‘Bodies Bodies Bodies’ and the power of the horror sleepover
The latest from cult production house A24 reconstructs the classic trope in a super-sophisticated way
Friday 26 August 2022 By Annabel Nugent
Everyone has a bad sleepover story. Admittedly, it’s hard to imagine one worse than that which unspools in A24’s summer slasher Bodies Bodies Bodies – but dig deep enough and you’ll likely exhume some slumber party trauma of your own. It makes sense: put a gaggle of teens, their insecurities and their egos in a pressure cooker for 12 hours and sure enough, it’ll go boom. Emotional blood and guts sprayed across the bedroom walls. Bodies materialises the metaphor by adding a killer into the mix, but the film is effective at sticking the knife in because it grafts the gore onto a setting primed for chaos.
The sleepover of Bodies is not so much a sleepover as it is an overnight hurricane party. Think school lock-in, only with copious amounts of cocaine. Amandla Stenberg, Borat 2’s Maria Bakalova, Pete Davidson, Chase Sui Wonders, Myha’la Herrold from HBO’s Industry, Shiva Baby star Rachel Sennott, and Lee Pace play the revellers in question. Together, they decamp to a remote mansion where they plan to weather the storm suitably inebriated. When a game of Murder in the Dark turns up real bodies, though, the evening devolves into a bloody mess. Across 95 minutes, Bodies amasses the cavalcade of corpses necessary to fulfil its slasher genre, but in reality the terror of the film begins much earlier.
The same emotions evoked by horror can be found in small doses at a sleepover: disorientation, anxiety, alienation. The latter is most obvious in Bee (Bakalova), the girlfriend of Stenberg’s character and a plus-one at this party. Bee is an outsider by every definition. While the others are close (albeit complicated) friends, she is a stranger. They chug magnums of Champagne; she works at GameStop. They’re American; she’s from Eastern Europe. Her exclusion is signalled from the outset when she is the last to arrive at the mansion. Bee watches on while the group makes TikTok videos, only to be asked half-heartedly whether she wants to join. Everyone’s in on the joke but her.
At one moment early on in the film, Bee is chowing down on a chocolate cake when Sennott’s fiery Alice nonchalantly informs her that the cake is, in fact, laced with THC. Bee has already eaten multiple slices. Later, this sense of exclusion comes to a violent head when Bee – suspected of being the murderer – is forcibly locked out of the house by the others. As she beats desperately on the windows of the mansion, the analogy writes itself.
You know that awful voice in your head that says all your friends hate you? It’s a common enough fixation to become a popular meme. It’s ironic that sleepovers can send that fixation into overdrive. After all, nothing good is ever born from a nest full of sleep-deprived teens. That same paranoia courses through Bodies like poison in its veins. For a sleepover among friends, conversation is barbed and insults are frequent. First, they come as thinly veiled knuckleballs, then as openly slung right hooks. When later it transpires during a climactic row that actually, yes, they do all hate each other, the scene plays out like some deranged form of wish fulfilment. Every worst fear is confirmed: your friends don’t like you.
While these feelings are most conveyed through Bee, Bodies makes it clear that even the childhood pals aren’t really pals. An early feel-good montage set to the bouncing electro beat of Azealia Banks’s 2012 banger ‘212’ belies tension. Cinematographer Jasper Wolf, previously behind the war thriller Monos, is careful to keep his subjects divided, even in the film’s happy pre-murder moments. The girls are dancing together, but separate. One huddle here, another there. Seven friends splintered into factions; the fault lines are visible before the first drop of blood is spilled. After they discover the first body, the tale quickly expands beyond the specifics of a slasher movie into a portrait of a friendship group, fractured. Director Halina Reijn makes use of the mansion’s every nook and cranny to convey that sense of disorientation and division. In Wolf’s lens, terror is rendered in labyrinthine corridors, sudden strobes of light and, after the power goes out, darkness.
It can’t be said that Bodies is exploring uncharted territory. The sleepover as a vehicle for horror is a well-known trope across cinema; it was perhaps most iconically put to screen in the 1982 cult classic The Slumber Party Massacre. In the 1960s, gothic author Shirley Jackson made use of the setting in her subtly creepy story Pajama Party. Bodies, then, isn’t the first film to place horror against a sleepover backdrop, but it is among the few to effectively use the trope as a means of examining friendship – the toxic kind. Bodies stands apart because the film understands there are few things more terrifying than hearing your name whispered among quote-unquote friends.