At first, All Cheerleaders Die feels like a giant step back for one Lucky McKee, something he might have made before 2003’s May and 2011’s The Woman—two great films that belong in the upper echelon of horror cinema. Here, the writer-director’s fifth film is a joint effort with co-writer and director Chris Sivertson (I Know Who Killed Me) and it’s actually a remake of both filmmakers’ obscure 2001 direct-to-video feature of the same name and same premise. Why they would want to reanimate the same material isn’t immediately clear, but All Cheerleaders Die is such an oddly likable and enthusiastically made lark with offbeat sensibilities that all preconceived notions fall by the wayside. It has enough acerbic humor, bloody fun, and pert spirit, yes it does, to look past its existing imperfections.
As such a title would suggest, All Cheerleaders Die is not based on a true story nor is it a straight-up horror pic, but it all does start with a neck-snapping surprise. Blackfoot High School outsider Maddy (Caitlin Stasey) used to be best friends with the sassy Alexis (Felisha Cooper), who’s now in higher social standing as the cheerleading squad’s captain. While Maddy shoots a video all about Alexis, the queen bee dies during a cheer jump. Three months later, Maddy has her own ulterior motives, setting her sights on making senior year for Alexis’ apathetic boyfriend, alpha-male football quarterback Terry (Tom Williamson), a living hell and taking the cheerleaders down with him, particularly new cheerleading captain and Alexis’ best friend Tracy (Brooke Butler) who didn’t wait long to date Terry. Maddy’s revenge plan goes as planned, making the team of pom-pommers and getting close to Tracy, which does not coincide with the pursuit of happiness for Maddy’s needy Wiccan ex-girlfriend Leena (Sianoa Smit-McPhee). The night before the teens’ first day of senior year, there’s trouble in paradise with Tracy and Terry, forcing four cheerleaders, including Maddy and Tracy, to drive off and die in a car accident. Thanks to Leena’s dark magic rocks, they all come back as literal man-eaters who need to be on an all-blood diet, and there are plenty of Neanderthal football players to go around.
As written by McKee and Sivertson, this morbidly entertaining horror-comedy hybrid isn’t that different from McKee’s previous genre efforts in terms of having a female perspective. To McKee and Sivertson’s credit, the film taps into the universal pain of one losing a close friend to a cooler social crowd. Though Maddy and Leena’s relationship may have resonated even more with extra scenes before the mayhem breaks out, it’s generously treated as a more delicate friendship instead of a way of baiting teenage boys who just want to see two girls macking. Whether the film passes the Bechdel test hardly matters, though, as All Cheerleaders Die is really a rape-and-revenge tale between “bitches” and “dawgs” (those terms are the cheerleaders’ words, not mine) with a little succubus horror thrown in for good measure. Mashing up Heathers, The Craft, Bring It On, Mean Girls, Tamara, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Jennifer’s Body, the film walks a tonal tightrope between dark horror and silly comedy without ever careening into outright spoof. When the girls do come back from the dead (and the one pair of sisters has a “Freaky Friday” switcheroo), there is plenty of fun in terms of their feeding and carnal desires. Then once everything spirals into an expectations-twisting climax, nobody is safe, even if the internal logic of the witchy mumbo-jumbo may not be completely open to scrutiny.
Aussie actress Caitlin Stasey does a fine, earnest job of grounding everything as Maddy, and she and Sianoa Smit-McPhee, as gothic witch Leena, hit some nice notes together. Brooke Butler is a comedically perky standout as Tracy, tossing off some cheeky one-liners when her new undead body instantly knows what to do when she dines out on an older neighbor for breakfast. Some of the other girls are a little shallowly written, but game Kate Beckinsale lookalike Reanin Johannink, as God-fearing but gorgeous Martha, and Amanda Grace Cooper, as Martha’s innocent but curious younger mascot sister Hanna, make their characters enjoyable with one distinguishing trait apiece. They’re better than what can be said for the flat male performers, aside from the hunky Tom Williamson who’s at least convincingly vile as Terry; it’s not hard to root for his just deserts.
To reiterate, All Cheerleaders Die is not a genre-defying piece of cinema, nor does it always work. The junky f/x tend to show off the film’s limited budget, and co-directors McKee and Sivertson end their finished product with an irritating cliffhanger, as if they would rather promise a “Volume 2” instead of follow through on the first. All things considered, though, it has more-peppy-than-snarky wit; its schlocky delights are ample; and it appreciably holds nothing back in the gore department.
See All Cheerleaders Die in select theaters and on VOD today.