Put their backs against the wall, and most civilized people turn into selfish monsters, willing to cross any threshold to save their own hides. That, in any case, is what the movies would have us believe; there’s a whole subsection of thriller about ordinary people going to desperate, cold-blooded extremes to get out of a pinch. Body, the feature debut of writing, directing, and producing team Dan Berk and Robert Olsen, fits snugly into that cynical subgenre, depicting as it does a common cycle of scheming, bickering, and backstabbing following a calamitous mistake. The film is well-acted, slickly made on a shoestring budget, and blessedly efficient, with a runtime that inches just past the one-hour mark, credits included. It’s also nearly devoid of surprises, sending its characters through some Hitchcockian paces en route to an ending that’s more depressing for its predictability than its bleakness.
Set on Christmas Eve, for extra caustic irony, Body finds coeds Holly (Helen Rogers), Cali (Alexandra Turshen), and Mel (Lauren Molina) trading the sleepy boredom of an evening in for a little holiday mischief. To be fair, only Cali knows that they’re breaking and entering when they let themselves into the sprawling mansion she deceptively identifies as her uncle’s property. All of this could easily be the setup for an even hoarier teens-in-peril scenario; the filmmakers’ smartest play is teasing a different kind of horror flick, beginning with the opening scene (one of the women plays “Satan” in Scrabble, though she misspells it “satin”) and continuing with an ominous roadside encounter. But the film quickly reveals its true trajectory when our heroines’ home-invasion party is disrupted by the wrong-place, wrong-time appearance of a groundskeeper (industrious horror maverick Larry Fessenden). One accidental act of violence later, and the ladies find themselves faced with a familiar moral dilemma, rationalizing harsh decisions, even as their situation mutates by the minute.
Body has one particularly unsavory plot turn, a hastily hatched plan that reinforces, however unintentionally, certain nasty attitudes about the lies college women supposedly tell. Mostly, though, the ensuing mayhem just stretches credibility. Yes, people make dumb, rash, and even cruel decisions under the gun. But here, Holly and her friends leap from pure panic to diabolical machinations with unbelievable swiftness, bypassing the kind of obvious courses of action that someone in this situation would at least propose. The film is more interested in dividing the three into typical roles—the instantly conniving schemer; the conscience of the group; the weak-willed one who could be nudged either way—than in letting them exhibit realistic behavior. Body adds enough wrinkles and complications to its central predicament to keep the viewer’s interest. But if it’s more suspenseful in theory than execution, it’s because Berk and Olsen have privileged a recycled point about human nature over the urgency of their high-pressure situation. The song remains the same, even when it takes the form of “Silent Night,” playing us out on a bitterly incongruous note.