A favorite of Quentin Tarantino and cheerleading aficionados everywhere
Does Quentin Tarantino watch Blu-ray discs? Because if he’s a fan of the format he certainly must be crazy about Arrow Video, which so often seems to be polishing the kinds of films that inspired the Pulp Fiction director in his VHS-obsessed formative years. Whether it’s Japanese genre movies, European westerns or the films of American exploitation master Jack Hill, the oft-cited influences which have shaped Tarantino’s career also have a significant footprint in the Arrow catalog. The label’s commitment to Hill, in particular, is admirable. Having already put out lovingly detailed editions of Blood Bath, Spider Baby, Pit Stop, Coffy and Foxy Brown, the time has finally come for Hill’s 1974 feature The Swinging Cheerleaders to get the spotlight.
Released by Centaur Pictures in May 1974 after a 12-day shoot, the film is somehow less salacious than one might expect yet still capable of providing moments that shock and surprise the modern viewer. The plot, somewhat inspired by Gloria Steinem’s stint posing as a Playboy bunny, has a feminist hippie named Kate (Jo Johnston) trying out for the squad of Mesa State’s cheerleading team so that she can do an exposé for the school’s underground newspaper. Living with her drugged-up boyfriend Ron (Ian Sander, who’d go on to be a television producer on things like Ghost Whisperer), Kate hopes to show the ugly side of cheerleading in her report. But things are pretty much the opposite of what they seem in the entirety of Hill’s movie. Kate’s fellow cheerleaders are dealing with a variety of personal issues. One (Cheryl “Rainbeaux” Smith) is struggling to lose her virginity while another (Colleen Camp) has cause for concern that her quarterback boyfriend is less than faithful. A third squad member (Rosanne Katon) is involved with a married professor. Reluctant to leave his wife, who appears in the picture for one jarringly intense scene, the professor has yet another secret which further builds up the film’s soapy plot.
While Kate begins her project with preconceived ideas that cheerleaders are detrimental to how women are viewed, she soon comes around to embracing notions of loyalty and, essentially, empowerment through her interactions with the other three characters. This certainly is consistent with the conventional thought that Hill made movies steeped in feminism. Here, co-writing the script under a feminine pseudonym, he tells the story from the female perspective while offering up notions of distrust of male authority and encouragement of self-discovery. Sexuality is used in a possibly confusing manner, with one character finally losing her virginity the same night she apparently is subjected to a gang bang while other female characters seem to use sex somewhat strategically as a means to gaining power.
Narratively, The Swinging Cheerleaders has an additional strand to absorb and appreciate. Spoiler alert, but it turns out the cheating professor, the football coach, and the college dean (who also happens to be the father of the cheerleader who’s dating the quarterback) are betting on the team’s point spreads and, ultimately, wager big on the school to lose its final game to ruin a perfect season. It’s incredible just how much plot is stuffed into this little hour and a half quickie. Really, too, there are some relevant takeaways to glean from what’s going on here. First, authority is easily corrupted and cannot or should not be trusted. Expectations, too, are deftly tossed around with regard to who we define, simplistically, as good or bad. The star quarterback Buck (Ron Hajek), who initially seems like a chauvinist player, emerges as a somewhat misunderstood nice guy with *gasp* integrity. The ostensibly peace-loving hippie Ron ends up being the bigger creep. Wild times.
Supposedly, this film is a favorite of Tarantino’s (and Arrow is advertising it as such), but that makes for sort of a strange revelation when considering just how confident Hill is in his depictions of sexuality while Tarantino has still, nine films into his career, failed to approach the topic with any sort of meaning or significance. Sex necessarily must enter the conversation here because the film was and still is being sold as something along those exploitative lines. It’s probably not a fair match, with part of the reason for any discord coming from Hill’s reluctance to titillate the viewer. The exploitation label is a fair one, certainly, but any thought of ogling or lingering, gratuitous sex is rejected outright.
The Swinging Cheerleaders is a pretty solid picture, and damn good considering its origins and budget. There’s so much evidence here of Jack Hill, coming on the heels of Coffy and Foxy Brown, being adept at developing characters and guiding a compelling story. Expectations must have been sky high. Switchblade Sisters followed the next year and then just one more directorial effort (Sorceress, in 1982), which didn’t even carry his name. And that was it for the directing career of Jack Hill. It was a strange, condensed output for the filmmaker who seemed to show enormous promise yet has spent the past thirty-plus years not directing. Even so, the movies that exist, including The Swinging Cheerleaders, offer enormous value to the viewer, and now await in virtually ideal condition via Arrow Video.
Arrow Video brings The Swinging Cheerleaders to both the British and American marketplaces with region-free Blu-ray releases available in both countries. A separate DVD disc is also included in the package.
The 1.85:1 aspect ratio image starts off with grain-heavy stock footage of a football game but soon enough returns to crisp, pleasing quality. I think there’s mention somewhere in one of the special features that Fuji Film was used on the shoot. The colors, particularly the bright green of the cheerleaders’ outfits, seem sufficiently bold and eye-catching. Detail is strong while enough grain is kept to retain the filmic quality of the material. Damage is a minimum, with just a few stray white specks appearing on occasion. Overall, the picture looks very good and probably better than it ever has.
The English language mono audio is clear and easily understood. Dialogue can be heard clearly, without issue. Optional English subtitles for the hearing impaired are available.
Special features really set this release apart. Director Jack Hill does a new audio commentary and also sits for an exclusive interview (8:08). An archival interview (10:14) with cinematographer Alfred Taylor consists of outtakes from Arrow sitting down with the since-passed d.p. on its Spider Baby release. There’s also an older conversation (10:37) between Hill and Johnny Legend and, maybe best of all, a 2012 Q&A (19:19) at the New Beverly Cinema in Los Angeles with Hill, Colleen Camp and Rosanne Katon.
If there’s a slight quibble to be made it’s only that Hill factors in on several of these supplements and so by the time one listens to his audio commentary with the giggly Elijah Drenner most of what we hear has already been heard elsewhere on the disc.
A booklet is also included, though wasn’t provided for review purposes.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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