‘Body’ is such a deliberately modest movie that it will likely be overlooked despite working about as well as it possibly could. First-time feature writers/directors Dan Berk and Robert Olsen set out to make a tight and tiny thriller to be executed on a minimal budget and succeeded with maximum impact.
This is the type of dramatically compelling, morally challenging, and very human genre effort that’s rarely made anymore. Even when they do sneak onto screens, they almost never deliver the goods with this rate of success. It’s quick and harsh and unsettling and compelling and entirely believable, setting up a scenario and pulling no punches within a tight 70-minute running time that lacks an ounce of fat. Unfortunately, this brand of modest indie genre effort just doesn’t tend to get much attention. For now, it’ll likely only serve as a calling card for two talented filmmakers and three excellent actresses, but if even one of their careers takes off, this might turn into something of a cult flick in hindsight.
Set on Christmas Eve, ‘Body’ follows a trio of college friends home for the holidays. They’ve been close since childhood and speak through the mix of shorthand and in-jokes that takes years to develop. Essentially, they fall into easy types. Cali (Alexandra Turshen) is the alpha blonde leader with a reckless streak. Mel (Lauren Molina) is the more sarcastic yet subdued average brunette, and Holly (Helen Rogers) is the most grounded of the trio with aspects of both personalities. While smoking up and joking around at one of their parents’ houses, the girls decide to head out to find some fun rather than wasting the night away. Cali suggests sneaking into her uncle’s mansion for some high class partying. They do and it’s damn delightful, until a mysterious stranger (Larry Fessenden) shows up screams about trespassing, then falls down some stairs and ends up being that body from the title. Only then do the other girls learn Cali snuck them into a stranger’s house. Obviously, being caught trespassing with a dead body could be a nightmare for all involved. They’ll need to find a way out of the situation other than the truth, and that means this night can’t possibly end well.
Berk and Olsen take their time (almost half the move, in fact) building up the relationships between the characters to set the scene. It works well. It might just be a series of pointless chats, playful bickering and goof-off partying, but it endears viewers to the three characters enough to provide significant empathy when the shit hits the fan. From there, the directors tighten their grips and never let go. The challenge of this brand of morality thriller is escalating a bad situation to the level of psychosis without ever tipping out of believability, and the script nails that transition. Things get ugly, but it’s always credible and the movie disturbs without becoming too outlandish. Visually, the filmmakers shift nicely out of handheld observation into more controlled Hitchcockian-suspense grammar. Compositions are always tight even though the action is loose early on. When the time comes for the directors to use their camera and editing to play with audience emotions, it doesn’t feel like an awkward change, but a natural progression. That might sound like the sort of thing that most viewers wouldn’t even notice, but it’s important and much trickier to pull off than it seems.
Of course, a movie like this would be nothing without the actors, and thankfully they all deliver. Alexandra Turshen plays the biggest B with the quickest turn down a dark path, so it’s the showiest role but also one that easily could have gotten cartoonish in lesser hands. She finds the right balance between a movie villainess and just a regular old jerk. Lauren Monlina starts in wisecracking form before devolving into shivering panic and underplays both nicely. Meanwhile, Helen Rogers holds it all together as observer and moral conscience, grounding the movie in silent moments without as many grandstanding scenes to play. All three undergo unexpected shifts in their characters to suit this style of thriller and there isn’t a false moment among them.
Larry Fessenden is also surprisingly strong and natural in the latest entry in his side-career of cameos in low-budget horror films. Sometimes Fessenden can be a ham and a distraction, but in ‘Body’ he delivers the type of underplayed low-key drama that he typically reserves for his writing and directing. In fact, those four major performances are all so strong that the movie’s only real weakness is that the few minor roles and day players often spoil the realism because those actors just aren’t as good. With this type of tight character piece, that’s a good problem to have.
‘Body’ flies by quickly and entertains with ease. The filmmakers shift tones willfully and toy with audience expectations playfully without ever losing steam or reverting to easy formula. It’s a tale filled with surprises that touches on the toxic nature of some uncomfortably close female friendships and teases out criticism of the characters’ class privilege without that ever overwhelming the carefully crafted thriller machine. It’s a clever and effective little movie that turned out about as well as a project of this scale and ambition possibly could. Sure, it’s hardly a story you’ve never seen before, nor is it a particularly deep work of art. However, it’s to the filmmakers’ credit that they never pretend otherwise. ‘Body’ was clearly conceived and written to be a modest talent showcase and clever no-budget thriller, no more and no less. If you’re in the mood for such things, it’s hard to imagine you’ll be disappointed when the terse tale wraps up. It’s a shame the audience is limited for this type of indie, but at least it’s clear that the fairly obscure filmmakers and cast are all quite talented and will hopefully deliver bigger and better things soon enough.