Written by: Sarah DeLappe(screenplay) Kristen Roupenian (story)
Directed by: Halina Reijn
Starring: Amandla Stenberg, Maria Bakalova, Rachel Sennott
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
This is not a safe space.
Bodies Bodies Bodies is the latest entry in what’s being labeled as the “cringe horror” canon. These are horror movies that are unsettling in an unconventional manner, leaning less on traditional cringe-worthy jump scares or gore, exploiting instead Gen Z's vernacular concept of “cringe:” the second-hand embarrassment one feels when encountering something awkward or off-putting. Recent films like Another Evil, Creep, I Blame Society, Ingrid Goes West, Joker, and Superhost are skin-crawling because their protagonists are, quite simply, tough to watch as they embarrass themselves in one way or another, blissfully unaware of how awkward and uncomfortable their actions are. Maybe it’s a uniquely 21st century phenomenon born out of its hyperconnectivity: after all, if we aren’t socializing in some way, are we really being productive?
Halina Reijn’s entry isn’t as overt as many of its contemporaries, mostly because she and co-writers Sarah DeLappe and Kristen Roupenian have couched it inside of a traditional Agatha Christie whodunnit. However, as it continues to unfold, it becomes clear that the body count isn’t as disturbing as the characters’ reactions to the mounting mayhem. As the death toll rises, the proceedings become a full-bodied sprint in the trauma Olympics, with the various survivors jockeying to make this ordeal about themselves. Repressed resentments rise to the surface, picking away the scabs of good old-fashioned jealousy and pettiness, all of it boiling from the toxic pit of being extremely online. Sporting a pitch-black, anarchic brand of misanthropic humor that has its knives out for certain corners of Gen Z, Bodies Bodies Bodies could have easily been titled Twitter of the Death Nerve.
The film doesn’t hesitate in inviting the audience to side-eye its characters. While Sophie and Bee (Amandla Stenberg & Maria Bakalova) seem like a perfectly nice couple, their choice to hang out with the former’s rich friends in a giant mansion for a “hurricane party” says just about everything you need to know about this crowd. It quickly becomes clear that this party isn’t necessarily about banding together to survive a storm but rather a clout-chasing endeavor that they’re fully prepared to document on social media. In the downtime—sometime around the time one of the girls whines about the storm’s uneventfulness—the group decides to play “Bodies Bodies Bodies,” a souped-up version of hide-and-seek where a designated player “murders” the other contestants with the lights out before their identity is revealed. Sure enough, one of the kids actually turns up dead, blood pouring from their slit throat as the others launch into a panic that will soon become a blame game to uncover the killer among them.
It’s fair to say that Bodies Bodies Bodies is another bait-and-switch gambit from A24: while it certainly has a premise that could be mined for splatter movie mayhem, I hesitate to call it a slasher because much of its violence occurs off-screen, and the on-screen carnage isn’t exactly sensationalized. This isn’t a movie about a masked psycho stalking kids through a house, serving up elaborate butchery to the delight of the audience. Rather, Bodies Bodies Bodies is a satire that happens to borrow the cinematic language of slashers and murder mysteries in whittling down and unraveling its survivors (both literally and figuratively, it turns out). Reijn seizes on the stalk-and-slash conventions, staging some tense, moody sequences as the girls stumble around in the dark, their day-glo sticks and phone cameras providing the faintest illumination. Returning to the genre for the first time since It Follows, Disasterpeace accents the proceedings with sparse, atmospheric synth noodlings, making it clear that Bodies Bodies Bodies could have been a conventional horror movie if Reijn and company had taken it in that direction.
Instead, they zigs where you might expect them to zag by lacing the carnage with a peculiar kind of ironic humor. Even before the murders disrupt the evening, when Bodies Bodies Bodies is free to be a carefree comedy, it’s clear you’ll be laughing at this crowd instead of laughing with them. Reijn remains at an aloof, ironic distance from the characters, allowing their drama to spill out with such candor that the audience can’t help but judge most of them for what they are: vapid, self-absorbed kids whose chief concern is finding any sort of amusement. And, to be fair, this probably describes the characters in most slasher movies—it’s just that Bodies Bodies Bodies is such an aggressive, raw cacophony of Gen Z nonsense that feels intentionally off-putting.
I know that’s a tough sell for audiences, to hang out with abrasive characters whose obviously phony facades only become more pronounced. I get it, and the older you are, the more alienating it’s going to be to be stranded with them. At a certain point, Bodies Bodies Bodies begins to feel more like anthropology, almost as if the filmmakers wanted to observe what happens when a group that thrives on performative gestures actually faces a traumatic situation. A strange sort of entertainment can be derived from this, of course, something that feels like the halfway point between humor and rubbernecking as these girls lead themselves to their doom. As the group unravels, peeling away the festering resentments they’ve clung to, the catty interactions only become more cringe-inducing: someone is stalking and killing these girls, and this is what they’re doing?
Again, I know this doesn’t sound like the most pleasant experience. However, the cast helps the cause because, if nothing else, their portrayals of these extremely online Gen Z stereotypes are vivid and authentic. These are some of the most believable fake-ass characters to grace the screen in recent memory because they’re all up to the task of embracing the intimate, suffocating naturalism. Spitting rapid-fire dialogue and embracing a calculated phoniness, they’re odd paradoxes, somehow totally plastic and vapid but authentically so. It’s not hard to believe that this is a group of friends whose tenuous relationship thrives on nobody being honest with one another, and there’s a sad irony that it takes a near-death experience for them to finally be real with each other.
Anyone who’s been online even a little bit will recognize this assortment of performative clout-chasers who are quick to deploy jargon—like “ableist” and “body dysmorphia”—in their competition to determine who should feel most aggrieved. Pete Davidson is the most familiar face here, and the SNL star leans into his fuck boy persona as David, the party’s uber rich host. Already sporting one black eye from a previous encounter, he continues to stir shit among the remaining guests, including a girlfriend (Chase Sui Wonders) he humiliates, and it’s all perfectly contemptible.
Another standout is Rachel Sennott, who’s emerging as a cringe-horror queen between this and Shiva Baby. She’s Alice, a fledgling podcaster whose dramatic refrain “oh my god” in reaction to, well, everything feels emptier each time she deploys it like a tic. Sennott embodies the type of vacuous attention-seeker that Bodies Bodies Bodies seeks to eviscerate, a girl who’s quick to play the victim and join pile-ons when people are actually being victimized. Her much older boyfriend (Lee Pace), who she’s only known for a couple of weeks, makes for a natural suspect, but he’s also a crucial surrogate for the older crowd in the audience: he’s a fish out-of-water who looks slightly uncomfortable despite his odd, almost pathetic attempts to blend in with people 20 years his junior.
Sophie and Bee come the closest to feeling like exceptions. It turns out the former has been estranged from this group because she’s a recovering addict, while the latter has a soft-spoken, vulnerable quality that feels sincere. You almost feel like Sophie’s friends might be a corrupting influence on her, at least until her guarded façade starts to feel a little cagey. Likewise, Sophie’s addiction—which provides a traumatic, sympathetic history befitting of a final girl—is quickly weaponized, simply another facet of the messy drama that unfolds to the awkward horror of the audience. The unrepentant meanness of Bodies Bodies Bodies insists that nobody is let off the hook here, not even the characters you might peg as being more virtuous than the others. What’s really remarkable, though, is that the characters all have a certain charm, something that keeps them from being completely repellant, and it’s such a testament to everyone’s talent and screen presence that you don’t exactly want these kids to meet a gory end. Instead, you are just absolutely embarrassed for all of them once they start turning on each other. You don’t exactly feel pity, and you don’t exactly delight in their misery—but what you absolutely can’t do is turn away from it.
In this sense, Bodies Bodies Bodies turns its knives towards it audience, implicating them in the whole ordeal because let’s face it: we’re all addicted to drama, perhaps now more than ever. Yes, this movie thrives on a primal impulse to watch and judge drama from afar, and the basic vices—the backstabbing, the jealousy, the simmering, petty resentments among friends—translate to any era (and there’s a reason Agatha Christie remains a cultural touchstone). But its specific 21st-century embellishments highlight how we’ve willingly amplified all of this, stoking online firestorms on a daily basis with hate-follows and pile-ons. Our social media ecosystem impels us to watch people spiral out of control, to wince in embarrassment as their drama spills out for the world to see. Bodies Bodies Bodies is a microcosm of this phenomenon, and, as much as it’s obviously satirizing the trainwreck, it’s also needling the people who gawk at the trainwreck.
I don’t know that it’s especially insightful about either, mostly because a lot of its observations seem obvious enough to anyone who’s been paying attention during the past several years. It’s become abundantly clear that the hyper-public nature of social media has emboldened (often affluent) bad faith actors who will seek attention and victimhood by any means necessary, even if it means abandoning the same principles and politics that built their “brand.” At one point in Bodies Bodies Bodies, a character assures the others that one of the friends’ “politics check out” before a later scene reveals otherwise, emphasizing the sort of cursory nature that has defined friendships and acquaintances. Some people don’t want friends—they want allies that have to check out every performative box on a list that can wind up being bullshit for the rest of us to have a smug, self-assured chuckle about anyway.
The utterly candid savagery of this makes Bodies Bodies Bodies so vividly realized, though, not to mention a rare bird in the burgeoning socially-conscious horror landscape because it’s not preaching to the choir. Where a lot of this fare tends to pander towards the types of politics these characters emptily recite, this one suggests bad faith actors exist in this sphere too, eager to weaponize the language they’ve casually adopted as part of their lexicon. I think it’s a movie that’s going to outrage a certain crowd that thrives on outrage, and this makes it feel like a genuine exploitation movie in a way many of its contemporaries don’t. And while it seems calculated in that respect, it also feels chaotic because it’s hard to imagine really liking or enjoying the experience of watching it. All you can do is grit your teeth and bear the secondhand embarrassment that doesn’t relent even as the credits are set to roll. Horror movies have always inspired uneasy audiences to look through their hands to avoid something ghastly, and this one is no different: it’s just that this one leaves you wincing and sinking into your chair because its characters are showing their ass and spilling their guts, something you expect in a literal sense from slasher movies. Bodies Bodies Bodies suggests that it’s even more uncomfortable when this happens figuratively, though.
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