If there was ever a time when the notorious genre of the slasher film wasn't in its rotten, decadent phase, that time was at any rate not 1988. By this point, all the good ideas had been used up, all the mediocre knock-off ideas had been used up, the audience was all used up, and if it wasn't for VHS rental stores, there wouldn't have been any economic viability to keep making the things at all.

Which brings us to Cheerleader Camp, a co-production between an American indie nobody and Japan's Daiei Studios, of all the goddamn random things and it is the very model of a 1988 slasher picture, starting right off with its abandon-all-hope-ye-who-enter title. It's some kind of unspeakable, Godless hybrid of a college sex farce and Friday the 13th clone, several years after any such thing had passed its sell-by date, and it wears its complete lack of inspiration or brains with something that looks almost like pride. It's as hokey, derivative, and dumb as any slasher movie ever was, and it's saved only by virtue of being so slapdash in every single respect that it reaches a kind of Bad Movie apotheosis: when nothing goes right, everything goes right, and Cheerleader Camp is an especially pure example absolutely not one goddamn thing going right.

The setting: cheerleading camp. The cast: cheerleaders. Our main crew is the cheerleading squad of Lindo Valley High, a hopeful group of youngsters hoping to make a splash at the annual competition held at Camp Hurrah. We've got Pamela (Teri Weigel), a bitch; Theresa (Rebecca Ferratti), a bitch; Suzy (Krista Pflanzer), a super-bitch; Bonnie (Lorie Griffin), an idiot; Cory (Lucinda Dickey), the team's awkward costume-wearing mascot (Lindo Valley's team is the Gators, so the poor girl has to wear a dismal-looking lizard get-up), and Alison (Betsy Russell), the one we meet first in the course of a traumatising dream sequence, and who has some kind of positive characteristics, so we can mark her down right away as our Final Girl. There are two boys along, as well, part of the team that does, something, I'm not quite sure what: Alison's boyfriend Brent (Leif Garrett, legendarily fallen teen idol), who likes to flirt openly with everybody who isn't Alison, and Fat Awful Timmy (Travis McKenna, who parlayed his success here into real movies like Batman Returns, where he played the key role of "Fat Clown"), who is fat, and awful. He's like ten pounds of rape culture stuffed into a five pound bag.

The plot is simple: the Lindo Valley team is divided by mistrust and bitchiness, and Alison's anxious dreams in which she finds herself killing people have a weird tendency to flare out in the real world, as people die right after wronging her, starting with Suzy and a very convenient suicide after she's gone off to hump Brent. Meanwhile, the team has earned the ire of Camp Hurrah's shrill head, Miss Tipton (Vickie Benson), whose first scene makes it seem 100% like she's a nasty old lesbian there to seduce and destroy the girls, but later on has vigorous sex with the local male sheriff (Jeff Prettyman); this leaves the film's dedicated sexual predator role to be filed by handyman Pop (George "Buck" Flower), the creepy old man who leers and licks his lips and drops witticisms like "[They'll] make your peepee harder than a ten-pound bag of nickel jawbreakers."

One thing we must concede to Cheerleader Camp: the two genres it tries to crossbreed, are unusually well-suited to it, hinging as the both do on the teenager's well-observed desire to have all the sex. Structurally, all that really has to happen is that the opening hour, which in any slasher film is the long wind-up in which nothing of the smallest interest happens, has to be full of ludicrous hijinks instead of misfiring "tension" building. And my friends, Cheerleader Camp is a veritable fount of hijinks. It's a slasher film with the sensibility of a '50s cartoon, a slasher film in which this happens:


Completely inadvertently, this allows the film to succeed in an almost unprecedented way for a bad movie. It looks, for all the world, like a bad comedy; it is a bad comedy. And it is known to bad movie lovers that bad comedy is never fun to make fun of. If it were funny, it would be a good comedy - comedy is only bad when it is tedious and drawn out and boring. But Cheerleader Camp gets to combine everything that is awful about bad '80s teen comedy - Miss Tipton, who talks and acts like she has a bug large enough to flatten Tokyo up her ass; the non-stop misery of wretched, wretched Tim, an uncertain marriage of horny asshole and "fatty faw down"slapstick - with a film-long awareness that, don't worry, people will start to die, so even if most of the film is bad comedy, it always feels like a bad slasher, and thus permits itself to be mocked and laughed at and pitied for being such a pathetic little also-ran years behind the curve.

For it is - oh dear God, how it is. If the film had come out in 1983, there'd have been some sense to it, anyway: its forthright attempt to copy earlier, if not better, successes in the genre would have made sense then. The awareness not just that this is a trashy horror picture but a trashy horror picture too feeble in conception even for horror fans manages to seep its way into the film itself: neither the actors nor the filmmakers seem to be at all willing to commit themselves to their project. For one thing, there's the amount of gore that the film doesn't have; the deaths are staged by director John Quinn quickly and plainly, just to get them out of the way, so we can get back to the scenes of cheerleaders practicing routines and yelling at them. The actors, besides Russell and Dickey, are palpably unwilling to take the script or the characters seriously at all, pitching things at a safely zany speed in which everything is flattened to the level of an indifferent sketch comedy where people hope that pummeling away at whatever one adjective they've been given to play can overcome the slack writing.

Everything about the film is lazy and stupid, played with enough flair to make it absolute catnip to genre aficionados, or those with a 24 pack of beer and enough friends to make a night of it: the very serious performance of our Final Girl standing out among the tattered nonsense of everything else amps up the campiness, the sheer gratuitous randomness of the film's generous nudity amps up the trashiness, and everything else, enthusiastically wallowing in the lowest kind of '80s cheese (the cheerleading rap performed by Garrett and McKenna should be lovingly preserved in a museum), amps up the silliness. The whole film is the best kind of terrible, good-natured in its imbecility in a way that perfectly embodies everything that makes slasher films the worst thing in the world and everything that makes people lifelong fans of the form regardless of that fact.

Body Count: 9, mostly heavily backloaded, and all but two denuded of any particular gore.