Written by: Chris Lee Hill, Tyler MacIntyre, Justin Olson
Directed by: Tyler MacIntyre
Starring: Brianna Hildebrand, Alexandra Shipp, and Jack Quaid
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
"We were wondering if maybe you could give our blog a shout-out."
Sometimes, the slasher genre can sneak up on you. Long dismissed and derided as a braindead dumping ground for gratuitous violence and nudity, it’s certainly not the first place you go when looking for sharp, cerebral horror—and that’s okay, of course, since there’s very much a place for its ilk. However, this hasn’t precluded filmmakers from seeing the slasher as a fertile genre to upend conventions and explore heady issues, from Jungian mythology to teenage angst to our shared, perhaps unconscious thirst for ritualized on-screen bloodshed. It’s possible to have your gore-soaked cake and eat it too, these films insist as they deliver the expected carnage alongside insightful commentary.
Stepping into this tradition is Tragedy Girls, an irreverent slasher that surveys our current social media hellscape and finds gallows humor in the warped minds that navigate it. While it’s obviously heightened to absurd levels, Tyler MacIntyre’s film manages to uncover the kernel of a disturbing truth about 21st century life, where it feels like we’ve all become online avatars and essentially brands for ourselves as we try to expand our reach and influence. Tragedy Girls is what happens when people take it upon themselves to go viral by any means necessary, driven by a sociopathic desire that leaves a trail of victims in their wake as the likes and retweets pile up. It’s trainwreck cinema in the best possible way: you look on with horror and disgust, yet you can’t look away—or even resist laughing along with it, no matter how inappropriate it may be.
We open on a stock slasher scene: a teenage couple makes out in the backseat of a car parked on a rickety old bridge out in the middle of nowhere. A strange noise just outside prompts the girl (Brianna Hildebrand) to send the obviously ill-fated boy to his doom, and indeed, a masked slasher plants a machete right between his eyes for his troubles. It’s a scene we’ve seen umpteen variations of over the past four decades, though it’s played here at such a loud, obvious volume that it borders on parody. Something’s up here, and it’s soon revealed that the girl—Sadie Cunningham—has set the poor kid up in attempt to lure this notorious slasher out so she and her friend McKayla Hooper (Alexandra Shipp) can knock him out, tie him up, and take him back to a storage facility, where they hope he’ll impart some serial killer wisdom. It goes without saying that these two aren’t quite right.
In fact, it’s probably more apt to say they’ve completely lost it: a couple of high school seniors caught up in the eternal rat race for popularity, Sadie and McKayla dub themselves the “Tragedy Girls” and run a fledging true crime blog dedicated to documenting the town’s grisly exploits—many of which they have a hand in causing. As their body count increases, they hope to draw more eyes to their blog and its various social media outlets; however, the pursuit turns into a farcical, black comedy of errors when the local police station deems their work to be accidents. More determined than ever, the two ratchet up the intensity of their murders, making them so over-the-top that the sheriff won’t be able to dismiss them as accidental deaths.
Tragedy Girls is a demented blast, a total sugar rush of a movie that plunges into the deep end of the slasher genre, embracing all its ludicrous tendencies and twisting them into an especially hyperactive riff. MacIntyre has taken the slasher and molded it into a garish 21st century crazy quilt, full of digital signposts that allow us to see the Tragedy Girls rack up online engagements in real-time. The world they inhabit is a heightened version of our own, one that’s marked by frenetic pacing and eye-popping colors. In keeping with the high school aesthetic, Tragedy Girls looks like the snazziest Trapper Keeper imaginable, decked out with shades of neon and hastily-scrawled ephemera. It’s dazzling to behold and glides along with the same, darting verve as a scrolling social media feed. Maybe it’s more appropriate to say it’s a dopamine rush of a film that’s been expertly crafted to mimic the sensation of online interactions and engagements, no matter how empty they may be.
When this approach collides with the film’s slasher chops, it’s expectedly a riotous time. Tragedy Girls is the sort of slasher that really revels in its violence, and, given its title characters’ unhinged obsession with gory details, it probably shouldn’t be any other way. Their motivations—like most teenagers’, I suppose—is a bit scattershot, meaning their aim flits and flies given the situation. One night, they’re dispatching McKayla’s ex (Josh Hutcherson doing a spot-on parody of a disaffected bad boy); the next, they’re brutally slaughtering a volunteer firefighter (Craig Robinson) who’s vowed to snuff out the killer plaguing the town. As they become more desperate, the girls’ exploits become more unhinged, allowing MacIntyre to dream up some spectacularly gory carnage. Reflecting the film’s generally glib tone, the gore is savage but laced with dark humor, especially when many of the murders spiral out of control.
It’s not enough for one victim to simply be offed in a gym: no, his head has to be almost comically severed by a barbell that slips off its machine just in the nick of time. As twisted as it sounds, the gore effects are downright delectable, brought to life with lovely rubber, latex, and prosthetics that recall glory days of splatter movies past. Tragedy Girls carries the same sort of gleeful, playful mean streak that guided the most entertaining Final Destination films—in fact, you can’t help but be reminded of one of those when Sadie and McKayla stalk a rival classmate in the school woodshop in an outrageous sequence that ends with the poor girl dangling from the ceiling, the machinery guiding her straight towards a buzz saw. As her head is split wide open, the audience’s face mirrors that of the Tragedy Girls, who look on with a mixture of shock, amazement, and pleasure at the brain-splattering carnage. And if that weren’t enough, Sadie and McKayla dismember the body for good measure, leaving the poor girl’s scattered corpse to be discovered the next morning by her best friend.
But beneath its glib exterior, Tragedy Girls is definitely up to something in its unhinged exploration of modern life, where the line between reality and online has completely blurred. For these girls, the latter might even take more precedent, as they keep their heads perpetually buried in their phones, much to the frustration of a history teacher who finally lays into their sociopathic behavior, highlighting and underlining the film’s central observation that social media has warped us into a monstrous state of being. It’s not exactly an earth-shattering observation by any means, nor is the film particularly subtle about drawing a line between the girls’ lack of empathy and their obsession with engagements and fame; however, it is sharply drawn, snapped into razor focus by a witty script and two terrific lead performances.
In fact, Hildebrand and Shipp are so magnetic that Sadie and McKayla become impossible to dismiss as mere teenage psychos. These are honest-to-god characters, equally capable of repulsing you and breaking your heart; what an odd paradox these two are—you obviously condemn their entire raison d'etre, yet somehow you have little desire for them to receive their just desserts. Actually, the exact opposite happens when typical high school drama (of course it involves a boy) unfolds between the two, leaving them at odds with each other. Alongside everything else it has on its mind, Tragedy Girls also takes time to explore the tumultuous waters of high school relationships and all the hormonal insanity that entails. This, too, is sharply realized both in its authenticity and the manner in which MacIntyre twists it to fit the film’s absurdist, black-hearted sensibilities. Let’s just say that Tragedy Girls has to be the only film that features friends exacting revenge on each other by enlisting a serial killer to do some heavy lifting during a sequence that immediately earns its place alongside other cinematic prom massacres.
This sequence does climax on an oddly disturbing note, though, one that stands at odds with the film’s otherwise flippant approach. Then again, maybe it’s more of a pointed contrast, meant to cast the audience’s own complicity in sharp relief. You watch and laugh along as these two girls butcher everyone in their path for 90 minutes, only to have MacIntyre sneak in this genuinely unsettling high school massacre (made all the more disturbing by recent events, granted), leaving you to wonder if your sympathies should really rest with these two at all. In many ways, this might be the film’s most incisive point: where its observations about the girls’ unbalanced quest for fame obviously swim to the surface, the underlying judgment cast towards the audience runs more subtly beneath, slowly rumbling to a boil that spills over and burns you at just the right moment.
Not only does it take a jab at horror audiences’ lust for violence and anti-heroes, but it also reveals the toxic cult of personality that allows this sort of insanity to thrive online. While I’m pretty sure none of us follow actual serial killers, consider for a moment how many people have come to define internet discourse due to their forceful, confrontational, and downright awful personalities. Now, further consider that these personalities—whether they be bloggers or Youtube stars—have flourished thanks to the complicity of fans and colleagues. I’m pretty far removed from the larger film-writing community online, but Tragedy Girls stirred me to consider how the first decade-plus of that scene was shaped into a combative discourse by loud, pugnacious (and mostly male) voices whose supporters replicated and spread their behavior like a virus in comments sections and message boards for years, effectively rendering fandom toxic in the process.
It’s a scene where everyone is complicit, and Tragedy Girls deftly keeps this criticism in its back pocket, hidden like a butcher knife lurking behind its back. We can’t really judge Sadie and McKayla, not when we’ve been thoroughly enraptured by their misdeeds and feeding into their madness. No, we obviously can’t drive traffic to their blog, but we sure as hell can look forward to the possible sequel teased here, can’t we? Tragedy Girls is brilliant in this respect: much like its protagonists, it’s unassuming but savage with its barbs. It’ll most obviously beg comparisons to the likes of Heathers and Mean Girls, but it’s more like American Psycho for the Tumblr generation. What that book and film did for 80s yuppies, this one does for an online landscape that’s twisted us all into compulsively craving engagements and hollow interactions like a drug. Share this review if you agree.
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