Powertool Cheerleaders vs the Boyband of the Screeching Dead

Powertool Cheerleaders vs the Boyband of the Screeching Dead (2022)

Powertool Cheerleaders vs the Boyband of the Screeching Dead had its world première at FrightFest 2022

Emily (Charlie Bond) is a waitress at an “American themed diner” – a location which serves to advertise the broader artifice and overt inauthenticity of Powertool Cheerleaders vs the Boyband of the Screeching Dead, as of course does that overdetermined gonzo title. Emily suffers from a peculiar trauma that occasionally interferes with her waitressing: for she has a “phobia of cheerleaders”, going back to the fact that her cheerleading grandmother, long since dead, once went on a bloody killing spree. Persuaded by her decent boss Monty (David Schaal) to face her fears by joining a cheerleaders’ group, Emily is soon performing as Powercheer with posh Brianna (Carrie Thompson), live-streaming Ashley (Liz Soutar), party girl Olivia (Megan Rose Buxton) and goth single mother Mackenzie (Faith Elizabeth) in “second-tier TV talent show” Spotlight Chasers. Yet as a wish-granting charm inherited from her grandmother accidentally turns the rival boyband Starmen, including Emily’s long-term not-quite boyfriend Hunter (James Hamer-Morton, also the editor, head of FX and musical director), into walking, talking sort-of zombies as well as undead embodiments of toxic masculinity, Emily must shoulder her matrilineal legacy, save the world and work out what she really wants. 

Whenever a film’s characters suddenly break into song – or even into dance – it is of course a stylised mode of expression, situating the narrative within a ‘musical’ format which also removes it from realism, not to mention reality. While this is not quite the same as breaking the fourth wall, it certainly serves to highlight that wall, tracing the boundary between the film’s and the viewer’s very separate worlds. Yet Powertool Cheerleaders vs the Boyband of the Screeching Dead does both these things: for as well as being punctuated by regular song-and-dance numbers (and not just when the characters are actually performing on stage, but also when they are driving, arguing, dreaming and fighting the undead), there are also regular asides to camera, references to the film as a film (“unlike folks at home who know the genre of this film/right now we haven’t got a fucking clue/is this a rom com or a teen romance?”), and even a last-minute appearance by writer/director Pat Higgins himself, who is seen calling cut at the end. At one point, in the pub where Mackenzie works, a man is seen sporting a T-shirt with the text “Sorry about Strippers vs Werewolves” – which Higgins wrote. Here the fourth wall is not just being broken, but dismantled brick by brick.

In other words, Powertool Cheerleaders vs the Boyband of the Screeching Dead is a work of knowing self-referentiality. There is a cameo (or two) from Troma-king Lloyd Kaufman to set the proper trashy tone. There is a song that not only elevates an extra and early victim to greater prominence (“I’m just a guy dying on the floor, after three lines and a minute on your screen”) but grants him his fleeting moment centre-screen before death finally takes him. In a sense, this miniature scene encapsulates the film’s overall message: for this is the story of an ordinary young working-class woman transformed into a heroine and a winner through the wish-fulfilment medium of cinema. While it is told with plenty of laughs, gore and crude, often surreal  gags, it ends on an almost Shakespearean note of metatheatrical reflexivity and memento mori, as Emily reveals herself to be actress and producer Charlie Bond on a soundstage, singing, “A story’s all this ever was. Nobody’s died but hey, they wouldn’t be dead anyway, because the story’s just a play, and so is yours.” And so this scrappy, cheap-as-chips ‘let’s put on a show’ musical horror comedy ends by pulling back its own curtains to expose all the self-deconstructing, reality-revealing profundity of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain (1973), and with the words, “it’s time to stop pretending”, the film’s express artifice comes to a smiling close. So you cannot fault this small, utterly amiable feature for its grand ambitions and witty writing – and the tunes aren’t half-bad either.

strap: Pat Higgins’ romzomcom is a scrappily sophisticated meta musical

© Anton Bitel