I was in the mood for some more Christmas horror, and I tried this movie BODY – the 2015 American movie, not the 2015 Polish movie – for the following two reasons: it showed up in Shudder’s holiday section, and the running time was 75 minutes. I had not heard of it, but it’s something that played the Slamdance Film Festival and is distributed by Adam Yauch’s company Oscilloscope Laboratories.
The “Christmas horror” label is arguable here. The Shudder description uses the term “Hitchcockian,” and the poster tries to evoke Saul Bass with simple cutouts on a red background. But it’s about young people and some killing and it’s set at Christmas time, so it’s a Christmas horror and/or thriller.
I don’t think BODY is nearly as good as the Halloween-set movie HAUNT, but it shares one of its strengths: its group of young friends and their aimless night of hanging out (before it goes to Hell) feel very authentic. Holly (Helen Rogers, V/H/S, REVENGE FOR JOLLY!), Cali (Alexandra Turshen, PIRANHA SHARKS, Ray Donovan) and Mel (Lauren Molina, “Cult Member,” MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE, ABCs OF DEATH 2) are three college friends who have come to stay with Mel’s family for Christmas. There’s kind of a grown up slumber party vibe – they’re playing Scrabble, drinking wine, Mel’s weirdo shades-wearing dad (Dan Brennan, “Party Guest,” CARLITO’S WAY, “FBI Photographer,” DONNIE BRASCO) embarrasses her by trying to be Cool Dad, her drunk mom (Kimberly Flynn, “Casal’s Date,” HEAT) wakes up and gets mad that they’re sharing a joint with Mel’s teenage brother, but they shoo her away by hugging her and telling her they love her. It’s believable that these people are close and have known each other for a while.
They’re very well cast for their friendship dynamic. Holly immediately registers as the audience surrogate (and Final Girl type), being the one who’s smarter and more reasonable and/or uptight when her friends are pushing her toward bad ideas. Mel is kind of a wry stoner, a little Eeyore-ish but laid back and willing to go along with whatever. Cali has the look and attitude of someone who has always been treated as hot and therefore able to get her way, and takes perverse pleasure from that power. For example, she likes stunning little brother into silence by bluntly joking about having sex with him. And she pressures the trio into going out to find something to do when they’d rather sit around on the couch.
She’s the friend who suggests something that seems really cool except that the whole time you can’t stop thinking there’s a catch. In this case it’s to go hang out at the house – mansion, it turns out – of her rich uncle who’s out of town for the holidays. Cali, are you sure they’re not home? Did you tell him we were coming? Are you sure this is okay?
But she knows where the keys and the light switches are, it seems to be okay, so they relax. They check out the sports car collection, play some pool, enjoy the bountiful liquor supply. It seems fun, but when Holly went off by herself to find the bathroom I just pictured myself being there in that big empty stranger’s home, the whole time fearing a stranger walking in saying “WHO THE FUCK ARE YOU?”
That’s kinda what happens, but only after (SPOILER) Cali admits okay, I lied, this isn’t my uncle’s house, it’s this rich family I used to babysit for, we’re not supposed to be here, but they’re always out of town at this time of year. God damn it, Cali. You’re always doing this shit. Holly very reasonably insists that they have to leave immediately, and of course right then a car pulls up and they hear somebody downstairs yelling “WHO’S UP THERE? WHAT ARE YOU DOING HERE?”
They try to make a run for it and it turns out to be the groundskeeper (Larry Fessenden, every independent horror movie released in the last 20 years) and as Holly tries to push past him she accidentally knocks him down the stairs and he breaks his neck. So that’s what we’re dealing with in this movie.
Now their differing personalities and relationships collide with a bad situation. Holly is Holly, so her instinct is to call the police, explain what happened, and deal with the consequences. Cali is Cali, so hers is to come up with a false story to make them less at fault. What she comes up with is (SPOILER) that yeah, they shouldn’t have been here, but it was just some mischief, and this guy tried to take advantage of this and rape them! She convinces Holly and Mel that since the guy is already dead there’s no harm in falsely accusing him, and she uses her classic Cali manipulations to push them on board, needling at what harm would come to each of their families if they get blamed for this, pretending it’s about them and not selfishness.
In order for the filmatists to pull their story off they have to have their characters go to outrageous lengths to sell their story. They certainly do that, but I don’t think it quite works. As they really push the boundaries of taste to falsify forensic evidence (for starters, scratching his fingernails across Holly’s breast) it made me squirm, but not with a smile on my face. It’s as uncomfortable as I want it to be – really banging on that ‘reluctantly going along with your friend’s stupid idea even though you know better’ button – but too unpleasant, in my opinion. There should be something fun about this, and there’s not. I don’t see the “darkly funny” part of Shudder’s description (other than some realistic gallows humor between the friends).
Of course things go wrong, unexpected problems pop up, and they keep butting heads about how to proceed, sometimes turning on each other (which is where it gets a little more interesting). According to the film’s Wikipedia page, “The characters represent Sigmund Freud’s model of the id, ego, and superego. They were designed to show the various ways someone could react to the dilemmas in the film.” Okay, bud. I’m glad I didn’t think of it that way, but the conflicts between the personality types are certainly the compelling part of the movie.
I was 100% engaged in this one when it wasn’t about anything yet. It’s once it becomes a thriller that it becomes less consistent. I guess it was a little too cynical for me about how immoral normal people will get when things go wrong. I know people who hated A SIMPLE PLAN at the time because they didn’t buy a guy like Paxton resorting to murder, or at least they didn’t like the thought of it. I kinda felt that way about this – there are bad choices that seem to come a little too easily, and that are disappointing if you accept them as human nature. Also, I’m not sure I agree with this movie’s idea of how easy it is to kill somebody by hitting them with a piece of wood. But I wouldn’t know.
So I’m not necessarily recommending this one, but I definitely like the performances, and it was made with some skill by the writer/director team of Dan Berk and Robert Olsen. I didn’t recognize the names, but I saw and enjoyed their followup, which was STAKE LAND II. They also did VILLAINS (2019) and wrote that Dolph Lundgren movie DON’T KILL IT (2016).
If it matters to you, Christmas is not important to the plot, other than the reason why they’re home from school. There’s a Christmas tree, some lights. No killer elves or candy cane eyeball stabs or anything cool like that.