Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Cheerleader Camp (1988) dir. John Quinn

a.k.a. Bloody Pom Poms

Logline: The girls and boys of Camp Hurrah! are about to discover that it's not so easy to wash blood out of your pom poms.

Crime in the Past: No obvious past crime to see and blame this mayhem upon, though it's pretty easy to guess that our killer has suffered through at least a couple overly-critical cheerleader squad auditions. Just hazarding a guess here.

Bodycount: 10, no splits.

Themes/Moral Code: The simplest reading would be that competition sure does drive people to do crazy things. Everyone here is embattled in a fierce tussle for the bragging rights to something or other (top mascot, top team, top mascot, top lover, top cup size), and it's clear that such pressures are driving at least one of them to decide that bumping off the competition is the simplest solution. Unfortunately, this leaves a lot of the film slathered with a sheer coat of misogyny. Nearly all of its women express a primal hatred for all the other women at camp, and the men have a curious habit of sexually exploiting this hatred for their own sleazy benefit. (An aside: there are at least two scenes in which this male exploitation arrives in the form of covert videos taken of the women. The first of these, when played back later in the film, actually displays the multi-angle, edited footage of a topless sunbathing scene from earlier in the film rather than the expected candid footage. The film is representing the work of a peeping tom with a small piece of the film itself. The irony is not lost).

Taking things a smidgen deeper, we might say that the film is also speaking of the inordinate pressures to succeed that are placed upon teenagers. Cory keeps reminding our final girl Allison (Betsy Russell) that she has it all (good looks, wealth, talent, popularity, a boyfriend) but that doesn't stop Allison from feeling anxious-- after all, it's only through succeeding that's she's able to maintain any of those advantages. (Teen suicide is also a mini-theme. But I suppose then so is teen homicide). Allison starts to crack under the pressure and we're reminded that "there's something eating at everybody." Though the fact that the envious and duplicitous Cory emerges victorious in the end might hint that the filmmakers are more in favor of telling weary popular girls to shove their complaints and enjoy their silver spoons.

Killer's Motivation: Cory (Lucinda Dickey) is the team mascot, though she wishes she were a cheerleader. The other girls and the camp's owner, when not having completely forgotten her existence, take pains to comically scorn her with quips like "mascots aren't people." Being denied the title of Best Alligator Mascot Ever by camp officials isn't even what sends her over the edge into a stab-happy frenzy, but it certainly doesn't help. Cory makes a big show out of being the only obvious suspect throughout the film, always helpfully reminding final girl Allison of how good she's got it-- it appears that one point of the grand scheme of Cory's actions is the intention of demonstrating that Allison simply wasn't strong enough to realize her potential for perfection. In contrast, Cory pulls off the "perfect" murder spree and (as we see in the closing shot) gets to dress up as the cheerleader she's always wanted to be-- even though, sadly, none of her teammates are left breathing to hoist her up onto their shoulders. She's not a super complicated villain, but if nothing else she pulls of some mean gator breakdancing. This killer will kill again.

Final Girl: Allison is a weird choice for a final girl, being equal parts sympathetic and a bit of damaged soul. She spends the bulk of the film popping pills, ruminating suicide, moaning about the fact that Brent (Leif Garrett, believe it or not) has been checking out other girls, and dreaming of trembling, sentient pom poms swallowing her alive. Most of this is established from the outset; imagine how much further her psyche crumbles when the lifeless bodies or her friends and rivals begin to crop up. By the final moments, she's a walking husk of a human, having been set up to take the fall for all the murders after having been convinced by our killer to erroneously shoot and kill someone who was certainly not the killer (though still sort of a creep). As discussed above, Allison finds it difficult to keep her sanity while being the "perfect" young woman that everyone expects her to be. In this regard she's an easy survivor to feel bad for (her earliest nightmare hallucination, set during a menacing performance in which her parents leave the stadium in disgust, finds her crying, "I need love!"), but not exactly the paragon of personal strength.

The Good, the Bad, & the Cheese:  It's worth noting that the last twenty minutes or so could be matched in visual intensity by a shiny pom pom being ruffled by a slight breeze. Luckily the rest of the film is quite fun, with a lot of the requisite tomfoolery you'd expect from a summer camp film. Coming very late in the slasher cycle, it has enough awareness of itself to shoot for broad comedy rather than genuine or even hackneyed suspense-- for the opening third, you'd be hard pressed to distinguish Cheerleader Camp in any meaningful way from a latter day Meatballs sequel. We're given an extended scene featuring a large man whose full moon is stuck hanging out of a van window, a topless sunbathing showdown, a bleak mascot luncheon (all being forced to eat through whatever breathing holes are drilled into their wacky animal headpieces), and an infernal two-man rap that you can hear in its entirety at the end of the below trailer (please do listen; you deserve to understand). The gore, when it arrives, is trucked in with sufficient wild abandon, but it's unlikely to make you forget about the above.

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