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All Cheerleaders Die
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by Jay Seaver

"You'd think the filmmakers could get it right the second time around."
2 stars

SCREENED AT BOSTON UNDERGROUND FILM FESTIVAL 16: "All Cheerleaders Die" is a notably sub-par exploitation movie, but I will probably end up discussing it more than many of the better films that played the festival because the way it goes about being disappointing is just absolutely maddening. There's enough talent and ambition here for the movie to become a smarter-than-it-looks delight, and yet the movie they actually make, while energetic, seems to aggressively dispose of the film's early wit and insight. You would think the filmmakers would have this sort of thing figured out, seeing as it's the second time they have made this movie.

It starts with AV-club girl Mäddy Killian (Caitlin Stasey) doing a video segment on her friend Alexis Anderson (Felisha Cooper), only to have the bit end with Alexis dying in a horrific cheerleading accident. Three months later, senior year is about to begin, and Alexis's best friend Tracy (Brooke Butler) has taken both her position as head cheerleader and her boyfriend Terry (Tom Williamson). A glammed-up Mäddy tries out the squad, saying she wants to see what Alexis loved about it. In reality, she's looking to ruin their lives from the inside, but when she miscalculates... Well, it's a good thing gothy ex-girlfriend Leena (Sianoa Smit-McPhee) is around to bail out Mäddy, Tracy, and sisters Martha & Hannah Poklin (Reanin Johannik & Amanda Grace Cooper). Well, at least it seems like a good thing...

There's a supernatural twist early enough on to be mentioned without it really being a spoiler but which is is a good enough jolt to keep somewhat under wraps. What actually happens isn't that important, but the way the movie shifts as a result is: Up until that point, what was going was kind of interesting character-wise, with the audience sort of in Mäddy's corner by default only to see that while Tracy may be kind of shallow, she is intriguingly human. After things get weird, though, the interplay between Mäddy, Leena, and Tracy (and the boys) becomes less about them than plot devices. Even the part of the story that gets more interesting as a result - the sibling rivalry between Hannah and Martha - eventually fizzles out. That could have been its own movie, but gets played out too fast, and the characters involved are just some more generic pieces of a horror movie rapidly losing the subtext that makes it interesting by the time it's done.

The easy way to explain it would be to replace the "and" in "written/directed by Lucky McKee and Chris Sivertson" with a "versus" - McKee, after all, is known for moody, character-focused horror while Sivertson is infamous for directing I Know Who Killed Me - bit that overlooks both how Sivertson's last movie (Brawler) was pretty good and how the pair have been working together for a long time. All the way back to the original, shoot-on-video version of this movie from 2001, in fact, so they really should have a handle not only on each other's strengths and weaknesses, but on what works for this specific story! Admittedly, what I'm seeing as the good stuff seems to be new features for version 2.0, but in some ways, that just makes it petering out stranger - the filmmakers knew that this would make the movie better, but give up on it.

It's doubly frustrating because McKee & Sivertson polish the heck out of their messy script until they've got something that is often a lot of fun to watch. Their black humor has bite to it, and the whole movie moves at a snappy pace. It's really nice to see McKee working on something that has a little bit of money behind it for the first time since The Woods soured him on the studio system; he, Sivertson, and company shoot a good car chase or two, make use of simple but well-spotted special effects, and only occasionally look like they've bitten off more than their budget will let them chew.

Plus, it's not a bad cast. Caitlin Stassey is a nice center; she catches both the sympathetic and sinister aspects of Mäddy right away, and is adept at getting the best out of the script whether it's being smart or stupid at the moment. Heck, she almost makes something that seems way out of character at a climactic moment work. Sianoa Smit-McPhee and Brooke Butler aren't bad either, both grabbing hold of the exaggerated elements of their characters and making some memorable scenes, while Amanda Grace Cooper & Reanin Johannik play their tricky parts well, both working nicely off Leigh Parker as the boy both are fond of. Chris Petrovski and Nicholas S. Morrison are capable enough, and Jordan Wilson seems like he could so something with his character if he was given more to do. Tom Williamson, unfortunately, is a bit of a weak link as the guy so much of the story orbits about; not awful, but given the worst material and not able to do as much with it as the rest.

They're all pretty good, the movie looks good, and it's exciting enough at points. Heck, there are chunks where I had a pretty good time, and there's a chance I'll check it out again on video if that includes the original version. The evolution of this thing, and how it becomes something where you can see potential being squandered in real time is fascinating, and it's a shame it didn't turn out better.

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originally posted: 04/01/14 13:49:53
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2013 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2013 Austin Film Festival For more in the 2013 Austin Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 Boston Underground Film Festival For more in the 2014 Boston Underground Film Festival series, click here.

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