Ever since the self-aware stroke of genius that was Wes Craven’s Scream (1996)—a deconstruction of slasher movies that doubled as a great example of a slasher movie—there haven’t been a ton of films that have come as close to turning the tropes of the genre inside out. With Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon (2007), Tucker & Dale vs. Evil (2011), The Cabin in the Woods (2012), and The Final Girls (2015) the only other exceptions, Tragedy Girls (2017) can now join the clique. Sharing a subversive wit that is closest to Heathers (1987) and a hip, quick-witted language that tips its knife to Diablo Cody and perhaps even the wildly underappreciated and just-plain-wild Detention (2012), this vibrantly vicious high school horror-comedy is going to kill as a future cult favorite that can be enjoyed un-ironically, but it might be too darkly offbeat for the mainstream — that’s their loss.
Sadie Cunningham (Brianna Hildebrand) and McKayla Hooper (Alexandra Shipp) are two peas in a pod. They’re high school girls, both trying to fit in by joining the cheer leading squad and prom committee, but they really want to be prolific serial killers and social-media stars. When they finally catch Lowell Lehmann (Kevin Durand), the machete-wielding maniac who’s been racking up a high murder rate in their mid-west town of Rosedale, Sadie and McKayla want him as their teacher. He proves unwilling to cooperate, so they just keep him chained up as their pet. In the meantime, the girls keep their murder skills sharp by killing anyone who they deem needs to go, using those killings as content for their true-crime blog, “Tragedy Girls,” before the press gets the scoop. In secret, they’re tired of their efforts always looking like freak accidents, so they up their game, while trying to keep attention off of them by blaming the police for never catching the perpetrator.
Tragedy Girls sounds like it could be too tasteless or too cute for its own good, but instead it is whip-smart and never lacking in wickedly clever gumption. Writer-director Tyler MacIntyre and co-writers Chris Lee Hill and Justin Olson have concocted a mean, potentially quotable script full of snarky attitude, constantly riding a very tricky tone between tongue-in-cheek lark with slit throats, and a lovingly twisted portrait of two murderous besties. With something relevant to say about the world we’re living in, where YouTube and Twitter spawn celebrities, the film is also just extremely entertaining. It races a mile a minute, dropping references to Martyrs (2008), Dario Argento, the Final Destination series, Quentin Tarantino’s Grindhouse installment Death Proof (2007), and even a sneaky nod to Cannibal Holocaust (1980). The violence is broad enough to be splattery but not too sick, and imaginatively staged to be memorable, like a buzz saw-happy kill in the school woodshop and another involving a piece of heavy gym equipment. While the initial hook of Jason Voorhees stand-in Lowell as Sadie and McKayla’s mentor could be seen as being abandoned early on, there is a method to the madness of the script. With Lowell just a mindless hulk, Sadie and McKayla wouldn’t get to run the show, so after they lock him up and keep him captive at their disposal, the girls get to forge their own path. Sadie and McKayla’s interest in serial killing goes back to their unbreakable bond, and it is in their friendship that a film like this can actually carry quite a bit of heart.
Previously co-starring in “X-Men Universe” movies, Brianna Hildebrand (Deadpool, 2016) and Alexandra Shipp (X-Men: Apocalypse, 2016) are breakout stars with edgy gleam and charisma for days. They have a perky, albeit fierce disposition and an acerbic rapport that comes naturally, and are quite convincing as sociopathic best friends. Disturbingly, these two girls are irresistibly fun to watch, even when they are fully capable of killing someone, and seem like they actually exist off the page. They are still teenage girls after all, as if “likes” and hashtags are the be-all-end-all of their lives when they are, in actuality, anything but. Kevin Durand may be sidelined for a good chunk of the film, but he still seems fully on board to have a frothing-at-the-mouth blast as the girls’ would-be slasher mentor. Jack Quaid (son of Dennis Quaid and Meg Ryan) is likable as Jordan, the sheriff’s son and Sadie’s friend who pines after her all this time and helps the girls edit videos for their website, even if he doesn’t know what they’ve actually been doing. Also, Josh Hutcherson and Craig Robinson both have funny supporting roles, respectively, as McKayla’s too-cool-for-school, motorcycle-riding boyfriend and the town’s local firefighter/fire marshal/gym rat Big Al.
The film puts the viewer in an admirably ballsy and uncomfortable position: should we be rooting for Sadie and McKayla? The third act at the prom—surely a night to remember for Sadie and McKayla before they start their new chapter after graduation—is surprising and twistedly sweet the way it combines friendship and Carrie (1976) iconography. Director Tyler MacIntyre fills the soundtrack with poppy vibes—Cults’ “Always Forever,” The Wet Secrets’ “Nightlife” and Grimes’ “Flesh without Blood”—while also finding the chillingly perfect place for John Paul Roney’s cover of “All I Have to Do is Dream.” It’s not often that a film has such an effect on the viewer that he or she wants to immediately watch it all over again, but Tragedy Girls is decidedly one razor-sharp, giddily inspired entertainment with major replay value. Tweet your friends about it.