Gen Z Reclaims the Slasher in ‘Tragedy Girls’
April 8th, 2021 | By RC Jara
In the fictional midwestern town of Rosedale—where Tyler MacIntyre’s Tragedy Girls is set—blood attracts an eager crowd. It isn’t long before a pair of high school seniors learn how to spin local misery into a lucrative business. Known on social media as the “Tragedy Girls,” McKayla Hooper (Alexandra Shipp) and Sadie Cunningham (Brianna Hildebrand) have built a viral brand by reporting on terror within the community—and if the bodies fail to drop, they gleefully lend a hand.
Deviousness begins when the girls successfully bait a serial killer named Lowell Orson Lehmann (Kevin Durand) into murdering a classmate. They then capture Lehmann in a wild ploy to secure a forced mentorship opportunity. When the killer’s incompetence leaves much to be desired, the girls stealthily chase clout by staging their own murders based on his modus operandi.
Tragedy Girls shares a common tongue with films in the ‘90s teen horror cycle, making it a deceptively familiar watch. McKayla and Sadie go by the surnames of revered slasher filmmakers and riff on popular works in the subgenre (including its giallo predecessors). They even fulfil the promise of the original killers in Scream by being well-versed students in the craft of manipulation.
MacIntyre and co-writer Chris Lee Hill ground their concept in the ravenous world of online culture—like in Wes Craven’s eerily prophetic Scream 4, the ubiquity of viral, morbid news triggers mass panic in Rosedale. The girls exploit bloodshed mercilessly via a series of sardonic blog posts that are flooded with engagement from their peers. But courting an enthusiastic fan base for the grotesque soon takes its toll, and Tragedy Girls deviates from the path blazed by classic slashers.
Tragedy Girls maintains its endearing tone by prioritizing the growing pains of being a teenager in a small town. McKayla and Sadie are halfway between gawkish and psychotic. Overwhelmed by the desire to make an impact before graduating, their kills boast an operatic flare in order to expand viewership. The film spares no gore in the elimination of a brooding ex, an annoying classmate, and a heroic firefighter. Yet the girls are often uncoordinated and leave damning traces of evidence at nearly every scene. Pantomiming slasher-isms to lure prey quickly gives way to each girl falling victim to their own emotions. The farther tensions escalate between McKayla and Sadie, the closer their sociopathic feat begins to catch stride. The viewer is lulled into sympathizing with two patently horrible characters who begrudgingly learn to be people apart from one another.
McKayla and Sadie’s media-rotted minds prepare them for everything but the crushing reality of having to grow up. Obligations from the world outside loom heavily. Even after their relationship sours, the girls’ combined reactions while facing adolescent rituals indicate a less than ecstatic attitude about the future. Must they care about prom beyond its usefulness as a venue to wreak havoc? Must they be attracted to boys? Plan for college? This is a norm usually interrupted by a killer waving a knife around threatening to snatch it all away. Here, the girls themselves are the danger.
To their dismay, the paradigm of Rosedale seems unable to register their ownership of the carnage in spite of how obvious it is. Before long, the film asks: what is the benefit of killing with impunity if your work goes unacknowledged? This is a bleak irony that opens the parameters of the slasher villain arc. In doing so, the filmmakers leave us adrift in a third act without a traditional final girl in a story overrun by two monsters.
Throughout Tragedy Girls, Shipp and Hildebrand explore unrepentant viciousness with the pathos of angsty teenage girls. Interestingly, their characters evade victimization to face a cannibalistic online culture head-on with giddy mean-spiritedness. Gone is a menacing allegory in the flesh. A killer old man in a pair of boots and joggers stalking the background is nostalgic fun, but it is oddly satisfying to witness Lehman be systematically dressed down. The girls sequester him to usurp his position as homegrown slasher icons.
Without dismissing the trials of final girl royalty, Tragedy Girls collapses the dynamic between monster and survivor. It’s a revelation to watch slasher iconography in a constant state of metamorphosis throughout the spree. The killers hunt under neon masks, all black clothing, and prom dresses alike. Despite a gendered handle, the Tragedy Girls function as he, a she, and a they. Swinging a machete to the face of convention, McKayla and Sadie write their own rules. They can be whoever they want. Their brand embraces fluidity and demands a break away from its anonymous presence.
The film ends with a tried-and-true prom sequence. McKayla, jealous of her partner’s relationship with their videographer Jordan (Jack Quaid), strikes a deal with an escaped Lehmann. She sics the killer loose on school grounds and, predictably, the beast turns on its master. Both girls reunite to put him down. In a dramatic twist, McKayla reveals the longstanding guilt which makes them kill. They are responsible for the murder of Jordan’s mother at a young age and have harbored the secret ever since.
Incapacitated, Jordan pleads for Sadie to leave McKayla behind, wrongly putting his faith in their fleeting romance. By yester-year slasher standards, Jordan would have saved the day. He is, by virtue of his traumatic connection to the murders at large, the final boy. Instead, the girls kill Jordan shortly before incinerating a gym packed with 124 students in a Carrie-esque blaze. They marvel at their work hand-in-hand in a grand display of liberation, solidifying their unholy union.
Though troubling to watch, this final heel turn doesn’t run contrary to the overall narrative. Tragedy Girls is an incisive look at the anxiety of a new generation growing up under surveillance. Horrific as it is, the Tragedy Girls brand is a vehicle for agency. The film interprets social media as a reality of perpetual competition for a meaningful place in the world. McKayla and Sadie’s success vanquishes societal pressures and creates a peculiar space for them in the slasher subgenre.
As final girls to their own reign of terror, they can drive off into the sunset without having to look over their shoulders. There is no maniac with a buzzsaw trailing the vehicle. For better and worse, the girls are left to be the authors of their own destinies while remaining free of judgement. This isn’t an ideal outcome for a horror film. Then again, Tragedy Girls is not interested in binding itself to restrictive ideals.
By creating media-savvy teen girl killers, MacIntyre and Hill engage a new generation of horror audiences on their level. Tragedy Girls might be reverent to a point, including the retro photography of Pawel Pogorzelski, but it acknowledges the gripe Gen-Z has with the world outside. Existing under a microscope involves a degree of losing control. Regaining autonomy is a seasoned concept in horror, where a person is either the hunter or the hunted. Tragedy Girls is fully aware of the rules of the game, but chooses to pursue an outcome as inspiring as it is demonic. Identity itself is fraught in a slasher film and “be yourself” doesn’t quite satisfy as a lasting impression anymore. Neither McKayla nor Sadie have a grip on who they really are before the prom murders anyway. The film’s message, therefore, rides more along the lines of “be as many things as you can.” With solidarity from the person riding alongside you, most anything is surmountable. Give or take a limb or two.