Ever since “Scream” evolved from an affectionate send-up of horror genre tropes into a genuine money-minting franchise, there have been nearly as many tongue-in-cheek slasher movie homages as actual slasher movies, all too many of which were content to simply mimic the idiosyncrasies of their Reagan Era influences, rather than do something interesting with them. In that sense, Tyler MacIntyre’s “Tragedy Girls” serves as a welcome tonic, and one of the freshest, funniest horror-comedies to emerge in “Scream’s” long wake.
A key to the success of this giddily postmodern, subtly disturbing splatter-farce is its general disinterest in playing spot-the-reference, instead taking style cues from its own central pair of social media-obsessed high school serial killers, played with delirious commitment by Alexandra Shipp and Brianna Hildebrand. There are certainly visual call-backs to “Carrie” and “Cannibal Holocaust” to be found here, but there are far more to “Clueless”; at its best, “Tragedy Girls” plays like a sweet story of a believable high school friendship between two girls who just happen to be sociopaths.
Sleepy Midwestern town Rosedale is several murders deep into a killing spree besetting the local high school population, and as the film opens, Sadie (Hildebrand) looks to be the next victim. But just as the hulking, Leatherfaced killer (Kevin Durand) is about to cut her down after a spooky midnight forest chase, he’s captured in a trap laid by Sadie and her best friend McKayla (Shipp), who chain him up in a water tower, taking selfies as they jolt him with a cattle prod.
Thirstily promoting their shared Tumblr/Twitter brand, @TragedyGirls, Sadie and McKayla have been chasing social media attention with their amateur reporting on the Rosedale killings, but figure the task will be even easier if they take the killer’s place themselves. MacIntyre doesn’t bother to give us too much backstory on how these two became remorseless killing machines — all that really matters is how neatly they manage to fit gruesome murders in between cheerleading practice and yearbook committee meetings.
In addition to some very particular shared interests, this blood-splattered Cher and Dionne are entirely credible as queen-bee besties, from their personalized slang to their easily-aroused jealousy. Default ringleader Sadie is from the wrong side of the tracks, and nurses a half-hidden infatuation with a shy classmate (Jack Quaid), who happens to be the son of the town’s hapless sheriff. McKayla is a rich girl whose chipper effervescence seems to suggest an even deeper strain of psychosis than her partner’s, and their lifelong friendship is threatened when the imprisoned killer starts to convince McKayla that she might be even deadlier on her own.
“Tragedy Girls’” plot is a bit of a mess, and the captive-killer thread is lost for such long stretches that at times it appears to be a leftover remnant from an early draft. But these flaws are largely neutralized by MacIntyre’s bonkers stylistic abandon, as he cuts freely from bubbly high school farce to gooey dismemberment, pausing every so often to offer a dark reminder that viewers really shouldn’t be cheering for these horrible people, then going right back to doing exactly that.
Yet none of this would work without Shipp and Hildebrand’s performances, both of which split the difference between Tarantino and Nickelodeon remarkably well. (Refreshingly, the girls are far less sexualized than one might expect — when they do resort to using their feminine wiles, the joke is how little effort they have to expend in doing so.) Josh Hutcherson hilariously sends up his own Tiger Beat image from the “Hunger Games” series as McKayla’s ex, who becomes one of the first victims — “You can’t make an omelet without killing a few ex-boyfriends,” Sadie reasons in a pre-murder pep talk — and Craig Robinson appears as a glory-hogging fireman, whom the film matter-of-factly posits as the town’s most irresistible bachelor. “Tragedy Girls’” visual palette is sparky and bright throughout, and some of its biggest laughs come from composer Russ Howard’s intentionally inappropriate music cues.