For the most part, I use the DVD cover artwork and synopsis provided by Amazon (which is included in every DVDTalk listing) to determine what titles I should take, but in the case of Pep Squad, I'd just seen the trailer on Troma's YouTube channel. The premise seemed pretty simple: a girl doesn't get nominated for prom queen, gets angry, and starts picking off everyone who does. Confusingly, the feature film manages to complicate this idea beyond recognition, adding in a second through line that rendered a story I already understood hard to follow in terms of motivation and logic. Writer/director/producer/editor Steve Balderson (one of three Baldersons who played major parts both in front of and behind the camera) may have a laser-precision-like grasp on tone and at least four perfectly-cast actors, but everything else here is a little...vague.
The film opens with Cherry, the slighted girl in question, bursting into the school and stomping up to the yearbook counter, where she and prom queen favorite Terra Simpson (Amy Kelly) get into an argument over who has more photos in the yearbook that quickly turns into slapstick violence. It plays like the setup for a movie-long rivalry, but the one the movie delivers is shoved out of the spotlight in favor of the plot in which fellow students Beth (Jennifer Dreiling), Julie (Summer Makovkin), and Judy's boyfriend Scott (Adrian Pujol) inadvertently find themselves wrapped up in the kidnapping of the school's slimy, would-be-rapist principal (Eric Sherman).
Truth be told, there's nothing really wrong with the movie's secondary (or is it primary?) kidnapping story, except that Balderson doesn't have much of an ending for it. Terra discovers the deed and threatens to tell the cops if Scott, who is on the committee responsible for the final decision, doesn't rig the votes in her favor, but in a movie where Cherry can do drive-bys and run people over right in front of the school, action on the cops' part doesn't feel like a threat at all. It would have been wiser for Steve to keep his focus on Cherry, because his sister's performance, along with Amy Kelly's, are the two best in the whole movie. Both play the movie at a Wile E. Coyote-like pitch, and the combination of Cherry's intense. fury. with all the idiots around her and Terra's teeth-gritted, on-the-verge-of-having-steam-pour-out-her-ears hatred is a peanut butter and jelly-quality concoction. Add in Pujol as the perfect wise-but-passive boyfriend and you've got the whole movie right there.
Instead, Balderson aims for so many satiric targets, it's hard to tell what his point is. I think the vapidity of high school (and high school "competitions" like prom queen), as well as the reflection of these things in the whole of American culture is his primary target, but the movie struggles to fit this unwieldy message in alongside banana-in-the-tailpipe gags and bizarre death cheers that nobody else seems aware of. Cherry's ultimate arrival at the prom in the movie's third act should be a soaring, brilliant moment, and you can kind of taste its greatness, but the rest of the film doesn't build to it enough for the moment to really elicit cheers. And these problems don't necessarily require a square-one restart; there's probably a killer short film in Pep Squad that wouldn't require more than a savvy editor and a reasonable amount of time. Too bad Balderson is the guy holding the scissors as well.
If you like Troma, couldn't stomach Jawbreaker, felt Mean Girls was too tame, and have seen Heathers too many times already, you might -- might -- really like Pep Squad, messiness and all, but it's a shaggy spitball of a movie that mostly disintegrates long before it splatters on its intended target. The movie's slow slide in quality almost works in its favor: despite the brief blast of all-cylinders joy provided by Cherry's big prom arrival, the viewer's already prepared for the end to come and go on a less-than-satisfying note. I suppose that sounds kind of like high school graduation in a nutshell, but I'm afraid I doubt that's Balderson's point.
As Troma is wont to do, Pep Squad's DVD cover is slathered in garish yellow and pink colors, depicting two disembodied, high-heeled legs over a key photograph from the movie. The photograph is good enough artwork in itself (used just fine on the disc label), but whatever. It's traditional Troma artwork. Comes in a white case with no insert.
The Video and Audio
Alright, Lloyd, I know you run a small outfit here, and I realize times are tough, but good lord, this 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is simply not fit for release. The entire image -- and I really mean the entire image, all of the time -- is awash in stair-stepping (or "jaggies") that essentially render the image unwatchable. From the moment Steve Balderson's credit hits the screen in all of its un-smooth, low-res glory, alarm bells were going off, and even my worst fears paled in comparison to the actual experience of looking at the transfer for 90 minutes. It's as if the optimal size for the source used here is about the size of an index card or a sticky note, and yet, even throwing the disc into my computer and massively shrinking the window doesn't seem to do much in the way of covering up the issue.
Dolby Digital 2.0 sounds infinitely better than the film looks, but I'm almost afraid I missed any issues with the audio while being so distracted by the picture quality. The track didn't have much in the way of dynamic range, but the dialogue, music, and sound effects came through clearly and audibly. No subtitles are included.
I flicked on an audio commentary "with Steve Balderson" and was surprised to be greeted by the voices of not just Steve, but also executive producer Clark Balderson, star Brooke Balderson, and director of photography Rhet Bear. Shortly thereafter, I was surprised at how boring it was. It doesn't sound like any of these participants have watched a commentary before, much less been on one, and even in the first twenty or thirty minutes, they struggle to find things to talk about. I'd be shocked if it suddenly leapt in quality shortly thereafter, but even if it does, I'll leave it up to a more intrepid, dedicated Pep Squad fan to find out for me.
The other major extra here is a feature-length documentary called Wamego: Making Movies Anywhere (1:43:07), or just Wamego on the menu. It focuses on the production of Balderson's film Firecracker, which was shot on a shoestring budget in the director's home town, just like this one. On one hand, it'd be better suited to a DVD of Firecracker than Pep Squad, but it's also a much more interesting diversion than the feature film itself, showing exactly how the family trio band together and put together a movie cheaply and professionally. The viewer may not always agree that the Balderson's blood, sweat and tears approach outweighs Hollywood's version, but more often than not you'll find yourself wondering why major motion pictures cost so much.
Clicking on "Tromatic Extras" leads to a page with "Troma T&A" (2:07), Trey Parker and Matt Stone's "PSA" (1:32) about hermaphrodites featuring Lemmy from Motorhead, "The Tromatic March" (0:53), and a trailer page with spots for The Toxic Avenger, Surf Nazis Must Die!, Combat Shock, The Last Horror Film, Sgt. Kabukiman NYPD, Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead, Troma's War, Class of Nuke 'Em High, Terror Firmer, The Hanging Woman, and Tromeo + Juliet. A original trailer for Pep Squad is included out on the regular special features menu.
The documentary Wamego: Making Movies Anywhere is actually really great. It's great enough that I would actually tell people to pick up the DVD for it alone, because Pep Squad is kinda funny at times, and there's little reason you can't pretend it's the bonus feature with Wamego rather than vice versa. However, Wamego actually has two sequels, Wamego Strikes Back and Wamego: Ultimatum which are reportedly every bit as good as the original, and getting all three docs on DVD from Balderson's official site (www.dikenga.com) will run you $15 plus shipping and handling compared to Pep Squad's $10 price tag. Unless you've already seen Pep Squad and have a particular need to own it on DVD, I would rent this disc to see the feature film, and consider buying the trilogy of documentaries from Balderson's website instead.
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