Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Pep Squad (1998)

Directed by Steve Balderson
Starring Amy Kelly, Brooke Balderson, Summer Makovkin
Rated R

"Does Scott sodomize you? Is that why you won't hang out with me?"

It's prom season at Oak Hills high, a tiny school in a tiny town located somewhere between Wichita and Mars.  The candidates for prom queen are being announced at a pep rally in the gym, and lumbering glamazon Cherry (Brooke Balderson, the director's sister) assumes she's a shoo-in, mostly because the student body is terrified of her. When she loses the nomination in favor of mocking hipster-girl Julie (Summer Makovkin), manic polyester queen Terra (Amy Kelly) and a random assortment of drunken cheerleaders and bimbos, Cherry goes berserk, vowing to kill every potential winner in the race.

Cherry isn't the only threat to the students of Oak Hill high. They've also got a lecherous principal (Eric Sherman) to contend with, a beast of a man known as Lester the Molester who routinely calls girls into his office to administer unsavory corrective measures. Not only that, but...well, just imagine what it must be like to churn through your adolescence in Oak Hill, Kansas. No wonder most of the students are suicidal, alcoholic, or homicidal.

And then there's Beth (Jennifer Dreiling), the poster girl for teenage angst. Dressed in the most drab ensembles the local strip mall has to offer, Beth drifts aimlessly through her go-nowhere life, dodging her constantly bickering parents and day-dreaming her way through class. One fateful day she is sent to Lester's lair for one too many tardy slips, and after nearly being raped by the grabby administrator, her life suddenly takes a turn for the criminal. She bashes Lester's head in and stuffs him into a garbage can. Then she hooks up with subversive Julie and her possibly gay boyfriend Scott (Adrian Pujol), and the three disaffected youths try to figure out what to do next. They opt for kidnapping him, holding him hostage in Julie's basement while they throw a raging party upstairs. But when nosy Terra discovers him and cuts him loose, Julie and Beth are faced with a tough decision - whether to let their sex-offending principal live or die.

They choose the latter, naturally. Did I mention this is a comedy?

Meanwhile, Cherry is busy running down potential prom queens in her blood-red SUV. No one seems to mind, which is odd, but clearly Kansas operates on a whole different level. Our two murderous plotlines converge when Julie and company ask Cherry for help in hiding Lester's miserable carcass. All this scheming and bloodshed eventually sparks off an all-out war between Cherry and Terra, a war that will eventually culminate in a guns-blazing massacre in the schoolyard.

Again, this is a comedy. And amazingly enough, it's hilarious.

Although it is somewhat negligent in the boner-popping department - unless you like your high school vixens fully-clothed, and stuffed into weird polyester outfits - Pep Squad is otherwise balls-out amazing in nearly every other department. Consistently funny and frequently outrageous, this film is a treasure trove of surreal one-liners and aggressively over-the-top comic performances. Brooke Balderson and Amy Kelly have created legendary b-flick characters with warring teen-titans Cherry and Terra, and the rest of the cast are as quirky and bizarre as everything else in Balderson's teenage wasteland. Part Napoleon Dynamite - years before Jared Hess's similarly weird farmland epic - part Polyester-era John Waters, Pep Squad is as punky and violent as it is campy and playful. If you took a small-town drag queen and locked her in a dusk-til-dawn drive-in showing nothing but 80's teen sex comedies and nihilistic 70's revenge flicks for a week or so, this is what her nightmares would look like. Obviously, the Columbine shootings add an unfortunate gravity to Cherry's school grounds massacre - especially since they occurred just a year after Pep Squad was released - but beyond that sad twist of fate, this low-budget black comedy is an overlooked gem that will surely please camp and cult film fans alike.

- Ken McIntyre

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