainstream filmmaking and a remake of his own shot-on-video post-college project – All Cheerleaders Die (2001).
Six of McKee’s seven feature-length movies were centered on women and their relation to decades of horror storytelling. This positioned him as the leading authority on the subject, at least among male film directors in the 2000s (2020 edit: the 2010s have passed now and actual female voices haven’t been magnified much more). Constructively speaking, McKee’s movies don’t rest on featuring women in leading roles, rather, they tend to embrace a woman’s point-of-view within their narrative structures. May, Sick Girl, and The Woods are almost exclusively locked into a feminine perspective. The male characters are usually present to serve the female-driven narrative. The Woman even goes beyond POV to darkly satire the more prevalent male vision of feminine horror (rape/revenge, in particular). I am less familiar with McKee’s co-director/co-writer, Chris Sivertson, to the point that I could very well be under-crediting his contributions to All Cheerleaders Die, but it’s easy to recognize the overlap between the two directors. Siverston co-directed a behind-the-scenes documentary about Tobe Hooper’s Toolbox Murders (Toolbox Murders: As it Was, 2003), a movie that starred McKee’s friend and muse, Angela Bettis, and then made another popular Ketchum adaptation, The Lost in 2006. He is, unfortunately, more well-known for directing I Know Who Killed Me (2007), an ill-fated Lindsay Lohan vehicle that was inspired by Brian de Palma movies. He and McKee had co-directed/co-wrote the original All Cheerleaders Die together in 2001, so their re-pairing here makes sense.
All Cheerleaders Die is a sort of a two-fold revenge story and this approach has the problematic side effect of rendering much of the first act unnecessary. McKee & Siverston spend a lot of their time setting up Maddy as the protagonist, focusing on her plans to wreak emotional vengeance on the people that she blames for her friend’s death. But, when the cheerleaders she’s infiltrating die as the result of an unrelated car chase with brutish football players, the effort feels extraneous. The girls are then brought back to life, kind of by accident, via a Pagan ritual, and take to taking down the boys that killed them. Maddy’s plot gets lost in the shuffle. Still, despite the messiness of the approach, the film remains entertaining, because the change-up, however awkward, is the first in a series of unexpected twists in what at first appears to be a standard issue satirization of high school clique culture. In a strange way, the untidy plotting ends up canceling out the overreliance on genre clichés, though the third act still feels rushed, following a somewhat wasted first act set up.
All Cheerleaders Die is about as close to an utterly female-centric version of this type of high school revenge story, aside from one that ignores a male perspective entirely. McKee and Siverston engage in common battle-of-the-sexes motifs, like jealous lovers and sex as a weapon, but these mostly relate to lesbian, not heterosexual relationships. The protagonist doesn’t seduce a rival’s boyfriend to gain a social advantage – she seduces a male protagonist’s girlfriend instead. Granted, these are straight male directors’ versions of lesbian/bisexual relationships, but they at least feel emotionally genuine, unlike many of mainstream Hollywood’s straight relationships. I can’t really explore the film’s occasionally problematic portrayal of male-on-female violence without spoiling the plot twists, but can verify that there are issues with the victimization of certain characters. Also, at no point do the girls require the boys’ assistance in solving their problems. There’s even a solid joke at the tip of the climax that hammers this point home.
All Cheerleaders Die has been mostly shot using Arri Alexa cameras, along with some kind of smaller-format digital camera inserts for a movie-within-a-movie motif. McKee, Sivertson, and cinematographer Greg Ephraim aim for a particularly contrast-heavy image quality. The daylight images are blazing with white and yellow highlights, the nighttime/darker indoor scenes are thick with deep pools of black, and a handful of more stylized scenes (an early party scene, for example) feature searing neons that are so vivid that they create saturation haloes around higher contrast elements. The darkness grinds off some of the finer detail (it’s really to tell what is happening during the resurrection scene) and creates fuzzy digital noise in the subtler warm hues, but elemental separation remains tight throughout.
The bright and shiny imagery is matched by a particularly aggressive DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack. The track springs most loudly to life during the montage moments. Mads Heldtberg’s dread-caked keyboard score is mixed with a whole slew of super-loud pop, hip-hop, techno, dubstep, and heavy metal songs, creating what amounts to basically a series of miniature music videos. The music is represented throughout the front three channels with an effective echo effect flowing back into the rear speakers. Directional effects work is nicely stylized during these bits and the supernatural-heavy battle scenes, but less expressive during dialogue-heavy scenes, where it is mostly centered. Vocal clarity is sharp and the overall track is consistent.
Behind-the-scenes featurette (23:50, HD)
Trailers for other Image Entertainment releases
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