The most successful horror movies pale in box office to marginally successful films of other genres. Horror video games will never break sales records set by first-person shooters. And horror novels will generally be relegated to lower places on the bestsellers lists. This column is not going to say that horror doesn’t have it’s hits. It’s just that, in the grand scheme of things, in comparison to other genres, horror fans are generally left Scared Hitless.
Sometimes, when searching through horror properties, all you need to know about what you’re about to consume is contained in the title. After all, when watching Zombie Strippers, you know that there’s going to be a stripper who is also a zombie (or is that a zombie who is also a stripper?). The entire Nightmare on Elm Street series informs the viewer that the crux of the story will take place inside of nightmares, and that they will originate around Elm Street. It isn’t uncommon for horror to spell out exactly what you’re about to get in to, simply by the title of the story.
That said, horror can often subvert things, and the title can be the first way to do so. Yes, Cabin in the Woods takes place at a cabin set in the woods, but it’s also about much more than that. Horns informs you that there’s a devilish component, which is subverted by what you learn about the main character over the course of the story. Consequently, while you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, you can at least be given a brief overview of what might contained within. Just don’t be surprised if that overview is then dissected along the way.
Truth be told, horror has recently seemingly taken a bit of a fascination with dissecting its own tropes, and doing so with glee. Tucker and Dale vs. Evil puts a new spin on the “college kids encountering hillbillies in the woods” scenario. Cabin in the Woods joyfully rips apart just about every horror movie of the last 30 years. Sometimes the subversions are successful. Sometimes they fall flat. And sometimes, they end up straddling a bit of a middle ground between those two poles, unsure which way to fully dedicate to serve their story. With that, let’s take a look at this week’s Scared Hitless entry:
ALL CHEERLEADERS DIE
All Cheerleaders Die is actually an attempt by a writer and director to remake and update their own film. In 2001, Lucky McKee and Chris Sivertson crafted a horror story about cheerleaders rising from the dead to take revenge on the football players who wronged them, and they decided to remake the film in 2013. The film sets out to take a look at how women are often portrayed in the horror genre, and poke holes into that line of thinking, while utilizing those perceptions to draw the audience in. There are moments along the way that are effectively crafted, but the film also crosses the line in a few areas, while not going far enough in others. It all stacks up to a promising, yet incomplete, experience.
The story revolves, naturally, around a group of cheerleaders. The character we follow the most is Maddy, who has joined the squad after the death of her friend, Alexis. The other cheerleaders, Tracy, Martha, and Hanna, are at first hesitant to her presence, but warm up to Maddy eventually. Of course, this causes some conflict for Maddy’s ex, Leena, who can’t fathom why Maddy would want to associate herself with the pom poms. On the flip side of the coin are the football team, led by Terry as the captain of the squad. Terry was dating Alexis before her death, but has moved on to Tracy. If that seems fairly sparse of a description, that’s fair. The characters, with the sole exception of Maddy, aren’t overly developed. Yes, Hanna is more shy than the other cheerleaders. Martha is religious. Leena is not only Maddy’s ex, but also a practitioner of magic. The guys, aside from Terry, are left pretty much blank slates, simply to move the plot along.
Ultimately, the story of All Cheerleaders Die is fairly basic. Maddy joins the cheerleaders in order to get revenge against Terry, seemingly for the fact that he moved on so quickly after the death of Alexis. At a party, Maddy is able to convince Tracy that Terry is not the good guy he seems to be, which leads to a confrontation between the two groups. Terry, who clearly has issues he refuses to control, gets angry and gets involved in a high-speed chase with the cheerleaders, leading to the girls driving off the road and into a river. Leena, who happened to be near the party trying to figure out what Maddy was doing, is able to resurrect the cheerleaders through her magic, but at a terrible price. Now undead, the girls set out to get their revenge on the football team, until everything starts to unravel completely.
It’s refreshing to see the women in this story as something more than just victims. Instead, they fully embrace their new reality, and even seem willing to deal with the fact that they’ve become sort of vampire/succubus-esque creatures, surviving off of the life of others. Sadly, while refusing to portray women in horror as somewhat helpless, there are moments that rip apart some of the goodwill. The cheerleaders end up falling apart and getting picked off one-by-one after Maddy admits to her revenge plot, destroying any development of the group as a cohesive whole standing against the evil perpetrated by Terry (and the rest of the football team as silent partners). Violence against the women is also sprinkled throughout, which highlights how bad Terry is, but also seems to show that the women were unwilling to stand up for themselves until Maddy stepped in. There is also a bit of a subplot about love conquering all, which definitely rings hollow with how the film progresses to that point.
The death that kicks off the entire film is that of Alexis, who suffers an accident during cheer practice shortly after saying how dangerous some stunts can be. The realistic style of the camera work for this particular death scene actually serve to make it one of the more effective of the film. The pivotal deaths of the cheerleaders is, by necessity, somewhat glossed over, as it was merely a plot point to move them to their next phase of existence. As for most of the death scenes that play out of the rest of the film, they’re generally split between the men dying in quick, life-drained-out-of-them fashion, and the women suffering an extraordinary amount of abuse on the way to their own demise. In fact, that dichotomy of how death is portrayed makes the deaths of the cheerleaders that much harder to take. It’s not on the level of I Spit on Your Grave for violence against women, but it certainly does make one wonder why one gender gets off, so to speak, relatively lightly.
Largely, it seems like the allegory of this tale is along the lines of “be careful what you wish for”. Maddy wants to join the cheer squad to get revenge on Terry. She is able to do this, but her plot leads to the death of the cheerleaders. Leena wants Maddy back, which brings us the vampire/succubus/zombie women of the second half of the movie. There are consequences to getting what you desire, and this film seems to take a certain level of joy in pointing out that, without enough foresight, the consequences will almost undoubtedly be negative.
Honestly, All Cheerleaders Die is a hard film to truly classify. The first portion of the film seems like a fairly typical revenge plot, before moving on to the supernatural second half. While the movie portrays the women as strong individuals, there is also a definite thread of violence against women running throughout. All of that, coupled with shallow characterizations and an almost jittery need to jump from tone to tone (romance to comedy to horror to drama) makes the film run short of the promises it set out before the audience. Every subversive moment has at least one moment where the tropes about women in horror are carried through. The almost gleeful way that the violence against the female characters is portrayed, both in plot points and on camera, leaves a bad taste in the mouth; one that can’t be washed away with any amount of showcasing the women as strong, capable, bad-asses. And, of course, given the promise of “part two”, the story can’t even be completed, not that it is necessarily crying out for that eventuality.