Entertainment

‘Tragedy Girls’ Pushes Teen Drama to Its Murderous Limits

The film suggests any comedy could benefit from a sadistic killing spree.
Alexandra Shipp and Brianna Hildebrand as McKayla and Sadie, respectively.

What if at the end of Sixteen Candles, instead of getting the guy, Molly Ringwald's Sam Baker, say, killed the guy? The movie still kind of works, right? (Cue the Thompson Twins.)

Teen angst, in its most exaggerated, cinematic manifestations, can lend itself to some really twisted reworkings. That's what director Tyler MacIntyre was banking on when he made Tragedy Girls, which he'll be bringing to the Vancouver International Film Festival September 30 and October 8 before its wide release later in the month.

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The film follows Sadie and McKayla, two high school seniors who run the cross-platform social media brand Tragedy Girls, documenting their small town's most gruesome deaths—with a machete-wielding, teen-hunting killer on the loose, they have plenty of material to work with.

But the likes just aren't coming fast enough, so Sadie and McKayla ramp up their posts the only way they know how: by upping the body count themselves. What should be a hard transition actually comes easy to the Tragedy Girls, who have a real knack for the slasher game. It could be just a straightforward splatter fest of dark comedy, but the movie does manage to find its grounding in the friendship between the two. There's something so human and everyday in their interactions, even as they argue over how best to get a knife into their still-breathing victim's heart—their newbie killer missteps only get funnier and gorier from there.

Actors Brianna Hildebrand and Alexandra Shipp deserve a lot of credit for their performances, combining movie villain wickedness with a palpable charm. Now best known for small parts in films from the X-Men universe, their careers will definitely be worth watching in the coming years. And it's really an actor's movie overall. The Hunger Games' Josh Hutcherson makes an appearance and hams up his heartthrob persona, and underrated Canadian treasure Kevin Durand is perfect as the unhinged serial killer who doesn't quite know what to make of the girls.

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The mix of teen drama and slasher horror isn't new—most slasher movies are centred on a group of teen survivors (and victims), as in Scream and so many more. But when mundane teen drama is the starting point, something else is up.

Heathers gained cult status in 1988 by playing on that. But Winona Ryder and Christian Slater's killing spree initially targets "deserving" victims, and ultimately serves a moral lesson—albeit a darkly comic one, as Ryder learns that maybe murder isn't the best way to resolve her conflicts.

Tragedy Girls is something different. The murders are petty, when they're motivated at all, and seem much more geared to online fame than problem solving. The carnage (and comedy) falls somewhere between narcissism and nihilism. But there's still a message buried in there.

"We leaned heavily on high school movies, especially ones from the 90s. There's a lot stuff in there that, when I was growing up, felt kind of strange," MacIntyre told VICE. "Something like Ethan Embry's narrative from Can't Hardly Wait, where he's just having this unrequited love, projecting that onto Jennifer Love Hewitt for his entire education without talking to her. It seems really creepy and weird in a 2017 context."

On second viewing, Ethan Embry's Preston Meyers is a little stalker-y. From Can't Hardly Wait.

The amount of glorified stalking that takes place in your average teen movie is definitely a problem worth exploring. Or, like MacIntyre, you can blow the whole genre up and push it to its logical conclusion.

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Now's a good time to play with these tropes too. "There's no lay audience anymore. Everyone's a very savvy viewer," says MacIntyre. "If you're careful, you can use those expectations that the audience has going into your film to give them something they haven't seen before."

"My intention for this is to be kind of a gateway to horror movies," he adds. "I was hoping to get a bit of a younger crowd. I know there's no real great way to stay on top of that. It changes so quickly."

MacIntyre has definitely tapped into something. Between Scream Queens and television reboots of Scream and Heathers, teen fare seems to be meshing well with murder sprees in the Gen Z demo. Even Riverdale is tapping into the horror-infused paranoia of this genre cycle.

The biggest risk with a project like this is feeling stale. Haven't I seen teenagers killing each other before? Like, a lot? But Tragedy Girls strips things down. It's satire, but it doesn't beat you over the head with the absurdity of its premise like Scream Queens, or go full soap opera like Riverdale. It's over the top, but it maintains a sense of real-worldness, making every murder feel that much more resonant—and making laughing that much more uncomfortable.

"This is meant to be a story that takes place now. About characters who live now, and I'm hoping that the people who are similar ages can identify with the characters, even though it's a little out there," MacIntyre says.

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And as movie literate as Tragedy Girls is, it's refreshing to not get bogged down in a series of references and winks to the audience. "As much as I love things like Stranger Things, which is doing some pretty awesome stuff, I didn't want to get too wrapped up in being a bit of a cover band," MacIntyre says.

The social media commentary also happens to feel particularly timely. With a Twitter-happy former reality TV star in the White House, it isn't exactly a stretch to see social media as a melting pot of mass murder and celebrity. (Has that whole declaration of war via tweet thing been sorted out yet?)

"I have sort of a love/hate relationship with social media, which I think a lot of people can probably identify with," says MacIntyre. "We're constantly bombarded. We get notifications when something horrible happens, and constantly living with that kind of disassociates us from the real-world consequences."

"I don't think this movie has any answers," he says. "I just want to jog people into thinking about these types of issues that are part of everyday life. But ultimately, the movie is satire."

Follow Frederick Blichert on Twitter.