The world of horror is vast. With so many films across the spectrum of budget, studio involvement, quality, availability, and, above all else, pure scare-the-living-shit-out-of-you-ness, it helps to have trained professionals parse through some of the older and/or lesser-known offerings. That's where Team FANGRRLS comes in with Deep Cuts, our series dedicated to bringing the hidden gems of horror out of the vault and into your nightmares. This week, in honor of Yvonne de Carlo's birthday, we're talking about over-the-top low-budget horror flick Satan's Cheerleaders.
When looking back over the great and expansive topic of cinema as an art form, with all the poignant critical discussion and the thousands of beautiful, brilliant, heartbreaking films, there is some chance even the most dedicated cinephile has missed out on certain gems. Take, for instance, the 1977 classic Satan’s Cheerleaders. This film is a paradox: absolute low-budget sleazy late-‘70s trash cinema, and yet also the story of a young woman named Patti coming into her own power even as the very forces of the universe conspire to tear her asunder.
To say this movie is baffling is to say that the ocean is wet. It’s such an unbelievable understatement it almost doesn’t even make sense to point it out. Yet, regardless of its flaws and its tone, there is still something fascinating about this movie.
What Even Is Satan’s Cheerleaders?
Writer/director Greydon Clark spent 25 years writing and directing low-budget films, which he speaks about at length in the 2013 book On the Cheap: My Life in Low Budget Filmmaking. Satan’s Cheerleaders was not his first or last film, but it might be his most notable work for modern audiences. Directed by Clark, produced by Alvin L. Fast, and written by both men, Satan’s Cheerleaders has been the focus of presentations by trash cinema savants like Joe Bob Briggs, who at one point referred to it as “one of the sleaziest pictures in the history of the world.”
He isn’t wrong. It takes at least half an hour of tawdry dialogue between cheerleaders and football players before anything even remotely resembling a plot comes into view. Indeed, even once the plot does come rambling in, the cheerleaders mostly still act like they’re in a comedy. The one exception is Patti, the only cheerleader written to behave as though she is a character in a horror film.
In the late ‘70s, producers like Roger Corman and Jerry Gross had already tapped much of the raunchy, semi-disturbing-in-retrospect cheerleader sexploitation subgenre, and of course, Satanism in horror had been popping off since at least the release of Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby in 1967. Yet it wasn’t until these folks came along that we saw the two premises merged together in a single film. The rest, as they say, is history.
The cheerleaders — Patti, Chris, Debbie, and Sharon — are chaperoned by their bizarrely docile teacher, Miss Johnson, who allows them to engage in some pretty questionable behavior throughout the film with little more than shrugs and nods. The football coach yells at her for the length of the movie's first scene while the cheerleaders flirt with his football team. This merges into a completely out-of-place turf war between the cheerleaders and a rival school, which Miss Johnson proposes should be solved via violence. Though she could arguably be considered the worst possible teacher, her hilariously terrible ideas help facilitate a lot of the plot.
The brawl between cheerleaders ends with their rivals deciding to TP their school, so the next day the building is covered in toilet paper, which the creepy janitor Billy is forced to clean up. This leads to him having a weird outburst at the cheerleaders, setting the tone for this guy also being considered the absolute worst (competition is tough on that front).
The cheerleaders have a game to get to, but their car breaks down, and they're forced to get a ride with Billy, who loses it and pulls off on the side of the road before attempting to attack Patti. Instead, Patti telepathically makes friends with Satan, and Billy seemingly dies, though he is unfortunately resurrected shortly thereafter.
The cheerleaders then find themselves in the clutches of a couple of Satanists in the form of the town sheriff and his wife Emmy, played by a particularly over-the-top Yvonne de Carlo. Of course, from here on out, the plot completely goes off the rails, and the editing becomes a bit incoherent. Yet the cheerleaders prevail, and Patti becomes a seer. We ... didn't really see that coming, but we're glad it happened.
Some Highlights To Watch Out For
It’s difficult to reconcile how not our jam sexy cheerleader movies typically are and how very much our jam this movie is. To begin with, it stars Yvonne De Carlo, who you might know from her most prominent roles, including Moses’ wife Sephora in The Ten Commandments and, of course, Lily Munster in the TV series The Munsters. If so, you are perfectly aware of the booming voice and grandiose presence she could bring to a role. Though it might be tempting to dismiss Satan’s Cheerleaders as another case of an older actor's work drying up and finding roles only through B-horror films, De Carlo really embraced her role as a genre queen pretty early in her career. Though once referred to as “the most beautiful girl in the world,” her ambitions as an actor were seemingly mostly dictated by her need for work rather than an overriding interest in the craft. Ultimately, her presence in Satan’s Cheerleaders uplifts the film, and she is one of the only actors who seems to be aware of the fact that she’s in a horror movie.
The other main highlight of the film is Patti (played by Kerry Sherman), the moody, psychic cheerleader who loves her friends and cheering but just can’t ignore her calling as a prophet. What, exactly, is going on with Patti throughout this movie is explained only enough to make it even more confusing, but she is by and large the most self-aware of the cheerleaders. While her friends fall down and giggle, Patti lovingly protects them, standing in the way of their destruction against forces beyond their (and our) understanding.
This movie isn’t going to be for everyone, and in some ways, it’s not for anyone. People who would be offended by the sexualization of cheerleaders will have a hard time reconciling that long enough to watch Patti’s semi-feminist realizations. People who are here just for the cheerleaders will be annoyed at the meandering plot, and people who want a good horror film are going to be seriously disappointed in the lack of heartfelt scares. In the end, this movie can be separated into two films: One is bad '70s sleazy cinema, and the other is Patti's story.
Yet this film exists in the same realm as other bafflingly interesting, anti-genre genre films of its time. Managing to somehow combine a series of exploitative stereotypes with the heroic turn of a hyper-intelligent teen girl, Satan’s Cheerleaders is a paradox — but it's still a bizarrely entertaining one, and Patti remains one of the great characters of ‘70s sexploitation cinema.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBC Universal.