There’s plenty of nasty late summer fun to be had in A24’s of-the-moment slasher Bodies Bodies Bodies, a mix of gore and guffaws that aims to deliver the same poppy jolt that Scream did back in 1996 at a time when the genre is receiving a surprise resurrection. But while recent hits such as Halloween Kills and Scream 5 have mostly coasted on nostalgia, replaying the same old hits, stabbings and beheadings, Dutch director Halina Reijn’s English-language debut asks the difficult question of whether there’s anything truly new to do with the stalk-and-slash format most of us know so, or perhaps too, well. After a mostly effective 95 minutes, the answer would probably be a maybe?
Based on an original spec script from Cat Person author Kristen Roupenian and later given a dramatic rewrite by Pulitzer finalist and playwright Sarah DeLappe, Bodies Bodies Bodies is very much old dog with a flashy new trick up its sleeve. The setup is one that, pleasingly, leans big into familiar whodunnit-cum-slasher tropes – a group of friends, a remote old house, a menacing storm – but there’s a novel, if not entirely surprising, last-act twist that separates it from the crowd. I would say once all cards have been played it’s a film that’s easier to admire than to love, a trick to reluctantly applaud rather than cheer for.
After yet another summer season of frustratingly coy yet smugly over-publicised moments of LGBT representation (a look! A suggestion! A longing!), it’s a refreshing statement of intent to begin with an extended, closeup, full-tongued kiss between two women. As with many elements of Bodies Bodies Bodies, there are no half-measures in how it deals with its queerness, two gay leads who proceed to have other gay flirtations and gay entanglements throughout, yet another example of how the horror genre has been embracing queer characters of late (see also: They/Them, the Fear Street trilogy and M Night Shyamalan’s next). It’s a big trip for Bee (Maria Bakalova), nervous to meet the friends of her newish girlfriend Sophie (Amandla Stenberg), the pair driving up to the lavish mansion owned by the parents of Sophie’s obnoxious childhood best friend David (Pete Davidson). But they’re met with dropped jaws by the group (Industry’s Myha’la Herrold, Shiva Baby’s Rachel Sennott, Generation survivor Chase Sui Wonders and Lee Pace) palpable, awkward surprise, as well as annoyance, that Sophie would show her face, especially after she’s been so unreliable on the group text …
But as the storm takes hold, debauchery takes over, and the group drinks, smokes and snorts their way into an uneasy truce. As the only sober one, after recently leaving rehab, a fun-starved Sophie decides that it’s time for a game: Bodies Bodies Bodies. The rules are simple: everyone gets a piece of paper, one is marked with X, which means they’re the killer, and then the lights go out.
It doesn’t take long for bodies to start piling up for real, but what invigorates a familiar formula is an unusually firm grasp on character, something that even the best slasher films fail to even bother with. In a genre where someone having a surname amounts to character development, there’s some relative heft here with a set of clearly drawn, if vapid and/or deeply unlikable, twentysomethings believably bitching and jabbing as the death count goes up. The first, incredibly annoying, trailer was something of a red flag, suggesting a film that confused buzzwords with satire (triggered! Safe space! Gaslighting!) but the script is far defter and less mean-spirited than that implied. The film isn’t striving to desperately provide any sort of social commentary/dissertation on Gen Z right now (the characters just … are) and is far better for it, especially at a time when too many horror films are clumsily taking on far more than they can really handle.
DeLappe’s specific and spiky dialogue receives an extra lift from one of the better-orchestrated ensembles in recent memory, with Sennott the real standout, acing comic support without overplaying, turning even throwaway lines into zingers (it’s only a rather tedious Davidson who provides the bum notes, gratingly playing to type yet again). So many “cool” horror films in recent years have been made with a certain icy remove, as if the goal is to impress rather than immerse, so it’s gratifying to see Reijn lean into the hokey extremes of the sinister situation with a location Agatha Christie would approve of, and enough thunderous sound to make us believe there’s a real storm raging around us. It’s only in the last act that things start to lag, as we head towards a reveal the film isn’t quite equipped to deal with, a twist that requires major lapses in suspense and tension for reasons I can’t get into. It relies on a moment of absurdist comedy at the very end that didn’t work for me, and the overwhelming feeling one is left with is emptiness. It’s nifty but dramatically unsatisfying.
Whodunnits require so many moving parts to be expertly placed and played with, and, ultimately, the script isn’t as sleek as it needs to be with a board as ambitious as this. The game is a fun one, but you might feel a little cheated once it’s over.