Vancouver International Film Festival runs from September 28 – October 13, 2017. Screening films from more than 70 countries on nine screens, VIFF’s program includes the pick of the world’s top film fests and many undiscovered gems.
Overview: Two girls bent on becoming horror legends use the work of a serial killer to project their burgeoning hobby into a career. It’s The Comeback Kids; 2017; Rated R; 98 minutes.
Get Off My Lawn: Back in the ’90s and early-aughts sleepover classics like Heathers, Jawbreaker, and Idle Hands reigned supreme. These dark horror-comedies played perfectly for angsty, giggly teens the world over. Renting and re-renting and reciting lines became a regular pastime with friends while filling our gullets with whatever sugar-laden delicacies we could find. We liked them for their caricature depiction of high school, cheeky lingo, and goofy gore. We felt like these movies were made for us, like they took our imaginations and stretched them farther than we’d ever allow ourselves to.
We might have also taken them as prophetic warnings of what to expect as we progressed through the social ladder of school. They showed us the inner workings of the mean girls, what to look out for and who might be able to get away with literal and figurative murder. For social outcasts, sometimes they provided a darkly cathartic release for our angry victimhood – not that we’d ever actually want or try to kill someone; it was just nice to see people get their comeuppance with our limited mental capacity to deal with the changes in our bodies and our lives.
But we grew up, and so did our tastes. We put aside childish things and reached higher for more meaningful, artistic work. We wanted to confront heavier themes and run the race of intellectual name-dropping and navel-gazing. We didn’t need the rainbow neon scream machine anymore, though we looked back fondly at our love affair with it and sometimes even held those films as dearly-beloved classics. More were being made, but they didn’t attract us the same way or pack the nostalgia punch we were looking for.
Until Tyler MacIntyre’s Tragedy Girls.
The Setup: Enter Sadie (Brianna Hildebrand) and McKayla (Alexandra Shipp) total BFFs for life in their senior year of high school. The two share a morbid and enthusiastic fascination with death, most notably the deaths of some of their Midwest small-town community at the hands of a supposed serial killer. Sadie and McKayla are latched to the teat of social media stardom, desperate for likes and faves on their Tragedy Girls Twitter account (and Tumblr, and Instagram, follow us!) and fishing for them by becoming pseudo investigators who want to rip back the curtain that’s hiding the truth from its citizens.
Well, kind of. Both girls are a little “off” and blinded by a desire for fame – to become local horror legends – they take matters into their own hands to steer their fate. That is, they lure the killer (Kevin Durand, who can frankly take it down a notch here) to his capture, and the two go on a killing spree of their own only to be later framed on the bumbling idiot they have locked away under video observation. These aren’t spoilers. Sadie has been working tirelessly giving, like, thirty handjobs to basic boys on Sweetheart Bridge to bring the killer out of hiding in the first scene of the film, complete with a pretty solid machete whack to the face.
This is a tough sell. In order for the premise to work, the girls have to be likeable. Somehow, despite their deranged fascination with killing and their self-absorbed living, they are. This is thanks to the casting choices. Brianna Hildebrand is probably best known for her role as Negasonic Teenage Warhead in Deadpool, a ferociously intimidating wall of mostly silence and brawn. But give her some lines and that woman can work it. She’s driven and saucy and regularly calls out the pathetic behaviour of men around her. At least, the ones she’s not in love with. She doesn’t let her trailer park roots affect people’s respect for her and remains a star student despite her murderous intent. Alexandra Shipp (young Storm in X-Men: Apocolypse) as McKayla is a perfect blend of cute and disturbed, flashing a million dollar smile between psychotic laughter and serving serious looks. She’s a natural physical performer and a bit of a scene-stealer, especially in the more comedic moments.
The film is also hilarious. The girls’ dialogue is spot-on for the time period (today) and the writing is tight as a virgin on their wedding day. I’m not being any more crass than the film itself by saying so, whether they’re one-liners or long-form setups the jokes land every single time. Even the most tropey characters like Toby, Josh Hutcherson’s dreamy doltish performance as McKayla’s crotchrocket-riding ex is funny when it could have been rote or worthy only of extreme eye rolls. All your old favourites are there: the mousy girl who does the thankless bidding of the hot girl, the ornery sheriff and his rebellious son, and the totally unaware parents all make good on their expected parts.
The Horror: Tragedy Girls delivers generously on its promise of mayhem and death. Every murder is progressively more violent and gory and because of this, way more fun to watch. It takes the best parts of slasher material and wraps them with a sparkly bow for your viewing pleasure. The murders and the bloody aftermath always look great and make a solid impact whether you see it coming or not. It would be totally remiss not to address how flawless the costume and makeup design is in Tragedy Girls. The outfits are a revelation for thrift store aficionados and the makeup inspiring for Instagram selfie queens everywhere.
Finally, Tragedy Girls doesn’t let itself just get away with murder. If you look for them, there are messages about the insidious nature of social media, narcissism, and vampiric preying on tragedy for likes and follows. Some of this is delivered directly, some more tongue-in-cheek, but the movie is always very self-aware of itself. That is to say, it doesn’t really do anything new, but it takes its source material and revamps it for today. The story is fairly predictable, but no less enjoyable for it. It will certainly be too cheeky for some, even offensive to others, but that’s part of what makes it great. Despite their amoral behaviour and egocentric obsession with fame, you’ll likely find yourself cheering for the girls by the end. You just can’t help it.
Overall: Tragedy Girls gives the ’90s black comedy a facelift and fully delights from beginning to end. It’s destined to become a sleepover classic for teens and a nostalgic return to the era for those of us who grew up loving it.
Featured Image: Gunpowder & Sky