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The new dark comedy Bodies Bodies Bodies is a clever mix of old and new sensibilities. Kristen Roupenian, who wrote the popular 2017 short story “Cat Person,” has a screenwriting credit along with Sarah DeLappe, a Pulitzer finalist whose play, The Wolves, had a successful run at Studio Theater in early 2018. Together they bring exciting new voices to moviemaking, and yet their film continues in a tradition popularized by Black Christmas in 1974: a slasher where young women are possibly being stalked—or are they losing their grip on reality?—by a sinister force that’s mostly off camera. There are enough surprises and twists in Bodies Bodies Bodies to keep audiences guessing, and, yet, it has an ulterior motive far more intriguing than the killer’s identity.
Maria Bakalova, who received an Oscar nomination for Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, plays Bee, the audience surrogate in a much more straightforward role. She just started dating Sophie (Amandla Stenberg), and tags along for a weekend getaway at a mansion belonging to Sophie’s childhood friend, David (Pete Davidson). The tension between Bee and Sophie’s friends is instantly recognizable: Bee is an outsider, and the rest quickly fall into their familiar group dynamics as longtime friends. Other guests include Alice (Rachel Sennott), a podcaster with a noticeably older boyfriend (Lee Pace), and David’s girlfriend, Emma (Chase Sui Wonders). A hurricane interrupts what should have been a straightforward weekend of partying and casual drug use. The power goes out, and shortly afterward someone turns up dead. Everyone could have done it, but that doesn’t stop the outsiders from being the immediate suspects.
Director Halina Reijn expertly uses shadow and restricted space to escalate tension. The relaxed pace of the opening scenes, with the friends lounging in open, bright spaces, juxtaposes the second half when the young revelers have no choice but to wander through the mansion in the dark, using only glow sticks and smartphones to illuminate the way, while trying to figure out the killer’s identity. Long stretches of Bodies Bodies Bodies unfold in the dark, and yet there are enough visual cues that make the action easy to follow. During an important confrontation midway through the film, the primary source of light comes from red emergency signs. It is a hellish environment, compounded by bad weather, drugs, and an escalating sense of paranoia.
With the exception of Pace, the film’s stars are all 20-somethings. At first, the focus on their youth and affluence suggests Reijn and DeLappe want to capture the zeitgeist that defines a particular generational subset (i.e., the youngest millennials or older members of Gen Z). Their real agenda, the aforementioned ulterior motive, happens when the friends start to abandon the pretext of friendship and civilized conversation. Left with no alternative, they turn to buzzy phrases like “triggering” and “you’re silencing me” in a vain attempt to articulate their feelings. The climax of the film is not a showdown with the killer, but friends litigating their relationships through a verbal power struggle.
No one is right or wrong, exactly, so they attempt to win the argument by saying they’re being gaslit or something similar. This is not a sympathetic portrayal, but a barbed satire at this particular socioeconomic cohort. They’re so narcissistic, so petty and devoid of original thought, that they would rather win the argument than survive the night. Bodies Bodies Bodies has echoes of The Exterminating Angel, Luis Buñuel’s 1962 surrealist film about rich people who turn to murder when, for an inexplciable reason, they cannot leave a dinner party. In a sneaky way, Bee and the others find themselves in an even more dire situation because, without access to social media, posting through their feelings is not even an option.
Bodies Bodies Bodies is the rare horror-adjacent film that is provocative without the use of scares or gore. Reijn and DeLappe are more curious in what their characters have to say, and while no one single performance stands out, they are all convincing as terrified people—mostly young women—who surprise themselves by what they are ultimately capable of doing. Some audiences may think the ending is a cheat, a way of sidestepping a resolution that assigns blame. Then again, it is a fate these characters might deserve, and a reminder that the modern equivalent of “hell is other people,” is rampant accusations of a best friend being sooooo toxic.
Bodies Bodies Bodies opens at theaters everywhere on August 12.