Monday, July 30, 2018

Cheerleader Nightmare, a.k.a. Cheerleader Killer, a.k.a. Teen Drone Stalker (Reel One Entertainment/Lifetime, 2018)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I watched a Lifetime “premiere” movie at 8 p.m. last night that was actually surprisingly good. It was released under the title Cheerleader Nightmare but lists it as Teen Drone Stalker and gives Cheerleader Killer as an alternate title, and it’s so new that though lists a director (Danny J. Boyle, not to be confused with the Danny Boyle who made Trainspotting and Slumdog Millionaire) they don’t credit any writers and they list the cast members but don’t identify them with their roles. The leading characters are Sophie White (Taylor Murphy), a high-school girl with long blonde hair and a disinterest in participating in the Cleveland High School cheerleading squad even though her mom Paula (Melissa Ponzio) is the school’s cheerleading coach. (One of the interesting things about this movie is that it makes being a cheerleader seem like almost as hard work as being a football player; the teams exercise similarly.) Instead she’s pursuing photography, and her mom is saying that’s fine but she really needs an avocation that will teach her how to participate in a team rather than something she can do on her own. About the only acquaintances she’s made in her high school are her boyfriend, football team captain Tyler (Johnny Visotcky, who’s tall, rail-thin and has an oddly angular face reminiscent of the young John Carradine; he’s O.K.-looking but really isn’t physically credible as a football player); and Mikey (Jeremy Shada), her partner in the school’s AV lab where they have access to a red helicopter-like drone that can take photos of people around the campus and essentially spy on them. The moment we see Jeremy Shada, with his boyishly cute appearance, we immediately conclude that he’d be a far better match for Sophie than Tyler — especially since we also see Leah, head of the school’s cheerleading squad, making a play for Tyler with lines like, “The head cheerleader is supposed to go out with the captain of the football team — it’s like a law of nature!” We also learn that Tyler’s father is in prison for armed robbery and that he himself has a couple of minor infractions on his record, but he’s trying to put all that behind him and help the school win football games so he can get a scholarship and go to college. 

Things heat up when Leah mysteriously disappears after a wild party; later her body is found in the woods surrounding the community (the name of the school may be “Cleveland High” but the locale is a typical affluent suburban bedroom community, not a major city, and the long shots representing the houses are some of the most preposterously obvious model work ever passed off in a movie — as if the director had his 12-year-old son build them out of balsa wood) and the film basically becomes a whodunit. Sophie insists that Tyler couldn’t have done it because … well, even though he has a police record and he’s the son of a criminal, she’s in love with him and she trusts him. Instead, against the opposition of her mother who thinks that this will put her at risk, Sophie teams up with Mikey to investigate the crime herself (interestingly, no official police officers are ever seen in the film, though we hear a siren indicating their presence at the end). At first they suspect Riva (Raleigh Cain), who took over as head cheerleader after Leah’s death and always wanted the job — she even hung a doll with a noose around its neck in Leah’s locker and attached a note to it saying, “Your days are numbered” — but when Riva’s ankle bracelet turns up at the scene of the crime (a staircase at the party house where Leah was pushed to her death, following which her killer moved the body and dumped it in the woods) Sophie and Mikey realize that’s too pat a clue and someone stole Riva’s bracelet and planted it on the scene. Meanwhile, Sophie’s mom Paula is receiving condolences from Coach Parker (Sean McNabb), who runs the school football team, and where I thought this was going was that Coach Parker had a crush on the underage Leah and killed her when she resisted his advances.

Instead [spoiler alert!] Tyler turns out to be the killer after all — he and his friend Ryan (John-Paul Howard) are seen driving in Ryan’s truck plotting how to cover up the crime when Mikey spies on them with the drone. At one point Tyler and Ryan hijack the drone and use it to spy on Sophie, figuring that if they can’t pin the crime on Riva they’ll make Sophie the fall girl, but what they don’t realize is that Mikey has a master connection on his computer and all the video the drone records goes to an account on the “cloud” where Mikey can access it all. He had previously used this feature to document that Tyler and Leah were having an affair behind Sophie’s back — which understandably turns Sophie against Tyler, though she still can’t believe he’s a killer — and he recovers the data stolen from his personal computer, the video footage the drone shot at the party. It turns out that Tyler and Leah got into an argument — Leah wanted Tyler to commit to her and definitively break with Sophie, but Tyler took the typical bullheaded-male attitude of “No one’s going to tell me whom I can or can’t fuck,” and pushed her down a flight of stairs in a fit of anger, thereby killing her. The climax occurs at Sophie’s and Paula’s home — mom, upset that Sophie ignored her demands not to socialize with anyone unsupervised and kept investigating the case, counterproductively confiscates Sophie’s cell phone and thereby nearly misses the warning Mikey sent containing footage he’s shot with the drone of Tyler and Ryan plotting how to cover up the murder. She finally gets the message while Tyler is in their home; he came ostensibly to apologize to Sophie and see if she wanted to resume their relationship, but really to kill both Sophie and Paula if they insisted on doing something stupid like turning him in to the police. Tyler corners Sophie at the top of a flight of stairs and threatens to push her down them, but she manages to escape long enough that Paula can hit him in the back of the head with a frying pan, knocking him out and rendering him unconscious until the sound of sirens and the sight of flashing lights lets them and us know that the police have finally arrived.

Cheerleader Nightmare is actually one of Lifetime’s best recent movies; not only does director Boyle have a flair for suspense but the writers, whoever they are, have created genuinely interesting and conflicted characters who act, for good or ill, from recognizable human motives. It’s a quite chilling movie and one that keeps the viewer’s interest, and it’s also quite ably acted — especially by Taylor Murphy in the lead, who plays the role matter-of-factly and with quiet determination; and Johnny Visotcky as the killer, who wisely avoids portraying him as a psycho — even though the hint that he’s a criminal because he’s inherited it from his dad rubs me the wrong way. All in all, Cheerleader Nightmare is a quite capable piece of work and one of those diamonds in the rough that keep people like me watching Lifetime movies! It’s also an interesting exploration of just how much modern technology has made everyone’s — especially everyone who’s a teenager in a relatively affluent community, and therefore comfortable with and having full access to the technology — life an open book; you can’t have a clandestine affair anymore with all the security cameras and that damned drone (which practically becomes its own character in the film) spying on you all the time.