They don't "bring it on," they take it off!
What is it about cheerleaders that holds such fascination for American men of all ages? Cheerleader images dominate popular films and other depictions of the high school years. Existing as they do, in our crucial formative years, they make a bigger impression than is probably warranted. The cheerleader has been idolized and idealized in American pop culture as the pinnacle of adolescent sexuality, ritualized and on display but usually unattainable. At a time in our lives when sex is new, mysterious, and taboo, they represent a surprisingly blatant, institutionally-sanctioned display of raw sexuality exploited in the name of…what, exactly? Success in (primarily male) athletic competitions? The cheerleader image appeals to our desire for innocence and our instincts toward voyeurism at the same time.
Given the conflicted and complex position of cheerleaders in our collective pop psyche, and the brazen exploitation they represent, it is surprising that no one had the idea to make exploitation films about them before the 1970s. To no one's surprise, cheerleader exploitation flicks instantly became a cinematic gold mine.
Facts of the Case
The Cheerleaders is not exactly the kind of movie one watches for a lot of plot. Young Jeannie (Stephanie Fondue) is an ugly duckling who joins the cheerleading squad in the desperate hopes of losing her virginity. Team captain Claudia (Denise Dillaway) makes a bet that she can keep her new charge from "making it" for the entire season. Meanwhile, the rest of the squad carries on exuberant sex in all sorts of teen fantasy settings, from the car wash to the drive-in. When it comes time for the big game, the cheerleaders face their greatest challenge of all: can they…err, sap the strength of the opposing team and chalk up the big one for good old Amoroso High?
Revenge of the Cheerleaders has a plot that centers on corrupt moneyed interests who want to force Aloha High to close and combine with their bitter rivals from the occupational high school across town. Somehow all of this boils down to a plot involving a crooked shopping center developer, and it falls to the cheerleaders to set things right. This movie features less sustained nudity and sex scenes than does The Cheerleaders, but it does contain a glimpse of David Hasselhoff's schlong that we all could have done without. There is quite a bit of drug use in this film, and the bizarre plot seems to indicate that there was a fair amount going on behind the camera as well.
The Swinging Cheerleaders, in comparison with the other two flicks, barely qualifies as exploitation. On the other hand, it might be more accurate to say that it maintains a straight exploitation storyline rather than crossing over into soft porn. Directed by Jack Hill (Foxy Brown, Coffy, Switchblade Sisters), The Swinging Cheerleaders depends on a lurid plot of campus corruption, gambling, fixed football games, and the sexual perversions of campus radicals. When Kate Corey (Jo Johnston) goes undercover as a cheerleader in order to write a searing exposé for her boyfriend's underground newspaper, she discovers more than she expected, including a dangerous gambling ring involving the football coach, the alumni association, and a professor of statistics. She finds out that the cheerleaders and their jock pals aren't so bad after all, and helps them defeat the real evils on campus.
Apart from their value as cultural artifacts of the American male obsession with cheerleaders, The Cheerleaders and Revenge of the Cheerleaders have very little value. For the most part they fail even to entertain; their only real appeal comes from their frequent softcore sex scenes. These are skin flicks, plain and simple. Taken on their own terms, they are fairly successful; they manage to provide a few laughs and lots of young, nubile, naked cheerleaders. Of particular interest is the attitude taken toward sex. These films treat sex as essentially comical and something to be laughed at. The Cheerleaders in particular looks at the absurdity of most adolescent sex fantasies and mines them for all the laughs they are worth. In their commentary track, writer/director/producer Paul Glickler and co-writer Ace Baandige (whose real name is only given as David) contrast their movie with Russ Meyer's take on exploitation; where Meyer put sex on a pedestal and revered it, they used it as fodder for absurdist humor. Still, even for all their silliness, these films do (perhaps inadvertently) comment on the perceived power of female sexuality as embodied by the cheerleader archetype, including the diabolical ability to sap the vitality of young men and ruin their athletic performance through too much intercourse.
The Swinging Cheerleaders, as the oddball of the group, features a surprisingly small amount of nudity. As an added bonus, it actually has a plot and the occasional bit of passable acting. Jo Johnston may look like a typical 35-year-old divorced college student, and has a voice like Judy Garland after a three-day bender, but she brings a fire to her role that few others in the movie can match. The Swinging Cheerleaders is also notable as an early screen appearance of Cheryl "Rainbeaux" Smith (Caged Heat, Video Vixens), mainstay of exploitation and softcore films throughout the 1970s and '80s. Much has been written and said about Smith's sweet, vulnerable appeal; more than one fan has compared her to Marilyn Monroe for her innocent, vacant beauty and sensuality. Smith is put to much better use here than in Revenge of the Cheerleaders. In The Swinging Cheerleaders, Smith's vulnerability and naïveté lead to being gang-raped at the hands of the campus radical and his cronies, part of an essential subplot in the story. Smith remains something of a drive-in icon for many, especially given her untimely death at the age of 47 in October of 2002.
Anchor Bay has put an amazing—perhaps even disturbing—amount of work into The Cheerleaders Collection, the box set containing these three little-remembered exploitation flicks from the 1970s. Each movie has a feature-length commentary track, as well as various collections of trailers, TV spots, radio ads, and still galleries. The promotional materials provide an interesting window into the subculture of drive-in movies and Z-grade 1970s exploitation cinema.
For those keeping score at home, The Cheerleaders is the most extra-packed disc. This DVD is more stuffed than a homecoming queen's brassiere, featuring over 240 stills from on the set, publicity stills, and advertising, as well as some alluring shots of the cast in a separate section entitled "Cheerleader Cheesecake." The trailer on this disc plays up the image of cheerleaders as sexual accessories, and the radio spot is full of thinly veiled sexual references. The commentary track on this disc, as noted earlier, features Paul Glickler and Ace Baandige. The commentary is quite entertaining, full of exactly the kinds of stories one would expect from the making of a low budget, non-union, nudie flick about cheerleaders. Of particular interest is the fact that they shot at an actual high school in Cupertino, California, being very careful at all times to make sure a copy of the script never found its way to the school board or administration. The difficulties didn't end there—the picture's distributors, although they were used to handling softcore and exploitation flicks, were afraid of potential public outrage over a softcore sex comedy set in a high school and involving cheerleaders.
Revenge of the Cheerleaders has its share of extra goodies as well. Of particular interest is the commentary track featuring Lisa Webber and Heather Swanson. Now, neither of these ladies actually had anything to do with the making of the movie, but I gather that they are employees of Anchor Bay, and both were actual cheerleaders at Taft High School in Pomona, California, in the mid-1970s. While this doesn't necessarily qualify them to talk about the film any more than millions of other formerly hot women in America, this dynamic duo has really done their homework. The two are full of interesting factoids about cheerleading in general, six degrees of Cheryl "Rainbeaux" Smith, and "Hasselfacts" about David Hasselhoff. Their chatty, faux-bitter, semi-cute tone grates after a while, but it is perfect for this movie. Other special features include an eight-minute long "behind the scenes" clip that seems to be either footage of the wrap party or practice for one of the dance numbers. There are also some on-set clips set to music, which are lame too. Also included are two trailers, both of which feature nudity, including the infamous Hasselschlong. Finally, there are two radio spots and a TV spot.
The Swinging Cheerleaders features a little less bonus material. There are two TV spots and a biography/filmography of director Jack Hill. Hill also provides a commentary track, joined by film historian Johnny Legend. Hill states that he shot the entire movie in an amazing twelve days. He also discusses the choice to make this a "storyline" film, rather than just a cheerleader T&A montage. The plot, with its convoluted web of corruption and sleaze, was inspired at least in part by the Watergate fiasco. He's big enough to admit that his movie is essentially a tissue of clichés, but one has to admire his attempt to inject a coherent story into what could very easily have been just another soft-porn romp.
Anchor Bay generally does an outstanding job of transferring the schlocky goodness of their obscure films to DVD. The Cheerleaders Collection is no exception. These movies look about as good as skin flicks from the early '70s are bound to look. The Cheerleaders is representative of the lot: the entire movie has a slightly soft focus look to it, probably from the original source print. There is some very obtrusive grain visible in outdoor scenes, and there are occasional flickers throughout the movie. Color fidelity varies; for the most part colors are fairly vivid and realistic, with scattered instances where they look a bit faded, or where reds appear to be oversaturated. Darker or shadowed areas tend to be a bit murky. Edge enhancement and halos pop up here and there, as does some shimmering or moiré along sharp edges or in fine details. Still, given the age and low-budget nature of these films, they look pretty darn good, all things considered. There are some variations among them; The Swinging Cheerleaders, the only non-anamorphic disc in this collection, actually maintains the sharpest picture and most vivid colors, looking as good at times as some of the major studio releases from the same period. Revenge of the Cheerleaders, true to form, is a bit worse than the other two. A disclaimer before the movie acknowledges that it was reconstructed out of film elements that varied substantially in quality.
The audio tracks are similarly adequate but unremarkable. They are all Dolby 2.0 Mono. Dialogue is clear and easy to understand, while soundtrack music comes through sounding just a bit muffled at times.
Whether you consider it a labor of love or the product of a sick cheerleader fetish, Anchor Bay has done a remarkable job of packaging and preserving The Cheerleaders Collection. The movies themselves might not be all that great, but this is an excellent DVD package. If nothing else, it's bound to have you scrambling for that old high school yearbook to relive some cheerleader fantasies of your own.
The Cheerleaders Collection gets by on a split decision. The Cheerleaders has its humor and a certain sense of innocent fun in between all the sustained sex scenes, but has no redeeming values. Revenge of the Cheerleaders is about the same, only without the humor, fun, or sustained sex scenes. The Swinging Cheerleaders is an interesting and relatively well-made low-budget film, but with too much plot and not enough skin to appeal to fans of the other two films. Somehow, all things considered, I think that adds up to a verdict of Guilty.
Anchor Bay is once again acquitted, based on an inordinate amount of TLC lavished on films that no one in their right mind really wants to see anyway.
We stand adjourned.
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