Last October audiences were inundated by interesting films that drew them in a multitude of directions. Blade Runner 2049, The Florida Project, The Foreigner, and The Square all hit cinemas small and large, so it’d be hard to blame anyone for missing the hidden gem that is writer/director Tyler MacIntyre’s Tragedy Girls; a tale of two friends who’re about to graduate from their small town of Rosedale when a serial killer attacks, sending the locals into a panic. It’s at this point audiences expect our besties to put on their Scream Queen crowns as they prepare to defend their town. One problem: they’re the ones behind the murders. It’s this kind of up-front twist that makes the surprisingly delightful and devilishly funny Tragedy Girls so damn captivating. Lucky for you, Tragedy Girls hits shelves and on-demand services February 2nd so you join in the macabre fun.
Life-long best friends Sadie (Brianna Hildebrand) and McKayla (Alexandra Shipp) are your typical high school seniors worried about making their mark on the world. When they’re not planning the prom or at cheer practice, these two besties co-run “Tragedy Girls,” a blog tracking the activities of the Rosedale Killer, a mysterious slasher attacking the local kids. What looks like innocent detective work on the surface is really just lip-gloss veneer for two budding sociopaths tired of killing animals and in need of a mentor. When they learn the hard lesson to never meet your heroes, they decide to go on a spree of their own in his name, building an online following that pushes them further than they even imagined.
Tragedy Girls is a special kind of twisted. It’s bubble-gum sweetness on the surface and lethal steel underneath. Perhaps that’s why this film impresses on various levels. Its leads know exactly who they are and the writing never betrays them. The overall tone is playful while the resulting carnage carries real weight. Impressively, though they look the part of the “manic pixie dream girl”, both Sadie and McKayla prove to be more empowered succubus than light-hearted, wilting up-lifters of men. Most importantly, for those worried about the use of humor in such a frequently gruesome “birth of a killer(s)” tale, the semi-ironic winks at the camera feel like an homage to the modern classic Scream, acknowledging the influence from pop culture on the girls without pop culture being responsible or the impetuous for it. Sadie and McKayla want notoriety, they want fame, and they want everyone’s attention, but they also have zero desire to get caught – which means that they must be smart enough to know exactly how their social machine works in order to subvert it for their vile desires.
Time and again the script adapted by MacIntyre and co-writer Chris Lee Hill from Justin Olson’s original screenplay will surprise you. Sure, Tragedy Girls has the stuff you expect. Each girl completes the other – one’s the cold-blooded brains, one’s the hot-blooded muscle – and each murder they plan is meticulous, but the devil’s in the execution of Tragedy Girls. In the opening sequence, Sadie’s the honeypot for the mysterious serial killer they’re trying to lure out into the open. The boy she’s snogging doesn’t know he’s meat for the grinder, but with a single grin from Sadie, we know and we’re off to the races. Playing into the tropes, the girls are on the receiving end of a wonderful rack-focus + music-rise the moment one of them selects a new victim who’s somehow wronged them. Their plans, however, almost always mess up right at the moment of completion. Does it get the job done? Sure. Are they still totally messed-in-the-head killers? You betcha. Is it somehow completely, totally, absurdly hilarious? Undoubtedly. This series of realistic blunders mixed with murderous brutality somehow lends itself to comic hilarity that should absolutely terrify us, yet somehow does nothing more than endear Sadie and McKayla to us even more. How messed up is that?
While the writing creates the setting for an entertaining story, it’s the cast that makes it come alive. Hildebrand and Shipp are absolutely beguiling, making our hearts melt at their interconnectedness and eternal support of one another before shocking the hell out of us with the swing of a blade. Or weight bar. Or machete. Or…or…or. We know we shouldn’t root for them, yet their performances are so authentic and sincere without falling into stereotypical teenage exaggeration that we can’t help ourselves but to root for these two fledgling sociopaths. Filling out their little world of Rosedale is Jack Quaid as Jordan Welch, the Tragedy Girls’ video editor and Sadie’s flag bearer; Josh Hutcherson as Toby Mitchell, McKayla’s former boyfriend and their online rival; Savannah Jayde as Syl Stanton, over-achieving fellow student who seeks to undercut the Tragedy Girls campus authority; Craig Robinson as Big Al, local fireman, former Fire Marshal, and IRL attention-rival to the girls; Nicky Whelan as Mrs. Kent, the teacher who suspects the girls of social media-induced narcissism; Timothy V. Murphy as Sheriff Blane Welch, Jordan’s disapproving father; and Kevin Durand as the “Michael Myers knockoff” himself, the Rosedale Killer – Lowell Orson Lehmann. Just like the poor boy we meet in Sadie’s car, these folks are nothing but meat for the grinder, but, oh boy, do they make every scene count.
Whether broken down into its parts or examined as a whole, Tragedy Girls is a hellofva fun ride. As a horror comedy, it keeps things macabre without becoming grotesque. People die bloody and realistically without devolving into a gorefest, despite no one going gentle into that goodnight. Tragedy Girls is as light and fun as any typical high school comedy, yet it’s dead serious about the blood-letting — never acting as if one aspect overshadows the other. What else can you expect when its tagline is itself a reference to American Gothic, a horror film about a family of killers, and its characters deftly reference Dario Argento and John Carpenter. The movie’s smart, the characters are smart, and it never condescends to the audience. Most importantly, Tragedy Girls possesses real heart at its center in the form of Sadie and McKayla’s deep love and support for one another.
Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.