Body (2015)

“It’s the big house on… oh my god, there’s blood everywhere… he can’t be dead… please, please.”

Body opens with audio only: a very distressed call to the emergency services from one or several female voices. Bad things – even what cinema likes to call Very Bad Things (1998) – are evidently in the works, which brings a heavy irony, if not to say tension, to the film’s early scenes of domestic bourgeois contentment and Yuletide spirit. Make no mistake: whatever else it may be, Body is also a Christmas movie. It begins just before Christmas Eve in a house festooned with a tree, baubles and an excess of food; it ends with a slow version of the traditional Silent Night on its soundtrack; it features a solitary, bearded traveller (Jack Brenner) who bears a passing resemblance to Santa Claus; and its main character (played by Helen Rogers) bears the decidedly seasonal name Holly.

Of course, any notion of peace and goodwill to all men is ironised not only by the pre-credits phone call, but also by the opening scene. Here, twenty-something Holly and her friends Cali (Alexandra Turshen) and Mel (Lauren Molina) are playing Scrabble after a Christmas feast with Mel’s family. “I should get, like, extra points because it has to do with the holiday,” says Cali of the word she has just put on the board, “Christmas is about Jesus, Satan is the opposite of Jesus. I dunno, maybe it’s not, like, super-relevant, but it’s still religious.” Cali’s logic is skewed, not least because, hardly being the brightest spark, she has misspelt Satan as ‘satin’ – but this nonetheless offers an apt introduction to the anti-Christmas fare about to be served up on this long dark night of the soul.

At Cali’s insistence, the three women head off for a “girls’ night” out, along the way, in a rather un-Christmas-like manner, denying help to a Santa-like figure (Jack Brenner) whose transport has broken down on the road. They come to a vast empty mansion – and while the POV-style handheld shot that shows them pulling into the driveway might seem to be heralding a familiar stalk-and-slash scenario, in fact they are the only ones carrying out any home invasion, duped by Cali’s lie that the house belongs to her uncle. After helping themselves to clothes and drink inside, their partying in this winter wonderland is unexpectedly interrupted by the groundskeeper Arthur (celebrated indie genre producer/director Larry Fessenden). Now as they must deal with a body on the landing and a very compromising situation, Holly, Cali and Mel find themselves at odds with one another. There will be (more) blood.

Before the arrival of the groundskeeper and the moral downward spiral that comes in his wake, the three are shown happily clowning on the beach behind the mansion. “Suck my dick, suck my dick!” cries Mel, repeatedly pushing Holly’s face down into her lap. This jokily tasteless appropriation of the discourse of rape in fact foreshadows later scenes in which charges of sexual assault will be elaborately trumped up by women desperate to mitigate the enormity of their own wrongdoing. Lacking the brains to match her self-preserving certainties, dominating Cali hauls her friends roughly from one dilemma to the next without anything like an ethical compass, until they have gone far beyond the point of no return.

After an earlier collaboration on the High Maintenance-like TV short Dispatch (2014), co-writers/directors/producers Dan Berk and Robert Olsen have, for their feature debut, married the edgy sexual reversals of Wild Thing (1998) and the life-and-death struggles of Stuck (2007) into a Christmas cracker. Though not exactly groundbreaking, Body pays just the right amount of attention to the building of its characters, while proving brisk and economic enough in its pacing never to outstay its welcome.

Anton Bitel