How A24's Bodies Bodies Bodies became the summer's must-see horror-comedy
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Halina Reijn is an acclaimed Dutch actress, known for appearing in plays by Ibsen and Shakespeare, whose debut as a filmmaker was 2019's intense prison drama Instinct. So how did she wind up directing A24's Pete Davidson-starring horror-comedy Bodies Bodies Bodies (out August 5)? "My whole whole life has been Hedda Gabler, The Taming of the Shrew," she says. "I was like, Can I please have some f---ing fun?"
Request granted: In Bodies Bodies Bodies, Davidson's character hosts a weekend party for a group of well-off twentysomething friends at his father's remote mansion. After much drinking and drugging, the attendees decide to play a game of Bodies Bodies Bodies, in which a designated "killer" tries to murder other players in the dark by touching them without being identified by the survivors. But soon people are dying for real and the friendships between the Gen Z-ers disintegrate as they try to work out who among them is responsible for the rising body count.
"[It's] like Mean Girls meets Lord of the Flies," says Reijn. The characters' stress levels are not helped by the arrival of a hurricane, which cuts the mansion's power. "The electricity goes down, so [they] wind up pretty much in the wild, surrounded by so-called friends from Facebook and Instagram," says Oscar-nominated Borat Subsequent Moviefilm actress and Bodies Bodies Bodies cast member Maria Bakalova. "But are they actually friends?"
In addition to Davidson and Bakalova, the film stars Rachel Sennott (Shiva Baby), Myha'la Herrold (HBO's Industry), Chase Sui Wonders (HBO Max's Generation), and Lee Pace, who plays the older boyfriend of Wonders' character. Amandla Stenberg (The Hate U Give), portrays a freshly sober and uninvited attendee named Sophie who turns up to introduce the group to her new girlfriend, Bee (Bakalova). "Initially she's quite charming and relatable," Stenberg says of Sophie. "But you start to understand that there are some complicated and not-so-savory parts of her that come out as the pressure mounts."
The film's screenplay, by playwright Sarah DeLappe, is based on a story from author Kristen Roupenian (of the 2017 viral New Yorker short "Cat Person") and makes use of tropes from both the slasher and the cabin-in-the-woods subgenres, while adding enough twists and turns to keep audiences guessing. Bodies Bodies Bodies also follows horror tradition by using bloody mayhem as a vehicle for social satire. Just as George Romero poked fun at '70s consumerism with Dawn of the Dead, and Mary Harron's American Psycho humorously critiqued '80s-era Wall Street bros, so Bodies Bodies Bodies expertly spears Gen Z and its obsession with phones, social media, and performative open-mindedness about class, race, and sexuality.
"The script plays with the hypocritical nature of the culture that we live in now, how there's a lot of virtue-signaling" says Stenberg "So many people don't do their actual research, so sometimes the nature of that virtue-signaling can feel so shallow. There's a lot of fodder for comedy there."
While this is a very different project for actress-director Reijn, she sees parallels between Bodies Bodies Bodies and the serious plays in which she appeared. "I'm obsessed with power and sexuality in a pressure-cooker environment" she says. "With all those classical works, we turned them into modern pieces. And we basically treated [Bodies Bodies Bodies] almost as if it was a Chekhov play."
One of the truly fun aspects of the production was casting the film, Reijn recalls. "In my own little country in the Netherlands, I know every actor," says the director. "So it was very different going into this huge market where the group that you can choose from is insane." The director always had Davidson in the mind for the movie's idiotically image-obsessed host. "He has that quality where [he] can be very real and at the same time be extremely funny," she says.
Bakalova, meanwhile, impressed the filmmaker with both her performance in Borat Subsequent Moviefilm and with her acting background. "I started to research her and I found out that she's classically trained — she comes from the theater," Reijn says. "What is very rare about her is that she has this comedy side but she also can be a tragic actress. She's really a true acting beast."
The film's shoot took place last year at an actual mansion in Chappaqua, around 30 miles north of New York City. "It was such an enormous house — you had a basketball court inside, a basketball court outside," says Reijn. "I just thought it was a great symbol for narcissism and American wealth. Trump would have lived there, that's what the house looked like to me."
The director demanded that her cast know the script inside and out, but then encouraged the young actors to improvise, helping to make their iPhone-clutching, easily-triggered characters seem authentic. "They were of great help to make it very accurate," says Reijn. "I'm 46, I'm not part of that generation, although I think all of us are part of it in a way because we all have the phones."
The film's hurricane setting meant that many of the members of the cast, including Bakalova, were repeatedly drenched with water and blasted by wind machines. "I never actually realized it was going to be so much rain over me," says the Bulgarian-born actress. "I was talking with my incredible costume designer, Katina [Danabassis], and we were discussing that my character has so many layers on. But I never paid attention to the idea that the more layers you have, the more wet you become. It was tough because the layers become heavy and the wind machine is cold, and we shot mostly night shoots. So physically it was challenging, but I think it works for the story."
Bodies Bodies Bodies was positively received at this year's SXSW Festival and currently boasts a 95 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes. "Seeing the audience gasping at moments and laughing was exciting," says Bakalova, who attended the premiere in Austin.
Has the experience of shooting the film encouraged her and Stenberg to spend less time on their phones?
"I mean, it's kind of necessary to work on your phone — even right now, we are doing this interview over the phone," says Bakalova, reasonably enough. "Maybe the right way to say it is I'm trying my best to be a bit more more in the moment, in reality, instead of on social media."
"Um, no," answers Stenberg with a laugh. "I can't say that my relationship to my phone has shifted at all. Is that the most Gen-Z thing I could say?"
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