Judge Gordon Sullivan fondly recalls the sight of corpses from his high school days.
Someone's killing the school spirit.
High school is ripe for satirical attack. Sometimes it's the soft touch of Ferris Bueller's Day Off and other times it's the diamond-hard attack of Heathers. Either way, the high school experience supports so many different comedic approaches because it's a near-universal fact for viewers. Moreover, whether through media saturation or natural inclination, many people have firsthand knowledge of the different high school "types," like jocks and stoners. Billing itself with a review quote that the film is "Clueless meets John Waters," and name-checking the famous film on the back, Pep Squad is definitely aiming for Heathers territory. For a low-budget directorial debut filmed in Kansas, it succeeds admirably, but the film is not without its faults.
Pep Squad follows the typical high school girl Beth (Jennifer Dreiling) as she becomes embroiled in the problems of her classmates. First, she's assaulted by the principal and fights back, knocking him out. When she decides to kidnap him to cover it up, she enlists the help of new friends Julie (Summer Makovkin) and Scott (Adrian Pujol). When Julie kills the principal, the trio ask would-be prom queen and budding psychopath Cherry (Brooke Balderson) to dispose of the body. When another would-be prom queen, Terra (Amy Kelly), discovers what Beth and her friends have been up to, she decides to blackmail them into helping her become prom queen, even as Cherry is out literally eliminating the competition.
Pep Squad was made on a small budget by a first-time filmmaker in small-town Kansas. Considering the limitations that has to place on any production, the film has some surprising strengths. The first is the strong visual sense of the film and its cinematography. There's no attempt to make this a hyperkinetic Tarentino-esque crime-fest, but more often the not the film features compelling compositions that help make the narrative more involving. There's also a lot more camera movement than in typical low-budget flicks. Again, it's not ostentatious, but the occasional crane or dolly shot really makes this film stand out from the low-budget indie crowd. While many would consider filming in Kansas to be a bit of a drawback, Pep Squad uses its locations to full advantage. Every scene takes place in a location that feels real and lived in, while also avoiding the trap of simply filming in someone's undressed bedroom.
The film is not, however, without its minuses. Despite the fact that this film often looks like it was shot with a much larger budget, the story never quite comes together. Pep Squad is working with two very different threads. One is the story of Beth, and her involvement in the slaying of the principal. This story has kind of a noirish aspect to it, as the kids try to get away with murder. The other story, that of the rivalry between Cherry and Terra, is much more Wile E. Coyote. I didn't find that the two stories mixed well. One is all about tension, and the other is about gratuitous violence. Director Badlerson tries to make them overlap by having Cherry as a common character in both stories, but they just as easily could have been two different films. Because the film is trying to follow both stories, it doesn't quite have as much narrative drive as a comedy of this type should. The acting is also a little all over the place. Pretty much all the actors turn in good performances, but pretty much everyone has at least one scene they seemed to have phoned in.
Those zany folks at Troma have seen fit to bring us Pep Squad in a decent DVD package. The film is presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio in an anamorphic transfer. The technical aspects look about as good as a low-budget film like this could produce. I didn't notice any significant compression or authoring problems, but the source is a bit washed out and colors are far from accurate. The stereo soundtrack keeps dialogue easily audible and the music well-balanced.
Extras start with a commentary featuring director Steve Balderson, executive producer Clark Balderson, cinematographer Rhet W. Bear, and actress Brooke Balderson. The quartet discuss the film's genesis and production, throwing out little tidbits about filming in Kansas and what they've been up to since Pep Squad debuted. That theme is continued on the disc's other extra, Wamego: Making Movies Anywhere. This is a feature-length documentary on Balderon & Co.'s low-budget filming in Kansas. Although it does give some background to the production of Pep Squad, it spends more time on Balderson's other feature, Firecracker. The film features interviews with Stephen and Clark Balderson (and others), as well as on set footage and even some video from local news channels on the production of Pep Squad.
Pep Squad doesn't quite rise to the level of the best high school satires like Heathers, but for anyone who was ever stung by the popular kids and wanted to lash out violently, Pep Squad will provide some much-needed catharsis. Troma has brought the flick to home video with a decent audiovisual presentation and some informative extras, making the disc worth at least a rental for the adventurous.
Pep Squad might not be picked first for prom, but it's not guilty.
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