In the smirking, windy comic freakout Bodies Bodies Bodies, a bunch of rich, horny twenty-somethings throw a party during a hurricane, only to find themselves in a bloody morgue of horror.
“This is not a safe space,” the tagline jokes; probably “Haha, understood?” did not fit on the flyer. Steeped in its own ancient almost-cleverness, the film is a ghastly post-millennial crime thriller adorned with actors who are reliably good, whether they’re slashed, bludgeoned, or reduced to cheap satirical punchlines. The most revealing ugly scene sees a handful of surviving characters clinging to some of the Extremely Online generation’s more obnoxious social media piety: “I’m an ally!” feelings are Facts!” “A podcast is a lot of work!”
OK, that last one is kinda funny. Something similar could be said about “Bodies Bodies Bodies”: It’s kind of funny and kind of scary, though ultimately neither funny nor scary enough to prevent the two modes from canceling each other out. From a screenplay by playwright Sarah DeLappe (herself drawn from a story by Kristen Roupenian), director Halina Reijn (“Instinct”) attempts to achieve something remarkably ambitious here: the nihilistic crowd pleaser, the cynical back and forth thrown off-generational statement, gutting insufferably mundane characters that somehow avoids tipping into their own insufferable vapidity. She’s also aiming to make a clever, sly genre film that will make you guess, laugh, and scream all at the same time — and that, too, proves its own devilishly tricky claim.
For a while, however, it’s fun and intriguing. This toxic circle of friends (and a few significant others) have gathered at someone’s sprawling family estate, including Sophie (Amandla Stenberg, very good) and her shy, eye-eyed friend Bee (Maria Bakalova, ditto). Sophie’s friends are surprised to see her (she totally ditched the group texts), and some seem actively dissatisfied for reasons the script keeps secret, even as it gradually increases the emotional tension. Does it have something to do with the history of substance abuse that led Sophie to rehab not too long ago? Why is David, whom Sophie calls her best friend in the world, spreading such bad vibes?
The simple answer is that David is played by Pete Davidson, a true artist in a bad mood who is clearly winking madly at the audience. With his blue eye, bright pink hoodie and endless lines of Coke, David is like a lined up Easter Bunny, although with his easily threatened ego and talent for driving anyone nuts, he also exudes an aura of truly unpredictable danger. He is particularly hostile towards Greg (Lee Pace, alternately goofy and menacing), the handsome 40-year-old newcomer who is dating his girlfriend Alice (Rachel Sennott), who runs the aforementioned podcast. And for his sheer tell-it-how-it-is ruthlessness, David is nearly matched by Jordan (a wild Myha’la Herrold), who makes no secret of her disdain for Sophie. Clearly a storm is brewing, and not just the one that started this party.
Locking yourself up on a dark and stormy night with a few friends and lots of alcohol has a long tradition. (While the film was shot in a mansion in Chappaqua, NY, the story’s location is not given.) To pass the time, Sophie convinces the gang to play Bodies Bodies Bodies, the crime party game aimed at is to track down the “killer” – can have its own deadly effect on human relationships. Having played a version of this myself with friends in college (we called it Mafia), I can vividly remember how the game brought grudges and resentments to the surface, forcing us to understand the facial expressions, gestures, silences, and speech patterns of the to examine others for clues, and to exploit any possible sign of hesitation or uncertainty.
But hey, at least no one died mid-game. The characters in Bodies Bodies Bodies aren’t so lucky. Just before someone is killed by an invisible attacker with a saber, the power suddenly goes out and the WiFi is taken away. The screaming, blood-spattered guests are plunged into darkness, using only glowsticks, cellphones and the odd LED light therapy face mask to cut through the dense shadows of Jasper Wolf’s cinematography at the brink of visibility. The inability to call (or tweet) for help becomes increasingly stressful as corpses and accusations pile up and the And Then There Were Numbskulls conspiracy is in full swing.
The residents of the self-assured “Scream” franchise satirized and contextualized their ordeal by citing classic horror films. Aside from a muttered reference to Russian cinema, the bad boys and mean girls in “Bodies Bodies Bodies” give little indication that they even watch movies; Social media apps, not movies, are the technological medium in which their stories are written and recorded. Still, it’s hard not to wish the filmmakers, if not their characters, showed a little more cinematic flair: barring a few moments of well-built suspense, the cumulative effect of all that underlit mayhem is less thrilling than monotonous. For a time one is held by the jittery urgency of the camerawork and the jabs of Taylor Levy and Julia Bloch’s editing, but these can only go so far as to obscure the fact that scene-to-screaming, shadowy scene is fundamental genre mechanics not fully thought through.
The best parts of the film play out before all hell breaks loose, when nerves are more frayed than frayed and sanity and nuance are still within reach. Almost everyone is testy and irritating, but Reijn and her actors modulate skillfully enough. Sennott, the breakout star of last year’s less-hitting squirmfest “Shiva Baby,” wrestles a few moments of comic gold as an hapless, trend-chasing Alice. I particularly liked Chase Sui Wonders as David’s passive friend Emma, who tends to remain silent and shut down in a way that’s more humanly recognizable than the others’ queen bee diatribes. Speaking of the Bee, Bakalova, Oscar-nominated for her riotous work in Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, is unsurprisingly strong as a likable but mysterious misfit who, like Sophie and several others, harbors a few secrets.
One of those so-called friends must be the killer, right? Let’s just say that the ease with which everyone comes to this conclusion – though it’s an obvious criminal investigation convention – is also meant to be a damning collective indictment. At a time when everyone makes a fetish out of authenticity, friendships are proving to be the flimsiest and least authentic constructs, mediated through TikTok and easily destroyed by an illegal text chain. To that end, Bodies Bodies Bodies is probably the best way to approach a movie about the horrors of losing internet connection.
This idea holds promise, and Reijn and DeLappe understand how people, even in a politically progressive, racist, and sexually inclusive crowd, can and do use social justice language to hide their own blatant privilege. But their insights are dashed by an over-the-top, over-the-top third act whose satirical bent proves unnecessarily crude, more in terms of verbiage than violence. In a story that means holding up a cracked, bloody mirror to Gen Z, it’s fitting that the film’s disdain for its characters – blatantly and admittedly not unjustly – backfires.
‘body body body’
Valuation: R, for violence, gory imagery, drug use, sexual innuendos, and ubiquitous language
Duration: 1 hour 35 minutes
To play: Begins August 5 at AMC Burbank 16, AMC Burbank Town Center 6, AMC the Grove 14, and AMC Century City 15
https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/movies/story/2022-08-04/bodies-bodies-bodies-review-a24-pete-davidson ‘Bodies Bodies Bodies’: A horror film for, and about, Gen Z