It’s all in the execution. Joseph Campbell said long ago that there are really only ten stories, but sometimes in Hollywood it feels like less. Being a festival programmer for so many years, you realize that originality should not necessarily be the only deciding factor in selecting a program, or else you would only be able to play like three films and they would all be pretty bizarre and non-narrative. Instead, you start looking for original ways of handling familiar premises, or what I like to call ‘the best possible execution of that film.’ This is especially true at lower budgets where filmmakers are limited by resources and time.
Which brings me to one of my favorite films at Slamdance this year, Dan Berk and Robert Olsen’s BODY. In the tight, gripping and often funny thriller, three girls find themselves with little to do. High school friends, now with paths diverged in graduate school (or lack there of), they play scrabble and flirt with a younger brother until Cali (Alexandra Turshen), the queen bee and pushy one, suggests they hang out at her uncle’s mansion. Except there is one problem, this isn’t her uncle’s mansion, it’s belongs to someone for whom she used to babysit, and she’s sure they’re away for the Christmas break.
When the groundskeeper shows up and finds all the lights on in the house, he checks in, and the girls rush to escape. In the chaos, they knock the man down the stairs, killing him. Now they have to decide what to do with the ‘body.’ As they plan, their different perspectives become clear, Cali only wants to protect herself, and quickly concocts a story where the man tried to rape one of them and they killed him in self-defense. Holly (Helen Rogers) wants to call the police and just explain what happened, and take the consequences, but she doesn’t have the will power to stand up to Cali. Mel (Lauren Molina) is somewhat wishy-washy, she wants to do the right thing but sees how this could affect her future and her father’s (a politician). The tension increases as the situation worsens, with Holly’s boyfriend showing up, and the friendship between the girls breaking down.
BODY works in the best possible way. The characters are distinct and strong, Cali is often quite funny as the ‘dumb one’ and the relationships between the three girls are fun to watch shift through the film. The most terrifying aspect of the film is that it is completely plausible, every second on the screen leads to the next through a bevy of poor choices, all which are completely believable. When the body is introduced, everything goes out the window.
People’s real intentions and personalities can be very frightening, especially if you are seeing them for the first time. At each step, the suspense deepens and the stakes raise, until a final violent confrontation twists the narrative to a fitting conclusion. The ensemble of girls really shines, and the first twenty minutes of the film, before anything much as happened, is a joy to watch. Their playful banter with each other and with Holly’s family had an air of sincerity rarely found in genre films. Once they get to the mansion, and the situation fractures their bonds, the three friends pair off and the power dynamics add to the general sense of desperation. The film manages to keep the tone consistent, focusing on the relationships being ripped apart by the drama, rather than the horror itself. As the film races to it’s end, one complication after another threatens to undercut any chance the girls have to get out of this mess of their own doing. By the time the film ends, I was exhausted, in a great way.
No one will accuse Body of being the most original story on the film festival circuit, but when a film is so effortlessly awesome, with a talented cast and keeps you on the edge of your seat the whole way, that really doesn’t matter. In fact, the only thing I might have changed about the film would be to wish them a few more dollars so maybe they could get a recognizable star in there somewhere, if not one of the girls (who were great and I wouldn’t want to replace), maybe the grounds keeper. Also, from a story perspective, it was a shame that Holly’s brother and father were so strongly introduced but never returned to the film. I’d would have liked to have seen how they might have played into the final act.
BODY world premiered this weekend at Slamdance Film Festival, and should have a nice run on the genre fest circuit. Be sure to follow me on twitter @bearsfonte for my film-by-film reaction of this year’s Sundance and Slamdance Film Festivals.