What a strange film. Despite its name, it has nothing to do with part 1 at all; for instance, it was filmed three years before. “I’ve Been Watching You” is really the first of the “Brotherhood” series of vaguely supernatural male-based semi-erotica, whereas this isn’t. Also, this one’s original title was “Pep Squad”, and even given the most generous definition of the term, the pep squad is in it for about a minute, features no main cast members and takes no part in the main story.
So we can’t rely on the title to help us out. How about the director? Steve Balderson is a Kansas-based filmmaker who 100% wrote his own Wikipedia page, so there’s not a lot of information I’d trust on there. “Pep Squad” was his first movie, and he didn’t make another one for 6 years; his 2005 “Firecracker” was reviewed very favourably by Roger Ebert; since then he’s made a variety of documentaries and movies, off the beaten track, some of which sound very interesting. Again, not a ton of help.
“Pep Squad” is sort of like “Heathers” if the entire cast was either the evilest Heather or Christian Slater. It’s a cartoon of a movie about a high school, where Cherry (Brooke “sister of the director” Balderson) is so desperate to be Prom Queen that, after she’s not even nominated, she decides to murder the eight girls who were. After running one down in her car, in full view of a number of people who dislike her and have no reason to protect her, and the sole “normal” response is a cop visiting the school the next day half-heartedly asking about the dead girl, you know all bets are off.
The central-ish character in the movie is Beth (Jennifer Dreiling), an angst-filled teenager who is just drifting through high school, with her parents announcing their divorce in a curious way (Dad seems delighted by it, Mum seems ignorant of what it means) at the beginning of events. I thought she was the new girl at school, but perhaps not? Anyway, she – equally casually – drifts into a friendship with the most normal couple at school, class president Scott (Adrian Pujol) and pixie-cut subversive Julie (Summer Makovkin). One day, she’s called into the Principal’s office, and he both looks like and is a sex predator. While he’s trying to rape her, she bashes him over the head and…?
I can take being disconnected from reality, that’s fine. But logic is another thing entirely. Beth thinks she’s killed the Principal, so she gets Scott and Julie’s help to take the body to Julie’s house (her parents are never there). Safely tied up in the basement, it turns out the Principal is absolutely fine, so the question might reasonably be asked – why not just leave him in his office, if he’s alive? Given his reputation as a pervert, the cops would probably believe her if she said she was fighting off a potential rape, but that wouldn’t allow his hiding place to be discovered by one of the Prom Queen candidates, polyester-and-makeup-covered Terra (Amy Kelly), which then forces our three friends to actually murder the Principal, then get Cherry’s help covering up the crime, then rig the election so Terra wins…
It’s very obviously a first movie. Balderson was fresh from his textbooks and all the textual and symbolic analysis of film school, and he’s desperate to cram as much of it as possible in here. The use of “patriotic” songs, such as “Let Freedom Reign”, juxtaposed with a gun battle outside a high school; the burning flag behind Cherry at the movie’s culmination; the use of the characters as archetypes to illustrate / parody various trends in the USA; there’s a mountain of little detail that honestly becomes a bit tiring after a while.
While I admire and appreciate a movie that goes so far off the deep end, it’s unfortunately not great. The cross between the teen-rebellion of the kids (cheering the murder of the Principal, for one) and the prom-competition plots was probably too much – I don’t see a way they could have been more smoothly integrated with each other, and it just feels like a riot of style and colour more than a coherent movie.
Perhaps my biggest issue was the complete lack of consequence to anyone’s actions. Take a movie like “Mad Dog Time” as a comparison. In its first minute, it says “this is set in a world with no cops” and everything flows from there; if you accept that, it makes sense. With “Pep Squad”, you have some characters behaving as if nothing matters, murdering people in full view of the entire school and suffering no ill effects; then you get other characters beside themselves with panic over kidnapping the Principal, worried about their future at college. Which is it? Even surrealism-drenched movies like “Eraserhead” had an anchor in reality somewhere (the anxiety over becoming a parent). This just feels like stuff thrown at the screen. The party scene, featuring a topless woman dancing in a paddling pool, while two buff guys eat the popcorn floating in the pool, honestly feels like a dream Balderson had the night before. Maybe it’s a parody of surrealism?
It’s also…kinda racist? The replacement Principal is a black woman, and during her introductory walk through the school they play a public-domain version of the theme from “Shaft”. Also, her entire dialogue is the worst stereotypical “sassy black lady” shtick…I have no reason to think the director is a bad guy, but if he was trying to make a point with this character he was catastrophically misguided. It’s a shame, because the writing of the women as the leads and the men (well, man) as the bland, vacant eye candy, is interesting and refreshing.
I don’t want to be too negative. I liked some of the music (Pleasant Gehman’s “Super Mega Zsa Zsa” was a highlight), and the location, genuinely some small town in Kansas, was interesting visually and shot well, with lots of crazy colours to compliment the drab Midwestern tones that most of the cast were clad in. I also liked some of the acting – Summer Makovkin never acted again, which I think is a shame; and Ms Balderson as Cherry was an impressive force of nature. The rest…it’s a fool’s errand to expect good acting from a low-budget first-time movie from a guy in Kansas, but it also doesn’t make sitting through the super-stiff performances any easier.
I called it “Heathers” with a cast stuffed with the furthest-out characters; the box has described it as “Clueless meets John Waters”. I bet John Waters loves “Clueless”, and any mix of the two would look a lot more like the original than whoever dreamed up that quote would like to believe; this is more “Clueless meets Michael Paul Girard” – remember him? “Oversexed Rugsuckers From Mars”, “Getting Lucky”, and several even less worthwhile efforts?
I wouldn’t judge Balderson’s career on this, as he’s gone on to make several very interesting-sounding projects. But I wouldn’t recommend it either. If you’ve discovered this in the UK, you’ll have been way misled by the cover, so you’re already fighting a losing battle. But if you’re on Troma’s Youtube page, wondering if this is worth your time…eh, if you’re on Troma’s page you’ve probably already seen dozens of movies worse than this, so why not give it a go.
Rating: thumbs in the middle