Death of a Cheerleader, often called A Friend to Die For, is a 1994 made-for-NBC movie starring Tori Spelling as a Mean Girl in a small California town. Kellie Martin plays Angela Delvecchio, a very Catholic, very good, mostly-ignored teenage girl. Valerie Harper stars as Angela’s mom, and Marley Shelton is a nice, popular teen who is friends with both girls but contains little depth and almost no spine.
Both Martin and Spelling were starring in Life Goes On and 90210, respectively, when the film aired. In fact, both actresses had made–and would make more, praise the Lord, when Death aired. This film is the gold standard of made-for-TV films in the ’90s, and it has everything: a woman who was famous on a popular sitcom playing a starlet’s mother (Harper), women famous in their time (Martin, Spelling), a ripped-from-the-headlines plot, questionable behavior (bullying!), an oddly serious tone, and truly crummy production.
Spelling plays Stacey Lockwood, a blonde, bobbed teen with adults wrapped around her finger. She can manipulate anyone over 25 and holds the attention and favor of anyone in her general vicinity. For much of the film, Martin’s Angela is under her spell as well, desperate to be as well-liked as Stacey.
At the beginning of their sophomore year, Angela aspires to take the school year by the horn. She will get on the staff of the yearbook (she doesn’t), join the cheerleading squad (she doesn’t), and get picked to join an elite, secret sorority called the Larks (she does!)
As an aside, that one can gain power and popularity through the yearbook stymied me. Stereotypes often dump nerds onto the yearbook staff; Angela was definitely a nerd, and certainly would have been on the yearbook at my school. (It was also a class! You signed up for it!) The Larks are a stand-in for the Bob-O-Links, a prestigious sorority at Miramonte High School. The Puffs seemed odd in Gilmore Girls, and the Larks and Bob-O-Links seem weird now!
Angela gains access to Stacey, only to learn that Francie Jarvis and Regina George would quake in her wake. Stacey rules the town with an iron fist. (After her murder the school’s principal is quick to defend Stacey and the school’s toxic culture in a way that is gross and sad.) It’s easy to see how someone would savagely murder Stacey on her front porch. The rules of made-for-TV are clear: the evil will not inherit a happy ending.
Oddly, the film tries to make a red herring out of a goth girl who was the victim of Stacey’s bullying. Of course, Angela murders Stacey, because Stacey calls her weird and denies any chance of a lasting friendship. The remaining minutes of the film attempt to tie up Angela’s immense, faith-based guilt, the possibility that she’s not fully at fault because her very vegetarian sister (“you should try it!”) keeps a butcher knife in the family car to chop vegetables on the go (this was a real defense in court, too, and it’s ridiculous), the outrage at school, and the trial. Shelton finally has a little more scenery to chew on, as the trial becomes a spectacle as the community turns on Angela. Shelton, like the audience, isn’t one bit sorry Stacey died, because that girl was mean.
In defense of Spelling, this may be her best work (and I loved So Notorious!) and the film itself is really not so bad. A generation of fans likely agree that Death of a Cheerleader is a joyful spectacle of camp and vengeance, but the film is served well by taking itself seriously. Her death is so violent, so overacted, so gory, that most remember Death of a Cheerleader as “that one when Tori Spelling dies in the beginning.” Martin, who went to Yale, is as flat as ever. (Oh, good, another role where she’s nice and boring.)
Death of a Cheerleader was released on DVD in 2002, but plenty of YouTube videos host the film for immediate streaming.
Unfortunately, like many movies of this era, the crime in Death of a Cheerleader is based on a true story. Kirsten Costas was a popular student who was murdered by Bernadette Protti in 1984. Much like the film, Protti lied to Costas about a Bob-O-Links event in the hopes of forging a friendship. Costas also told neighbors that her murderer had “gone weird,” and at the prospect of everyone thinking just that, Protti viciously murdered her. Costas, of course, is a real person, and no real person can be as bad as Stacey Lockwood because no person deserves to get murdered. Protti was sentenced to jail and was released when she was 23.