Satan’s Cheerleaders (1977)

‘We want live bodies for the Prince of Darkness, not shredded corpses.’

Four cheerleaders and their coach are on their way to a big high school game when their van breaks down. They accept a ride from the school janitor, but little do they know that he is a practising Satanist and responsible for their predicament in the first placeā€¦

Mismatched mash-up of high school comedy hi-jinks and devil worship from co-writer and director Greydon Clark. Some veteran Hollywood names stop by to help out and pick up a paycheque, while some fresh-faced young hopefuls take their first – and in most cases, last – steps towards stardom.

Sweet-tempered, naive cheerleading coach Ms Johnson (Jacqulin Cole) has her hands full with her squad of pom-pom pushers. They may only be a quartet, but Patti (Kelly Sherman), Chris (Hilary Horan), Debbie (Alisa Powell) and Sharon (Sherry Marks) like nothing better than to hang out with the local jocks and play pranks on a rival high school gang.

Hilarity ensues when the guys swap the signs on the playing field locker rooms and a touring dean and his wife walk in on our heroines in the shower! More tiresome PG shenanigans follow, including a fight with water balloons and the field covered in toilet rolls, all accompanied by a constant barrage of lightweight, funky workout music.

But, never fear; all is not what it seems. Bad-tempered, peeping tom janitor Billy (Jack Kruschen) is actually a card-carrying Satanist and member of a local cult. What’s more, he might be a bumbling figure of fun on campus, but he seems to have supernatural powers. Enough to make the girls’ van break down on the way to the big game, at least. Just happening by, of course, Kruschen gives them a lift, but their final destination turns out to be a Satanic altar in the middle of the woods, rather than the neighbouring town’s sporting facilities. Kruschen intends to have his way with the blonde Sherman before sacrificing her to his dark master, but things go south when he collapses amidst an onslaught of cheap camera FX.

Not sure exactly what happened, the women take off in Kruschen’s van and find old John Carradine picking up trash by the side of the highway. He sends them off to take refuge with local sheriff John Ireland and his wife, Yvonne de Carlo. Unsurprisingly, they turn out to be the leaders of the local devil cult, which includes everyone living roundabout, even a monk, played by Sydney’ son of Charlie’ Chaplin. Lucky then that Sharman turns out to be more powerful than the lot of them put together, although it’s never clear if she is a witch or possessed by the evil one himself. Whichever it is, we get a brilliantly ridiculous closing scene where Sharman delivers the best line in the picture with impeccable comic timing.

The real issue with the finished film is its wildly inconsistent tone. At times, it seems to be simply a lightweight comedy vehicle. It certainly starts that way; our pretty high school heroines thrown into a series of vaguely risque situations on campus, accompanied by well-signposted gags. There’s the inevitable mild nudity and sex thrown in for the trailer, and it’s all highly formulaic and predictable.

Then we get the Satanism. Clark’s script, co-written with Alvin L Fast, does poke similar fun at Ireland and his vaguely incompetent crew. This could have worked if the humour had been a little darker, but it’s about as far from black comedy as you can get. The other problem is that all this Satanism stuff is very real, and those sequences play entirely straight. There’s even a scene where Sherriff Ireland rapes coach Cole. We don’t see anything, of course, and, strangely enough, it is important to the plot, but it sits very uneasily with the movie’s earlier scenes.

On the other hand, it is surprisingly well made; the climactic horror scenes mainly well shot, making the audience wish that Clark had decided to cut the comedy and make a serious horror film. There’s also the pleasure of seeing some old Hollywood stalwarts on the screen again, particularly Carradine, who has a definite twinkle in his eye throughout his brief appearance. However, the no-name youngsters are not so successful, and only Sharman went onto a significant acting career. She played guest slots on hit network TV shows such as ‘Hawaii Five’O’, ‘Barnaby Jones’ and ‘Wonder Woman’ before grabbing a supporting role in hit cop comedy ’48 Hrs.’ (1982). Later on, she was a regular on the soap opera ‘Santa Barbara’ for three years.

Clark began his career as a screen actor in David L Hewitt’s infamous ‘The Mighty Gorga’ (1969), and he also appeared in films for exploitation filmmaker Al Adamson. He was quick to move behind the camera, though, directing ‘Mothers, Fathers and Lovers’ (1971), a film in which he acted alongside Cole, to whom he was married for many years. Hopping onto the science-fiction bandwagon in the late 1970s, he delivered probably his best film; ‘Without Warning’ (1980), which starred Martin Landau, Jack Palance, Cameron Mitchell and a pre-stardom David Caruso in a small role. The story of an alien on Earth for a hunting trip bears more than a slight resemblance to ‘Predator’ (1987), and giant actor Kevin Peter Hall plays the extraterrestrial in both films. Clark followed that with shabby ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’ (1977) rip-off ‘The Return’ (1980) with Landau, Cybill Shepherd and Raymond Burr, and he managed to continue to attract minor Hollywood’ names’ to subsequent projects. However, these films are poorly regarded.

If you can stick through the dreary first act, this horror-comedy has some fun moments, but the clash of tones is likely to promote general dissatisfaction.