“The Pom Pom Girls”: How a plotless 1976 teensploitation flick led to the rise of the slasher film

By on March 26, 2016

If you’ve seen the 1976 teensploitation flick The Pom Pom Girls, you know that the proclamation in the trailer that it’s “the craziest motion picture you’ve ever seen” is just plain silly, as it’s certainly not the wild ride the voiceover suggests.

The film’s trailer is a classic example of exploitation film marketing. On the surface, it’s targeting male audiences with an emphasis on bawdiness, over-exaggerating the actual content in the film. This front-loaded aspect also overshadows the fact that the trailer was targeted even more towards young females.

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The soft-spoken female voiceover — a rarely used technique—was employed to cater to the gender, along with images of teenage girls having fun. There was also the implication that female friendships would be covered in depth, though this was just another example of the misleading marketing.

What isn’t mentioned is the structure of the film, which may have not been a marketable element, but it is what makes the movie unique, a component that’s influenced subsequent motion pictures.

The story of the improbable legacy of The Pom Pom Girls — a low budget teensploitation flick — is as compelling as it was unforeseen. Trust us.

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In his fascinating book, Blood Money: A History of the First Teen Slasher Film Cycle, author Richard Nowell adopts a scholarly approach to examine how the maligned and misunderstood genre came to be.

Night Flight takes a look at one particularly interesting theory of Nowell’s: that The Pom Pom Girls played a major role in the development of Halloween (1978), the first financially successful teen slasher in the U.S.

We’ll also explore other, non-horror movies that display the lasting influence of The Pom Pom Girls.

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The Pom Pom Girls was conceived by Marilyn Tenser, an executive at Crown International Pictures. Tenser held that box office success for a date movie hinged on the appeal the film had for high school girls and young women living in small-town America. While it would be designed as a picture both sexes would want to see, the Crown executive believed that females ultimately decided what movie a couple would attend.

For The Pom Pom Girls, the idea was to create a film that was somewhat titillating — and thus interesting to high school boys and young men, but not so raunchy that it would offend their dates — as well as one that explored teen romance and female friendships. Common teenage behavior like hanging out, goofing off, and acting disobedient, as well as various outdoor and, ahem, indoor activities would appeal to both sexes.

Tenser had the marketing materials produced first (a common practice in exploitation cinema), which were then handed off to scriptwriters Robert Rosenthal and Joseph Ruben (Ruben also directed the picture).

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The Pom Pom Girls is a coming of age film that follows a group of high school students during the first few weeks of their senior year. There’s not much in the way of plot, but the gist of it is this: A football player competes for the affection of a cheerleader, while his buddy/teammate has trouble deciding which cheerleader he wants to date.

That is, essentially, it, though this movie is not nearly as vapid as it sounds.

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The main characters in The Pom Pom Girls are high school football players and cheerleaders, but they aren’t portrayed as snooty and extremely popular, as we’ve come to expect in teen films. Instead, they are seen as just regular, relatable teenagers, out to have a good time.

As for the setting, most audiences would surmise the beach scenes were filmed in southern California, but other shots, such as at the school and the drive-in restaurant, are so generic they could have been filmed in Anywhere, USA. These elements — the look and behavior of your everyday rebellious American teens and those nondescript locations — were essential components in the marketing to both sexes living in small-town America. It was key that American youth be able to see themselves in the characters of The Pom Pom Girls.

It’s also likely that the loose structure of the film was part of the attraction, as couples in the audience could easily shift their attention between what was happening on screen and their own activities in the theater or at the drive-in…

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Exploitation filmmaking and deceptive marketing have always gone hand-in-hand, so naturally, various elements of The Pom Pom Girls were exaggerated when presented to the public. The trailer plays up the titillation factor, though this is just a minor component, and there is almost as much on-screen male nudity as there is female nudity.

The trailer also implies that female friendships will be explored, but the bond shared between the two football players, “Johnnie” and “Jessie,” is observed more than the friendships between any of the female characters.

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It’s also commonplace in exploitation cinema that elements from recent hits movies are integrated into the structure of a new film, and The Pom Pom Girls is no exception. In the ‘70s, there were a fair number of exploitation films with a cheerleaders theme, and the making of The Pom Pom Girls was partially inspired by the modest profits earned by a movie called The Cheerleaders (1973).

The theme of freedom amongst American youth was incorporated thanks to the massive earnings of Easy Rider (1969). But perhaps no other movie — and its take at the box office — impacted the development and content of The Pom Pom Girls more than American Graffiti (1973).

Set during a single evening in 1962, this George Lucas production eyes a group of teenagers about to head off to college. Created with a relatively low budget of $777,000, but given the support of a major distributor, American Graffiti became a huge hit, netting over $42,000,000 for Universal by early 1975, and going on to become one of the most profitable films of all time.

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Though The Pom Pom Girls was set in the present day, elements of nostalgia borrowed from American Graffiti were incorporated. Many older model automobiles were used for the film, including the main car seen in the film, a 1955 Chevrolet 150.

Some of these vehicles are seen in one of the recurring settings, a drive-in restaurant—a symbol of 1950s American culture. For the climax, two rivals play a game of “suicide chicken”—borrowed from the definitive ‘50s picture concerning teenage rebel, Rebel Without A Cause (1955). The tagline, “How can anyone ever forget the girls who really turned us on?” — used in the trailer and varied for other promotional materials — also evokes nostalgia.

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A couple of now familiar actors appear in The Pom Pom Girls: Robert Carradine — part of the Carradine family acting dynasty, and most famous today for his role as “Lewis” in the Revenge of the Nerds films — plays “Johnnie,” the de-facto lead amongst the ensemble cast.

Lesser known, though recognizable to exploitation film fans, is Cheryl “Rainbeaux” Smith, who appears as one of the cheerleaders. The cast is largely unfamiliar, making it easier for audiences to relate to characters that look and act like them, without being distracted by famous faces.

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Rainbeaux Smith (right)

The cinematographer, Stephen M. Katz (later the director of photography on The Blues Brothers, amongst many other films), deserves notice for his fine camera work.

Katz, via Joseph Ruben’s direction, captured some stylish shots, but most noteworthy are the basic camera set-ups, designed to simply record the action, giving the film a documentary-like quality. The appearance that we are watching real world footage is enhanced during scenes in which the actors are obviously performing their own stunts.

Marilyn Tenser’s instincts proved to be right on with The Pom Pom Girls, as the movie earned $4.3 million for Crown International. The amount might not seem like much, but considering that it cost less than $1 million to produce, The Pom Pom Girls was unquestionably a hit.

In fact, it was one of the highest grossing independent motion pictures of 1976, an achievement that didn’t go unnoticed by smaller movie companies.

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The genesis of what would become the first hit teen slasher film in the U.S. is very similar to how The Pom Pom Girls became a reality — an executive at an independent movie company approached a writer/director with an idea. In this instance, it was Irwin Yablans at Compass International Films asking John Carpenter if he would be interested in making a youth-appealing horror picture called The Babysitter Murders.

During negotiations with Yablans, Carpenter said he would write, direct, and score the movie, if he was given control of the film’s final edit. Yablans agreed and with co-writer Debra Hill, Carpenter went to work on the screenplay, soon changing the name of the project; it would now be called Halloween.

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Carpenter and Hill crafted a script about a masked (and possibly supernatural) psychopathic male stalking a group of young people on Halloween night. For the horror elements, a film Carpenter and Hill were very much influenced by was Bob Clark’s Black Christmas (1974). Clark’s movie, concerning a mysterious murderer who terrorizes a group of college students during their Christmas break, is now considered the first modern slasher film.

Set in a fictional Midwestern town, Halloween devotes a chunk of its running time to the friendship of three teenage girls (there is some disobedience observed, too, though “Laurie,” the bookworm of the three, does not participate).

To ensure a level of authenticity, Carpenter yielded to Hill in regards to the writing of the dialogue for female characters, which were tailored to a young female audience. This group was also considered in regards to the on screen gore and suffering of victims, which was toned down.

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An image of female friendship used as part of the marketing materials for Halloween (Spanish lobby card)

In the heart stopping last act of Halloween, “Laurie” — the last of her group of friends still alive — battles the killer.

There’s been some debate in academic circles as to the function of this female heroine, now known as the “Final Girl.” In a 1987 journal article entitled, “Her Body, Himself: Gender in the Slasher Film,” Carol J. Clover coined the term “Final Girl,” hypothesizing that the character was created to appeal to men, with the thought that males would identify with a strong female.

In Blood Money, Nowell writes that the rise of the “Final Girl” was likely due to the perceived appeal it would have for female audiences. This writer thinks that part of the success of Halloween and subsequent slashers is that both sexes identify with the “Final Girl.”

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Jamie Lee Curtis as “Laurie,” the “Final Girl” in Halloween

By targeting teenage boys and young men with horror elements, and teenage girls and young women with female friendships and an intelligent central female character, Halloween became a major financial success. Compass International’s initial take of the U.S. box office was around $5 million (approximately $18.5 million after several re-releases) — not too shabby for an independent movie company, especially when considering the film’s budget was just $325,000.

Naturally, Halloween’s box office success was a big reason why the slasher genre really took off in the early 1980s, with movies like Friday the 13th, Prom Night, and Terror Train (all three were released in 1980; Jamie Lee Curtis stars in the later two).

Depictions of American teens similar to those seen in Halloween and The Pom Pom Girls became standard elements of the slasher film.

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Images of horror and teenage freedom in the marketing for Friday the 13th (UK poster)

Halloween is a very well-made horror movie, and the financial achievement of the film can be partially attributed to thrills it gave audiences, as well as the critical praise heaped upon Carpenter and his picture. But the incorporation of elements designed to appeal to young women are the secret to the film’s success.

Without the crucial influence of The Pom Pom Girls, a profitable independent film that was marketed with young females very much in mind, Halloween would have been a very different movie — or might not have been made at all.

Female friendships are represented in the trailer for Halloween

The sway of The Pom Pom Girls spread beyond the slasher genre into more obvious territory, such as the teen sex comedies that followed its success. Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982) is one such film. It concerns the adventures of Southern California teenagers over the course of a school year, touching on the subjects of dating, sex, hanging out, disobedience, as well as male and female friendships.

Noteworthy is the friendship between Jennifer Jason Leigh’s character, “Stacy,” and “Linda,” played by Phoebe Cates, as it is the strongest one in the film. Fast Times has an ensemble cast and a similar, free-flowing narrative, and like The Pom Pom Girls, is less raunchy than similar movies of its ilk.

With a strong group of young actors, a tighter, better script, and the actual incorporation of a solid female friendship, Fast Times comes across as an attempt to make a superior version of The Pom Pom Girls.

Fast Times-British poster

Deceptive marketing and a nod to its predecessor? Fast Times is presented as racier than it actually is and Jennifer Jason Leigh’s character is depicted as a pom pom girl—even though she doesn’t appear as one in the film. (UK poster)

Years later, The Pom Pom Girls continued to have a impact on cinema. Richard Linklater’s 1993 effort, Dazed and Confused, follows groups of high school students on the last day school in 1976, and features a very laid-back plot.

Though there are elements borrowed from American Graffiti, Linklater’s picture was primarily influenced by The Pom Pom Girls. Like Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Dazed and Confused is significantly more substantial of a film, but the realistic portrayal of teenagers in small-town America (hanging out, rebelling, etc.), within a movie that features a relaxed narrative structure, absolutely recalls The Pom Pom Girls. The film is even set during the same year The Pom Pom Girls was released.

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Writer/director and exploitation cinema expert Quentin Tarantino has cited The Pom Pom Girls as one of his favorite grindhouse movies.

In Death Proof (2007), Tarantino’s tribute to grindhouse cinema, female friendship is the element given the most screen time. One of the Death Proof women, “Lee” (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), is dressed as a pom pom girl throughout, as her character is starring in a “cheerleader movie.”

This is surely Tarantino’s nod to films like The Pom Pom Girls, if not the movie itself.

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Though the goals for The Pom Pom Girls certainly didn’t include winning any Oscars, it’s better than it needed to be, and manages to hold the viewer’s attention, even without much in the way of plot. Watching it forty years later, it comes off as an experimental existential exploitation film.

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The Pom Pom Girls was an unqualified hit at the box office and impactful in more ways than could have ever been imagined. The success of this teensploitation picture, due in part to the marketing to young females, influenced the development, content, and promotion of Halloween, leading to the establishment of the slasher genre.

The plotless structure of The Pom Pom Girls, which included realistic images of American teenagers, also swayed the content of other, non-horror movies.

Even with this knowledge, it would be understandable if one believes the film is really just mindless junk, and not a unique motion picture experience. Either way, one thing is indisputable: They sure don’t make date movies like The Pom Pom Girls anymore.

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About Bart Bealmear

Bart Bealmear is a librarian, archivist, bandleader, and freelance writer. He has contributed to a number of online media outlets, including All Music and Dangerous Minds. His rock band is a collective known as The Blind Doctors, featuring a cast of Detroit-area musicians.