For a great many years now, slasher movies have frequently done their best to subvert expectation, particularly when it comes to the young women who typically wind up on the end of the masked killer’s implement of choice. Why, it’s been almost 25 years since the first scene of Jason Goes To Hell pulled off that trick by having its screaming, mostly-naked would-be victim turn the tables and lead the Friday the 13th antagonist into a trap; and six years ago, Scream 4 did a climactic about-face on the character who seemed to have ‘final girl’ stamped on her forehead. Points due also to the criminally underseen 2008 Spanish horror comedy Sexy Killer, in which the pretty young woman is known to be the murderer from pretty much the beginning. Indeed, throw Sexy Killer in a blender with classic teen satire Heathers, and the resulting goop would look a lot like Tragedy Girls. That having been said, director Tyler McIntyre’s film would seem far more likely to draw comparison with more recent release The Babysitter, with which it does share some thematic and stylistic ground; but Tragedy Girls is an altogether darker, nastier affair, and all the more fun for it.
Sadie and McKayla (Brianna Hildebrand and Alexandra Shipp, both veterans of the X-Men series and as such likely to attract interest from a wider teen audience) seem at a glance to be the textbook high school popular girls – cheerleaders, prom committee – but their real passion is their vlog/social media enterprise called, you guessed it, Tragedy Girls: essentially an amateur true crime investigation site covering the recent spate of murders in their sleepy middle-American home town. However, you may by now have ascertained the twist, made clear within the first few minutes following a very standard slasher movie intro: Sadie and MK are the ones doing the murdering, pursuing their lifelong dream of becoming legendary serial killers, whilst using their online following to promote their heinous misdeeds. To this end, they capture a hulking slasher movie madman who’s been doing the rounds locally (okay, so the girls aren’t the only ones doing the killing) in the hopes that he can impart some good homicidal wisdom their way. However, high school life and social politics have an annoying habit of impeding their progress.
It was interesting watching this on the Saturday afternoon of Celluloid Screams, Sheffield’s annual horror festival, as if I remember correctly this time last year much the same slot was taken by Kevin Smith’s Yoga Hosers; another movie in which a duo of motor-mouthed, social media-addicted teens dive headfirst into a world of weirdness. In many respects, Tragedy Girls feels like the movie Yoga Hosers wanted to be, or should have been, in that it centres on two genuinely strong, smart, independent, driven female leads, who in this instance just happen to be homicidal maniacs. Plus the script from McIntyre and Chris Lee Hill (said to be based on an earlier script by Justin Olsen) gives its leads funny lines which don’t hinge on them saying “aboot” every thirty seconds. But perhaps best we don’t dwell on that connection, as there are plenty of far better teen movies that Tragedy Girls shares common ground with, most notably the aforementioned Heathers, Mean Girls, Drop Dead Gorgeous, maybe even Bring It On in a weird kind of way; okay, the cheerleader aspect is a minor detail indeed in Tragedy Girls (we see them practice 2 or 3 times at most), but there is a competition aspect at play, as the girls build up toward what they hope will be their grand finale to outdo all that came before.
Given we’re working broadly within the parameters of the slasher movie, I’ve no doubt academics are going to have a field day with how Tragedy Girls subverts Carol Clover; whilst Men, Women and Chainsaws convincingly argues that slasher audiences are compelled to identify with the women in peril rather than the killers (as is so often claimed by reactionaries), in this instance there can be no question that it is the killers we’re meant to identify with, and this lends Tragedy Girls a transgressive quality we might not anticipate from something that initially seems so glossy and mainstream-friendly. While, as with many slasher movies, the early victims are largely unsympathetic caricatures of whom the audience can feel comfortable laughing at their demise (notably – minor spoiler I suppose – some scene-stealing cameos from Josh Hutcherson and Craig Robinson), things do get a little closer to the bone as we reach the final act. There are moments when it looks as though some eleventh-hour moralising and forced remorse might pop up – but happily, Tragedy Girls has the good sense to avoid such sentimentality, never faltering from its joyfully morbid course. Hildebrand and Shipp are compelling, endearing, charismatic leads throughout, and even when they’re at their most diabolical we can’t help wanting to see them succeed.
There can be no doubt that this is a film custom designed to prompt outrage among the “ban this sick filth/think of the children” moralists, and to be fair they’d have a pretty easy ride condemning this one, as there’s very little sense of a redemptive message underneath it all. The clearest defence would be that the film is a satire on social media, and the lengths to which it users will go to cultivate the largest possible following, but I’m not sure that’s entirely true. The social media angle seems more like a way of garnering interest from a contemporary teen audience that’s every bit as devoted to it as our leads. Perhaps, as with so many slasher movies, the real message of Tragedy Girls is that not all stories need to have a conventional morality, and it’s perfectly okay to indulge the nihilistic, anti-social fantasies that so many of us have within the safe confines of a fantasy world, so long as we understand that none of it is meant to be taken seriously. Or something along those lines. Either way, anyone who says they’ve never rooted for the bad guy is lying through their back teeth, and in Tragedy Girls we have a pair of baddies who are very hard not to root for.