“They’re not as nihilistic as they look on the internet,” Sophie (Amandla Stenberg) tells her new girlfriend, Bee (Maria Bakalova), in A24’s horror film Bodies Bodies Bodies, as they move to join Sophie’s friends at a gathering. Sophie and Bee are six weeks into their relationship, and headed to a house party at the family mansion of Sophie’s best friend, David (Pete Davidson). They’re planning to ride out an approaching hurricane, but Sophie’s mysterious whims are an equal disaster: It turns out that her “not as nihilistic as they look” friend group isn’t even expecting her to show up, much less arrive with a partner they don’t know. Given how rapidly the getaway devolves into bloody mayhem, it’s a bad time to be the new girl in the crowd.
Bodies Bodies Bodies isn’t an especially internet-driven movie; the hurricane quickly kills the power in David’s house, and the cell service and Wi-Fi go down with it. The most contentious arguments focus on semi-private slights, not public-facing tweets. But Sophie’s opening attempt to soften her friends’ abrasiveness lingers for the audience as the night goes spectacularly wrong. It’s true that these people don’t seem especially nihilistic. At the same time, they’re all surprisingly willing to suspect each other of murder.
Bodies Bodies Bodies begins as a social-anxiety dramedy, not unlike Shiva Baby, the symphony of discomfort starring Rachel Sennott, who also appears here, stealing scenes as Sophie’s friend Alice. The movie also introduces Emma (Chase Sui Wonders), who is dating David; Jordan (Myha’la Herrold), who looks askance at nearly everyone; and Greg (Lee Pace), an older guy Alice has been with for an even briefer window than Sophie and Bee have been together. Apart from Greg, the characters occupy a nebulous sort-of-adult age range. Given their reckless substance abuse and carelessness with each other, they’re somewhere between still young and too old.
Watching them snipe at each other, it’s striking to think about how canned and overly scrubbed most horror-movie friend groups are by comparison. Bodies Bodies Bodies does eventually emerge as horror; it even kicks off with a parlor game, a gimmick as flashy as anything in a second-tier Blumhouse title, though director Halina Reijn and screenwriter Sarah DeLappe (working from a story by “Cat Person” author Kristen Roupenian) don’t show much interest in sticking to this framework. The power goes out on cue, and the friends go from searching for a pretend killer to being scared witless of a real one when someone winds up genuinely dead. (There’s a bit of meta-suspense over which semi-celebrity performer will be the surprise first victim.)
From there, Bodies Bodies Bodies starts to play like a compressed Scream, sped up as if the filmmakers believe they’re playing to a generation that can’t keep both eyes on a full-length feature film. The filmmakers make the compelling choice to ratchet up both the bloodshed and the absurdity in tandem. Rather than letting satire give way to horror-movie tension, they make the recriminations and defensiveness increasingly louder and more ridiculous as the characters feel more endangered. At one point, mortal peril is interrupted by the equally shocking betrayal that one friend may be hate-listening to another’s podcast.
It seems possible, though, that the movie freely switches between the satirical edge and the knife’s edge because it doesn’t ultimately have a lot to say in either mode. Sometimes, it’s a relief that Bodies doesn’t appear to have some encompassing metaphor up its sleeve. In one scene, the characters spout a dizzying array of buzzwords at each other in their fear and rage, as if furiously rebuking David’s initial complaint that the word “gaslighting” has lost all meaning. (The movie doesn’t turn social media into a hook, but its language is pretty online.)
All of the actors are solid, but Sennott is especially funny as Alice, who processes every horrific turn as a slight against her personally. Ultimately, the movie is more mischievous thought experiment than an attack on Zoomers; it essentially asks, “What if people who were hyper-aware of their own triggers and traumas had to react to a ghoulish turn of horror-movie events?”
But the horror aspect doesn’t quite hold up as the film progresses. Reijn’s glowsticks-and-flashlights lighting aesthetic is neat at first, but the sheer volume of shaky-cam, close-ups, and streaks of harsh lighting eventually bring to mind found-footage horror, without the unnerving sense of reality provided by that subgenre’s better entries. It’s also, for a movie called Bodies Bodies Bodies, surprisingly neutral about how young people use, abuse, and manipulate their bodies, and how that might play into their physical responses to danger.
The creators’ understandable but tamer instinct is instead to play Clue with the characters. That means Bee, one of its most potentially interesting characters, has to stay relatively opaque, to preserve some mystery in a movie that starts running out of suspects pretty quickly. In spite of the camera’s closeness, this is a horror movie at arm’s length; Reijn and DeLappe don’t seem interested in preying on real fears so much as laughingly confirming any suspicions that yes, your friends secretly talk smack about you. Bodies Bodies Bodies is a fun ride through those well-founded anxieties, but as the end credits roll, some viewers may still be waiting for more of a punch — or a better punchline.
Bodies Bodies Bodies opens in limited theatrical release on Aug. 5, with a nationwide release following on Aug. 12.