Disposing of a body can open up a real bad can of worms. Body isn’t the first word in that sort of situational thriller — 1948’s Alfred Hitchcock-directed Rope and 1955’s The Trouble with Harry, 1985’s Milton Bradley game adaptation Clue, 1991’s Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead, 1998’s star-studded Very Bad Things, 2015’s underseen Let’s Kill Ward’s Wife and many more have all used this kind of concept with absurd or dark comedy in mind. Writer-directors Dan Berk and Robert Olsen’s feature debut, on the other hand, is a minimalist thriller that has a terrific hook and milks it for all it is worth. Running a trimmer-than-trim 75 minutes, the film never has time to feel slack or protracted and it has so many mean bones in its body. Body goes straight down like a genre lover’s tonic with extra bitters.
Staying in for a girls’ night, college-aged best friends Holly (Helen Rogers), Mel (Lauren Molina), and Cali (Alexandra Turshen) spend their Christmas Eve playing Scrabble, smoking some pot, and then eating leftovers. A bored Cali eventually rounds up her girlfriends in her car and takes them to her loaded uncle’s mansion to play games and drink a little. After being in awe of the house, Holly starts looking around the house to look for the bathroom and stumbles upon family photos on the walls. This isn’t Cali’s uncle’s house. When the girls get ready to call it a night, a stranger (Larry Fessenden) comes into the house, but as the female trespassers try rushing past him, Holly accidentally knocks the man down the stairs. There’s no going back on their actions and the night snowballs from there.
Written and directed by Dan Berk & Robert Olsen, Body effectively uses simplicity as a secret weapon and creates a palpable sense of panic. Instead of throwing out the moral quandry for a slasher pic, a la I Know What You Did Last Summer, this is a skillfully crafted, wickedly provocative indie morality thriller that hinges on the common movie question, “What would you do?” The film fortunately takes a little time to get to know the girls, who have more dimension than just mere types, and the scenes of them just hanging out together ring quite true. Without this wind-up, it would be impossible to care about the outcome or believe their behavior. Once “the jig is up,” as Cali has lied about the house belonging to her uncle, and then running into even bigger problems, they actually reason out the best and worst case scenarios while under great pressure. Cali is up to making the hard decisions, but does she really have her friends’ best interests? Does she even care what Holly and Mel have to say, or has she already made up her mind in how to clean up the mess?
There’s no weak link in the trio of impressive performances. Helen Rogers (V/H/S) understatedly conveys every note of regret as Holly, the moral center, while Lauren Molina’s Mel finds a quiet stance somewhere in the middle and eventually a decisive strength. Both of them share an honest moment, post-accident, where they can’t believe they were at Mel’s house hours ago, staying in and not causing trouble. The major standout, though, is Alexandra Turshen, deceptively fierce as icy, take-action ringleader Cali and selling the hell out of her moment of rage after proving that she’s capable of much more than her friends probably ever thought. Even when emotions are heightened, the three actresses never go unconvincingly over the top. Finally, Larry Fessenden makes an empathetic mark as the ill-fated groundskeeper.
Working within their budgetary limitations and the single location of their story, Berk and Olsen manage to immediately pull the viewer in and sustain enough tension (and a few close calls) for the full hour and fifteen minutes. A final turn of the screw stretches credulity a bit, but without being to the film’s detriment. The Christmas backdrop and the finale’s use of Shoshana E. Bush’s “Silent Night” also adds an unsettling undercurrent to a formerly innocent night of three girlfriends. Favoring characterization, ideas and suspense over gore and tacked-on plot twists, Body is a tight, well-shot, satisfyingly biting thriller that’s well worth seeking out amidst the bigger end-of-the-year wide releases.
Body is now in theaters and on VOD platforms come December 29th