Quentin Tarantino once called director Jack Hill the “Howard Hawks of exploitation filmmaking.” I don’t know that I’d go quite that far but certainly Hill made some of the most memorable films in the genre. Working with minuscule budgets and, shall we politely say colorful plots, Hill still put our a fairly large number of very well-made and quite enjoyable films.
One of the more interesting things to me is how, though working in the various exploitation genres, Hill still managed to make somewhat thoughtful films that dealt with racism, sexism, and other cultural ills. Certainly he’s still being exploitive, but the fact that he could make a women-in-prison flick and use it as a means to discuss the overt racism of our judicial system is really interesting.
In this manner, The Swinging Cheerleaders manages to be both a sexy '70s pom-pom flick and a direct criticism of both the overwhelming sexism of college-sports programs and the very genre in which it exists. It seems Jack Hill loved living in that sort of hypocrisy. Perhaps the best example of this is when early on one of the characters gives a passionate monologue on how cheerleading exploits young women and does so while taking off her top.
One could argue that Hill is really making straight-up exploitation flicks that are rife with the very sexism and racism that he seems to decry. That by adding in bits of dialogue that argue against those things does not immediately destroy the fact that his films use ample amounts of nudity, sex, and violence in order to sell his pictures. One could also argue that he’s using the very weapons of exploitation to dismantle its sins from within. How else can one reach the drive-in movie crowd than by making drive-in movies?
I’m not ready to stand on one side of that debate or the other, except to say the fact that we are even having this debate some 40 years after these films were made says something about Hill’s talent as a director.
Alright, lets get to the actual movie at hand. The Swinging Cheerleaders stars Jo Johnston as Kate, a journalist student at Mesa University who infiltrates the school cheerleading squad in order to write a term paper on how the sport demeans women. While there, she befriends fellow cheerleaders, Mary Ann (Colleen Camp), Lisa (Rosanne Katon), and Andrea (Rainbeaux Smith), falls in love with star quarterback Buck (Ron Hajek), and uncovers a gambling organization that's rigging the football games.
Kate begins the film as your sort-of prototypical 1970s intellectual feminist out to take down the man, but as she gets to know the other cheerleaders she realizes that they are really rather sweet girls just trying to have a little fun, meet a nice guy, and get on with their lives. The jocks too aren’t all stupid, sweaty, sexist sacks of beef, but are often kind-hearted and well meaning.
Except that, they kind of aren’t. The film does a rather poor job of developing head jock Buck into something meaningful. He’s actually kind of a jerk - he perpetually cheats on girlfriend Mary Ann, and generally behaves like the stereotypical chauvinist one expects a college quarterback to be. In public, he’s all alpha-male boorishness, but alone with Kate, he admits it's all just a facade and really he’s a nice guy inside. Yet Kate never calls him out on this. The film doesn’t either. We’re just supposed to accept that deep down he’s a good guy even though every outward notion indicates otherwise.
These are the sort of inherent inconsistencies one can expect, I suppose, when watching a cheerleader movie with a social conscious. There are lots of moments when the film seems to swerve farther into exploitation mode and then it will have cut back with moments of real meaning. In one scene, Buck meets Kate for the first time in a diner and while chatting with Mary Jane, he reaches his under the table and right up Kate’s skirt. In a later scene, Buck boldly tells Kate to come to his place so they can further their exploits and Kate rebuffs him. In a rather modern feminist bit of dialogue, she lets him know in no uncertain terms that it's her body and the fact that she - in her own wonderful words - let him “reach the goalpost” earlier does not mean that he has guaranteed access to her body anytime he wants it.
This is perhaps a too serious discussion about a film that ultimately is a exploitation pom-pom movie but it is quite fascinating how Jack Hill was able to mess with the genre in a way that both delves deep into its more seedier dark sides and calls those things to task.
With the exception of a couple of moments throughout and a long scene in the back half in which most of the cast has a rather farcical fight, the film plays out dramatically. The Swinging Cheerleaders is not the breezy comedy that you might expect. This is very apparent when it deals with its side-characters' stories. Mary Ann wants nothing more than to get married and have babies, Lisa is having an affair with her married professor, and Andrea can’t decide whether she wants to lose her virginity or not. These stories largely go nowhere and are mostly forgettable.
There is a scene late in the film in which Andrea has an act perpetuated against her that’s so heinous they didn’t even dare show it onscreen in a '70s exploitation flick. It seems mostly to exist so that her love interest can save the day (and a character who initially seems like one of the heroes can turn villainous). It comes and goes so quickly that it's easy to forget it exists and yet upon further though it nearly derails anything good I want to say about the film.
Which makes The Swinging Cheerleaders a complicated film to critique. In part its fun bit of '70s drive-in fare with plenty of naked cheerleaders and melodrama. Yet it also has some interesting things to say about sexism and rape culture. And then yet again it very much celebrates those very things. For all of that, and more, I definitely recommend the film for genre fans and anybody really.
Arrow Video does its usual fine job here. The video looks good. I didn’t notice any serious scratches or other deterioration though they do, as usual for Arrow, leave in the grain. The colors and blacks looks decent with the usual caveats of budget and time period. Likewise the audio is quite serviceable.
Extras include a new audio commentary from Jack Hill, plus a new interview with him where he discusses his career. There are archive interviews with cinematographer Alfred Taylor and another with Hill and Johnny Legend plus a Q&A from 2012 with Colleen Camp and Roseanna Keaton.