Of his 1960 proto-slasher that shocked audiences worldwide, director Michael Powell claimed, “(Peeping Tom is) not a horror film. It’s a film of compassion, of observation and of memory, yes! It’s a very tender film, a very nice one.” It’s an understandable takeaway when you absorb the story of serial killing photographer Mark with a focus not on what he is doing, but what he is struggling with. Fifty-seven years later, the slasher genre has flourished and grown innovative takes on its self-imposed structural regulations, resulting in modern gems like The Final Girls and Happy Death Day. 2017 brought forth more of that innovation in Tyler MacIntyre’s Tragedy Girls, but he and co-screenwriter Chris Lee Hill share a common sensibility with Powell and horror filmmakers of decades past. While Tragedy Girls certainly plays in the register of horror, it is ultimately a tale of friendship. A very tender film.
In MacIntyre’s slasher-comedy, a duo of morbid teenage girls host a blog about tragedies in their small town, fomenting a swell of hysteria among the town and media that aids in their ultimate goal: horror infamy.
From any other perspective, Sadie Cunningham and McKayla Hooper are average teenage girls. They’re up to date on fashion trends, they actively participate in their student body government, and even carry romantic interests. They embrace performative feminine guidelines, even to the point of caring immensely what others perceive of them…sort of. Sadie and McKayla’s dependence upon social media and thirst for positive metrics on their Tragedy Girls blog is both ordinary for girls their age (a particularly acidic serving in the larger satirical stew that Hill and MacIntyre have brewed in the do-it-for-the-Vine age) and unnerving within the larger context of the girls’ bloodthirsty extracurricular activities.
At film’s opening, they’re simply obsessed with finding their local serial killer. But after they’ve captured “Lowell” and have him bound to a chair at their disposal, he proves to be uncooperative with their goal of true-crime notoriety. So the girls quickly decide that they’re more than capable of going the Nightcrawler route and creating their own tragedies, all for the likes. But no amount of hearts emojis and retweets can fill the growing rift between Sadie and McKayla, whose insecurities and flaws threaten their previously unshakable devotion toward one another.
Chief among Tragedy Girls’ myriad of themes is that of the power of friendship. It’s grim sweetness is extolled in the poster of the pair holding hands as they watch their classmates burn alive. It’s black-hearted simplicity is gently distilled into the tagline: “Friends who slay together, stay together”. The power of female friendship (and the devastating fallout of severing such a bond) has been displayed through darkened prisms in film before. In 1971, Joel Seria’s Don’t Deliver Us From Evil followed two sociopathic Catholic schoolgirls and their unholy shenanigans upon their boarding school, culminating in a blasphemous but poetic ending for the inseparable pair. Peter Jackson’s 1994 film Heavenly Creatures dramatized a real-life murder case involving two schoolgirls who would not stand for any attempts to separate them, going so far as to kill in order to uphold their blood pact. Likewise, it’s Lowell’s efforts at pitting Sadie and McKayla against each other that (though successful at first) prompts the girls to acknowledge both their individual faults and their collective strength in the film’s climax. Tragedy Girls’ cynical auntie Heathers knew good and well the potency that simmers within the connection between teenage girls; as a unit, the Heathers were a formidable clique, but the moment that one of the Heathers perceived an imbalance of power within the group, things got gruesome. The underseen 2016 Laotian film Dearest Sister mined horror out of a mutually exploitative relationship between cousins who were obliged to take care of one another. Its themes are a far cry from that of Tragedy Girls, but its sanctity of female social structures and the chaos resulting from tampering with that ecosystem shares a brooding kinship with MacIntyre’s latest. Girls’ sleepover staple of the 90’s The Craft flaunted a coven of teen witches who, together, wrought their fury upon any and all who had wronged them until their friendship was shaken by dissent, wrath, and jealousy.
Jealousy is often utilized as a wedge in dark tales involving women and girls. Centuries ago, it was in the form of green-eyed, vain Hera of ancient mythology taking vengeance on the (often unwilling) mistresses of her unfaithful husband Zeus. It continues in storytelling today, especially in tales made to thrill and chill. Dearest Sister, Oz Perkins’ modern horror classic The Blackcoat’s Daughter, and A.D. Salvo’s 2016 slow-burner Sweet, Sweet Lonely Girl all run an infusion of covetousness throughout their veins; one has something the other wants, whether it be of the body or of the lifestyle. Tragedy Girls is no different in its use of resentment, here sprouting from the intrusion of the opposite sex (both Lowell’s divisive whisperings and McKayla’s vanilla love interest). It’s one of a pair of conflicts that strains Sadie and McKayla’s loyalties to each other, with the other being far more vain in nature.
The same generational narcissism that MacIntyre and Hill embroider into the film’s satirical tapestry is mirrored in the microcosm of Sadie and McKayla’s relationship. Though Sadie never tried to downplay her need to be in full control, Lowell’s manipulative goading effectively translated her dominant nature into a domineering one in McKayla’s eyes, and the resulting resentment cracked the rock-solid foundation that the Tragedy Girls built and killed upon. With every ensuing misstep that Sadie and McKayla make, not only do they jeopardize their safety and everything they’ve worked towards, but they further expose the duality of their relationship as both supporters and benefactors. The fame from their increasingly popular blog feeds their need for attention, the slayings feed their need for thrills. As the tension between them boils over, the girls point fingers like knives and each twists the blade to the hilt into the other’s deepest insecurities.
But amid the attempted slaughter of their classmates at the school dance, Sadie and McKayla confront each other and their respective fears. Like most tales of friendship and like most real friendships, transgressions are acknowledged, tears are shed, apologies are made, and hugs are dispersed. The body count also rises, blessing their reunion in the blood of another victim. And so the show goes on; the girls don their masks and join blood-spattered hands once again to reaffirm their allegiance to one another, anointed in screams as their peers burn alive in the locked gymnasium. Like the blood pact of Ginger Snaps, “Out by 16 or dead on the scene, but together forever”, the Tragedy Girls’ bond is sanguinary. The exception here is that their bond is not by menstrual blood as they pass into womanhood, nor is their connection strengthened by the DNA match that would make them blood relatives. The blood that seals the Tragedy Girls’ bond is that of their victims; they stay together because they slay together.
When you look at it that way, Tragedy Girls is a very tender film, indeed.
Anya Stanley is a California-based writer, columnist, and staunch Halloween 6 apologist. Her horror film analyses have appeared on Birth Movies Death, Blumhouse, Daily Grindhouse, and wherever they’ll let her talk about scary movies. See more of her work on anyawrites.com, and follow her shenanigans on Twitter @BookishPlinko.