Permanent Midnight is a weekly Complex Pop Culture column where senior staff writer, and resident genre fiction fanatic, Matt Barone will put the spotlight on the best new indie horror/sci-fi/weirdo cinema, twisted novels, and other below-the-radar oddities.
The potential for extreme insufferableness was high in this one. A horror-comedy about high school kids, All Cheerleaders Die has been described using comparable films like Mean Girls and Jennifer's Body, two movies that I don't ever want put side by side with a horror film I could possibly enjoy. In regards to Mean Girls, (a film I do like), horror-comedies are already a tough sell for me, but any that include catchphrases along the lines of "fetch" are instantly dismissed. As for Jennifer's Body, screenwriter Diablo Cody's halfway decent concept—a sexy, popular high school girl dies and comes back as a man-eating succubus—is ultimately flattened by the worst of Cody's trademark "ultra hip" dialogue and a myriad of logic gaps.
With those two comparisons in mind, All Cheerleaders Die had me expecting a bunch of obnoxious, slang-talking girls and painfully juvenile humor. It didn't help that the film's co-directors aren't exactly known for making audiences chuckle. Lucky McKee, for his part, has earned a strong reputation within the indie horror community for specializing in dark and heavy female-centric character studies, namely his 2002 film May, a criminally underrated examination of a young woman whose loneliness prompts her to kill and do something incredibly horrific with the bodies. Chris Sivertson, McKee's longtime friend and Cheerleaders co-director, might be best known as the filmmaker behind the oft-clowned Lindsay Lohan flop I Know Who Killed Me, but, before that unsuccessful foray into Hollywood, Sivertson made the disturbing and, like May, slept-on The Lost (2005), an adaptation of acclaimed horror novelist Jack Ketchum's brilliant novel about a teenage psychopath coming-of-age as, well, a raging psychopath.
While May and The Lost are both tinged with pitch-black humor, neither film would ever draw parallels to Mean Girls. Hence why I approached All Cheerleaders Die with apprehension. In hindsight, though, that wasn't necessary. I enjoyed every second of it.
Vibrant, smart, and impressively acted, All Cheerleaders Die (now available through Video On-Demand) is plenty of good, deranged fun. Set in the fictional Blackfoot High, McKee and Sivertson's film centers on four cheerleaders of varying personalities and stock types: Maddy (Caitlin Stasey) is the one-time introvert turned pom-pom rookie with a hidden agenda; Tracy (Brooke Butler) is the blonde dream-girl and the squad's daddy queen bee; Martha (Reanin Johannink) is the God-fearing virgin; and Martha's younger sister, Hannah (Amanda Grace Cooper), is the team's mascot and consistently overlooked good-girl. They're still reeling from the accidental death of the squad's captain, a fatality whose ripple effects seep into the girls' relationships with the football players, specifically arrogant big-man-on-campus Terry (Tom Williamson).
A heated round of boy-vs-girl arguing at a party in the nearby woods leads to an automotive accident that kills the four cheerleaders—however, they're resurrected by Maddy's Goth social outcast of a friend, Leena (Sianoa Smit-McPhee), via her magic stones and Wiccan magic. Back from the dead, the girls look sexier than ever and walk Blackfoot's halls with more confidence, but they also suffer from intense hungers for male flesh, feel each others' orgasms, and have superhuman strength. Two of those three newfound traits, naturally, are quickly employed to start offing the football dudes, one by one.
Technically, All Cheerleaders Die is a remake. In 1998, when they were fresh out of USC's film school, college buddies McKee and Sivertson decided to learn how to make movies firsthand together by shooting the on-video, no-budget All Cheerleaders Die. The two films have one key difference: in the original All Cheerleaders Die, the reanimated corpses in the original version look like George Romero's rotting zombies and only want to rip people's bodies apart. Otherwise, the plots are basically the same, right down to the diverse roster of young womanly characters.
At that time, two guys writing about female teenagers wasn't all that strange since they were only a few years removed from high school, but now that McKee and Sivertson are both in their late 30s? Surprisingly, it was just as easy. "I remember all of high school very clearly, and what it felt like," says Sivertson. "Despite the changes in our worlds since we were kids, we still get that the core of the things we all deal as adults with aren't that dissimilar to what we dealt with as teenagers. We tried to be true to that and not make fun of it, to have plenty of humor but make sure the humor came from the characters themselves. We didn't want it to seem like we’re just two guys in our 30s cracking jokes about how we see today’s youth."
To unpack All Cheerleaders Die even further, I spoke with McKee and Sivertson about the film's sexual politics, comedic motivations, and standing as an indie genre flick that, for all intents and purposes, is as broad and mainstream-minded as anything playing at the local multiplex.
All of the female characters in All Cheerleaders Die are well-rounded and go beyond their surface-level stereotypes, but the male characters are a bit more one-dimensional. Since the movie's about the girls, was that lesser emphasis on the guys intentional?
Lucky McKee: People see the title All Cheerleaders Die and expect to see a movie about cheerleaders, and a lot of times the cheerleaders just end up being the victims in films of this type. In our film, though, we really wanted to focus on the girls and create several different personality types. There’s a huge burgeoning female horror audience, girls who just eat this stuff up, but there’s not enough content that’s female-centric and gets into the stuff girls are concerned about and are into. We thought that the was most interesting thing to focus on.
With the boys, I think the more you watch the film, there is some complexity there—they just weren’t the focus of the film, so we didn’t get to spend as much time with them. On repeat viewings, you realize that, especially with the Terry character, there’s actually a lot going on there.
Lucky, you've said elsewhere that if you'd cast actual high-school-aged kids in this movie, it would've been unpleasantly creepy, since it's not a good look to see 15-year-old cheerleaders being sexy and killing people. Did that dawn on you guys right away?
McKee: We realized that during the location scouting. [Laughs.]
Chris Sivertson:When you to a real high school, it’s totally alarming when you see real high school students and they still have baby cheeks and baby fat, and they look so little. It’s funny to think back to when we were in high school, and how we thought we were adults already. We’re making a movie that’s fun, poppy, and sexy, and we’re not into sexualizing underage kids or kids who look like jailbait. We wanted strong actors who look young and are believable in the movie world as high school age.
McKee: We weren’t trying to make a documentary. We went with the stylized approach because a lot of the films that we grew up on, like Carrie, have actors who are clearly much older than high school age. I love Carrie, but those teenage characters look like they could be teaching at that school. It’s the movie age thing,. For Cheerleaders, we decided casting slightly older actors who look younger would give us more latitude and flexibility with the situations teenagers could project themselves into, as opposed to just being a straight mirror of teenagers.
The film's most interesting character is Tracy, who starts off as the bitchy, stunningly beautiful, blonde alpha-female type, but gradually we see that she's deeper than that and quite endearing. Yet, at the same time, she's the one who walks around in her underwear at one point. She gives All Cheerleaders Die this intriguing see-saw between giving women a strong, multi-layered character and men the eye candy they'd expect from a movie of this kind.
Sivertson: That balance is pretty natural for us. For me, representing a strong woman is not mutually exclusive to embracing her beauty and her sexuality. We have beautiful, young women in the movie and we’re making a fun, poppy, sexy fantasy, so we’re going to embrace that. It’s a fine line, for sure—you could easily cross over that line into creepy, sleazy sexual exploitation territory. For us, it was a natural thing to presenting the characters in that double-sided way.
McKee: That’s the fun of making a movie like this, too, especially with the Tracy character. They see her on the poster—she’s a cheerleader, and when you first meet her, she’s kind of a bitch. You don’t like her, she’s what you expect. As the story unfolds, though, you realize there’s an emotional girl underneath all of that—there’s more going on. That makes writing a character like her really fun, because you’re contrasting all of that and you’re contrasting expectation with reality.
Brooke [Butler] just did a fantastic job playing that. A lot of that fell on her shoulders, to make that believable. She’d been a cheerleader in high school and she wanted to be a girl like Tracy when she was growing up. She ended up being a spirit leader at USC, so she brought a lot with her while playing that character. We just listened to her and collaborated with her.
It helps undercut that potential sexploitation angle that the film has a lot of clever, tongue-in-cheek sexual humor. Once they're revived, the girls all feel orgasms if anyone of them actually does. When one of them is having sex, the guy comments that her private parts are cold. Was all of that included to underplay the overt sexuality on display?
Sivertson: Sex comedies, in general, were a real influence on Cheerleaders, especially when we get into the real high school scenes and moments. It kind of becomes a teenage sex comedy for awhile. Obviously it’s much more about the girls in all aspects, but we tried to throw shirtless dudes in there, too. [Laughs.] Terry has his shirt off a couple times. It’s about the cheerleaders but we tried to sexualize the dudes as much as we could.
McKee: I’ve been reading reviews online, comments sections, and people talking on Twitter, and there’s a lot of people who are maybe taking this movie a little too seriously. Maybe they’re taking in the baggage of films Chris and I made prior to this one. I’m just coming off The Woman, which is this hardcore movie about abuse, and Chris is coming off of Brawler, this incredibly dark drama about two brothers who are underground fighters.
People who are familiar with our work will watch Cheerleaders and get hit with a bit of the unexpected, but if they just come into it clean and look at it as our attempt to do something fun that trips you out but also has weight in certain places, they’ll hopefully appreciate that it’s us experimenting and learning how to make this kind of movie. I hope people are going into expecting fun and not taking it too seriously.
I really appreciate how you guys approached the concept of zombies, which the cheerleaders essentially are throughout the film's second half. In the original Cheerleaders movies, they were rotting, ghoulish corpses; here, they're seemingly back to normal looks- and personality-wise, but now now also happen to eat people. What made you change the zombie concept this time?
Sivertson: We really liked the girls’ characters and we didn’t want to lose those characters after the first act and have them become mindless zombies for the rest of the movie. The whole idea was, there could be a lot of fun and humor to play with if these girls die and come back to life but they still are themselves and they still have to deal with their personalities and normal first-day-of-school dramas, all while being these undead creatures with these new powers and hungers. That way, we can keep our cool characters throughout the entire movie.
There’s a moment at the end of the second act where Tracy has this reality emotional reaction to learning about how negatively Maddy original perceived her—we tried to embrace that and be as true to that as possible while also being aware of how ridiculous it is that her feelings are hurt in spite of all the death, destruction, magic, and witchcraft that’s going on.
There’s a little glimpse of that at the end of the original Cheerleaders movie, where you see some zombie humanity. That was, at the time, inspired by the movie Zombie Lake, which had a really good relationship between a Nazi zombie soldier and a little girl. At the time, that was so bizarre to us, and it probably had an influence on both versions of Cheerleaders.
All Cheerleaders Die may be independent and star unknown actors, but it's the most accessible indie horror movie I've seen all year. With its sharp humor, light tone, and satisfying genre elements, it's tailor-made for big audiences of rowdy teenagers and fun-loving adults. But, being that it's been humbly made and will be humbly distributed, its biggest platform will be VOD, on home TV screens. Is that frustrating at all?
McKee: Look what they’re selling out there—you either get a $200 million movie or the indie stuff that comes out on VOD. These days, VOD is the new art-house and indie scene. But, honestly, I think we should be pretty thankful that people are even talking about our little film in any capacity. We do the best we can with the resources we have and try to make it look as big and spectacular as we can, even though our budget is probably less than the rotoscoping budget on some of these bigger films. I’m pretty thankful that people are talking about anything that we’re doing.
Sivertson: It was great to see it play really well in Toronto [for its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival last September] on the big screen in front of 1,200 people, where people had a blast. But you also have to look at things realistically and see how expensive a theatrical release is to pull off these days. If you want people to come, there are so many marketing costs. We just do the best we can and hope for the best.
McKee: I think the film is going to find a lot of people, and hopefully that will allow us to continue and expand upon its universe. We have a massive plan for these characters and this universe, and if we get that encouragement back from the fans, hopefully we’ll be able to give them even more and make another film that’s even bigger and go from there.
All Cheerleaders Die is available on VOD today and will open in limited theaters on June 13.
Matt Barone is a Complex senior staff writer who went to a Catholic high school in New Jersey, kinda, sorta dated a head cheerleader, and still brags about winning the school's "Scholar Athlete" award. He tweets here. Not about that award, though.