BFI London Film Festival 2013: ‘All Cheerleaders Die’ a gleeful but meek horror film

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All Cheerleaders Die
Written and directed by Lucky McKee and Chris Sivertson
USA, 2013

Opening with pom-pom twirling, head-splitting glee, All Cheerleaders Die arrives on British shores after a cartwheeling through the North American festival circuit, including a prestigious slot in this year’s Midnight Madness strand of the Toronto International Film Festival. Ostensibly a remake of their 2001 film of the same name, directors Lucky McKee and Chris Sivertson owe a debt of gratitude to the black heart of Heathers and the quippy, macabre banter of Buffy the Vampire Slayer with this gruesome yarn about a high school seeking a new head cheerleader after the previous sneering matriarch is dispatched during a freak turf-side accident. The scheming Maddy (Caitlin Stasey) tries out for the new job, much to the disgust of the immaculately molded female elite, but once accepted into the fold, she finds herself the toast of the school and a lascivious target for the predatory panting of the football jocks. After a horrific altercation between the girls and the aristocratic athletes, chilling cadavers arise from a watery grave to extract a cleaving choreography  of supernatural vengeance.

Like a Tales From The Crypt avenger emblazoned with a preppy blood-smeared smile, All Cheerleaders Die occasionally rises to the game with the requisite gory thrills and amusing asides. It’s very much a tongue-in-cheek take on the chilling adolescent cliques of high schools the world over, but the routine does get stale about halfway in, with only a few baton twirls to brighten up a rather pedestrian retributive routine. For one thing, it takes far too long to get going, as Maddy’s infiltration of the group and their undead transitions occur deep into the film. Like the cheerleaders’ perky demeanor, this film required a sense of a frolicking frenzy,  rather than a bloated corpse slowly lumbering from one set-piece to another.

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The film’s confused feminist empowerment message is prompted by a thematic design that never quite coalesces: the patriarchal oppression of the alpha male football jocks who view the cheerleaders as their sexual and physical property. The film takes a genuinely dark turn when one of the star players shows his true colours out beyond the bleachers. This stands in uncomfortable contrast with the remainder of the film’s ghoulish, jaunty tone, with a Wiccan wish fulfillment figure in Leena (Sianoa Smit-McPhee), the archetypal Goth outcast who used to be Maddy’s best friend before their appearance and interests diverged in the transition from child to teenager. It is Leena’s practiced ineptitude with the dark and nefarious arts that accidentally resurrects her waterlogged sisters, although the film doesn’t bother to explain where she sourced the magical crystals that channel her Satanic craft;  more than strong hints of lesbian sexual identities are also left scattershot all throughout the piece.

The directors are wise enough, however, to keep the plot centered on the adolescent atrocities – barely a character over the age of 18 gets a speaking part in this film, which prompts one to wonder where everyone’s parents are. But the helmers should have reigned in their rather overzealous sound editor, who klaxons the infliction of every unruly amputation and squirming wound with an ear-splitting shriek. However, genre fans will find some humor to chomp on during the final parts, with one gag concerning a drafty necrophilia sensation being the film’s singular standout gruesome grin. All Cheerleaders Die is a gently chiding subversion of the hierarchical elites of high school, rubbing up against burgeoning adolescent sexual awakenings. With more wit and resources, it could have been caustically corrosive, but as it stands it will leave fans with a meek love-bite when it should have gone all the way.

— John McEntee

The 57th BFI London Film Festival runs from October 13th – 20th. View the programme here.

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The London BFI Film Festival runs from October 9 to October 20, 2013. For a complete schedule of films, screening times, and ticket information, please visit their official site.

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