FrightFest: All Cheerleaders Die review

Maddy (Caitlin Stasey) isn’t one of the popular clique, she’s more independent and perhaps a little too smart or individual to fit in with the more popular cheerleaders at her school, but when her childhood friend, Alexis (Felisha Cooper), dies in a gruesome cheerleading accident, and Alexis’ boyfriend moves on a little too quickly, she decides to infiltrate the circle of popular kids and take them down from within.

This premise may make All Cheerleaders Die sound a little familiar, and the opening scenes do evoke both Heathers and Mean Girls – which is, of course, no bad thing – but directors Lucky McKee and Chris Sivertson soon take the story off in a rather unexpected new direction. The film has all but reinvented itself when, a couple of reels and some twists and turns later, Maddy’s friend and ex-girlfriend – incidentally played by Sianoa Smit-Mcphee, another sometime star of Neighbours – casts a spell that gives the cheerleading squad both supernatural powers and a thirst for blood to feed them.

This turn into the occult is perhaps the sharpest of the many plot manoeuvres that may leave some viewers feeling a little whiplashed, but there’s so much inventiveness and glee in the way that McKee and Siverstein tackle the various genres and sub-genres they dip into. Even when a body swap sub-plot, for instance, comes out of nowhere and doesn’t really feel like it quite goes anywhere, I was still glad to see it, if just for the amusing moments they managed to derive from the set-up.

At the core of All Cheerleaders Die and its many disparate and heightened elements is a very witty deconstruction of the nature of popularity and modern cultural trends amongst American teenagers. The film’s ultimate direction leads us more deeply into a discussion of modern college rape culture than any other film I’ve seen.

One scene, in which Maddy implores a group of teenage boys to react to their friend striking a girl, mounts a damning attack on a not uncommon male response to the abuse of women.

It’s perhaps less of a surprise to see this sort of pro-feminist approach to the subject of patriarchal abuse wrapped up in a funny horror comedy when one considers McKee and Sivertson’s previous work. McKee’s May and The Woman, in particular, are two of the most remarkable and thoughtful horror films of the 21st century, and equally engaged with gender issues.

All Cheerleaders Die may not be quite as satisfyingly complete as either of those two movies, proving to be a little patchy and sometimes tangled in exposition, but it’s easy to forgive these minor flaws as it races along at a spectacular pace. Greg Ephraim‘s mostly superb camerawork and highly expressive, often stunning lighting sit alongside Mads Heldtberg‘s great score to also ensure the film offers up an audiovisual feast.

But perhaps the one most wonderful thing about All Cheerleaders Die is the way in which it smuggles so much substance into a film that will no doubt draw an audience looking for cheap thrills. It’s not that the film isn’t thrilling, it’s just that these kicks are far from cut-rate, vulgar or tawdry.