‘Bodies Bodies Bodies’ Is a Slasher Flick That Pulls From ‘Heathers,’ ‘Scream,’ and Shakespeare

Director Halina Reijn discusses whether she makes "elevated horror" and how she retooled the original script by Kristen Roupenian (of "Cat Person" fame).

‘Bodies Bodies Bodies’ Is a Slasher Flick That Pulls From ‘Heathers,’ ‘Scream,’ and Shakespeare

“Elevated horror?” Halina Reijn doesn’t know her. Though the Dutch actor-turned-director’s English-language directorial debut, Bodies Bodies Bodies, is being released through A24, a company closely associated with the supposed subgenre—it’s put out critical darlings like Robert Eggers’ The Witch and Ari Aster’s Hereditary—Reijn was fuzzy on what it actually means to make “elevated horror.”

“Does that mean like arthouse horror?” Reijn asked during a phone conversation with Jezebel this week.

Uhhh…maybe? Kind of? “Elevated horror” is definitely a thing people talk about, but the label seems more a concern of audiences than filmmakers (unless those filmmakers are making something explicitly meta, like the latest Scream movie, whose characters discuss finer points of the classification). By and large, filmmakers just want to make good movies and possibly put their own stamp on the genre, and that is what Reijn does with Bodies Bodies Bodies, a horror-comedy that works roughly within the realm of the slasher subgenre, with a few major left left turns here and there.

A bunch of affluent Gen Zers (and one “old guy” in his 40s played by Lee Pace) of varying backgrounds and sexualities gather at a mansion in the country for a weekend of hanging, drinking, and drugging. The horror kicks off during a dark and stormy night, when a game of Bodies Bodies Bodies—a cross between Mafia/Werewolf (in which a group has to figure out who among them has been secretly assigned as the killer) and Hide and Go Seek—turns deadly and deadlier still. It’s a simple premise rendered intoxicating by Reijn’s savvy directing and uniformly strong performances across the board, including from Amandla Stenberg, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm’s Maria Bakalova, and Rachel Sennott, who’s an absolute scream as the pseudo-woke Alice.

Reijn said in order to work within the slasher form, she had to make it her own. She did this quite literally, almost completely revising the original Bodies script that “Cat Person” writer Kristen Roupenian sold to A24 in 2018. That script had very little of the syntactic satire of what eventually made it to the screen (via writer Sarah DeLappe, whom Reijn said she worked with to shape the story), though did feature the game at the heart of Reijn’s movie. Reijn told Jezebel that she “loved” Roupenian’s script but “to take slasher film on, it needed to be, you know, more than a fun film with friends playing a game.” (I read a supposed draft of Roupenian’s script I found online before conducting this interview and agree with Reijn’s move to overhaul it. As it was written, it was practically unfilmable.)

In her conversation with Jezebel, Reijn repeatedly referenced her theater background and casually mentioned numerous references she pulled from for Bodies Bodies Bodies: Scream (of course), Heathers, Mean Girls, Lord of the Flies, Reservoir Dogs, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Agatha Christie, John Cassavetes, Ibsen, Shakespeare, and Chekhov. She said that part of what interested her in the movie was that she, too, played what many in America call Mafia or Werewolf (the name of the game in Dutch translates to “Little Murderer”). However, none of her friends died in the process (or if they did, she didn’t mention it). Reijn spoke so quickly that talking to her was like being thrust into an Aaron Sorkin production. Her enthusiasm for what she created was palpable and, in my opinion, well-earned. An edited and condensed transcript of our conversation is below.

JEZEBEL: What drew you to this project initially?

HALINA REIJN: The game. I used to have a very tight friend group. Now they all have children, so they don’t call me anymore. But we used to be so close, like a little commune, and we would play this all the time. I would hate it. I would hate every minute of it. It was psychological warfare, but it was also exciting. It was kind of sexy.

A24 gave me total freedom and they gave me Sarah DeLappe, who was a playwright, and me coming from a theater, that was like love at first sight. We started to jam and make this Chekhov meets Mean Girls meets Lord of the Flies.

Had Sarah already completed a draft of the script when you signed on? Because I know the project had been through a lot developmentally.

No, not at all. I got a script that was so different. It had the game, basically. To me, to take slasher film on, it needed to be, you know, more than a fun film with friends playing a game. I really wanted to make a dark undercurrent and make it toxic and Cassavetes-style.

So you originally received Kristen Roupenian’s script and you said, “This needs an overhaul?”

Yes. I loved it. I thought it was a wonderful starting point. But to me it was extremely important, the reveal at the end. The reveal at the end is my way into the film. I needed it to be super real.

I just got obsessed with this Lord of the Flies idea, and what I could do with it. If you leave me alone in a corner, I will start to create extremely dark things. When you give me something that is a ritual and a structure there…which is what a slasher film is, right? It has a certain ritual. We know what’s going to happen in a weird way, and then I can fill all the gaps with my darkness and my love for language and and bring all my Ibsen, Shakespeare, Chekhov references to the ritual of a slasher film. And so I think in the end, it was really great to do something that was not completely out of my own brain.

Your character are ridiculous, and yet sympathetic. I feel like your movie walks the line between making fun of them and celebrating them.

That is absolutely what I was going for. I’m also undermining myself. It is about my phone addiction. It is about my tendency to choose to talk about my anxiety and my triggers. We’re all children of this time right now. Even though I’m 46, I alive right now. So I’m part of this whole culture, too. And it is a satire. This film is like Heathers. It is a satire. But within that genre, we tried to make it as real as possible. When they cry, they really cry. When there’s sexual chemistry, it almost feels real.

Did you have much experience with American Gen Zers prior to this project?

Since the internet is so international, even when you’re very poor and you live in a totally different culture and country, you still look at a stupid smartphone and we all watch certain reality shows. So I feel that Gen Z is almost like a worldwide phenomenon. But I was very aware of the fact that I’m going to make a film in America, so I did a lot of research about the class system here. When I really dived into it, I was shocked. I could have never had the career I had in Holland here, because in my country, education is free. I grew up in communes. My parents thought it was cool to not have any money, but I got access to everything, because that’s just how the country is built. If I would have been born here, I would have been fucked.

“We all have a beast inside of us, and I’m just curious about what it means to be civilized and what does it take until my animal comes out. when do I become a rat?”

Did you also think of the movie in terms of, “What can I do differently with the slasher format?”

Absolutely. I made all my money doing classical plays that are hundreds of years old with dead playwrights. It’s what I’m used to: Take a really old construct and make it modern. So I thought that was what we should do with the slasher, too. But what I don’t like about a lot of these slasher films is the beautiful girl, the innocent girl—mainly how women have been portrayed all these years. It’s so boring. The good person. The evil person. No, I think we’re all good and evil. We all have a beast inside of us, and I’m just curious about what it means to be civilized and what does it take until my animal comes out. When do I become a rat? That’s what we wanted to take beyond the cliche.

The queerness in the movie is matter of fact, but also somewhat in-your-face—the movie opens with a tight shot of Stenberg and Bakalova making out. Did you want to make a statement about queerness?

In my first film [2019’s Instinct] and theater career, sexuality and violence and power are my themes. I want to open with visceral, primal intimacy, and then having someone say, “I love you,” and then both of them texting. I’m literally setting the stage for myself. Like, this is a film about our animalistic side in an age of technology. This all sounds incredibly heavy. I totally realize that this is just a fun, entertaining movie. It has nothing to do with the queerness. It’s not like I’m trying to make any statement about queerness. I just feel that it’s such an exciting time now for minorities, whether you’re a woman, queer, whatever human you are, we finally get a little bit of space. So to me, a queer character is just a queer character. It doesn’t have to be a storyline about their sexual identity. And I think for me as a female, that’s the same, like, “Oh, I can maybe finally play Richard III.” I don’t only have to play these typical female characters, you know?

Was there any improvisation that was happening with the actors?

Oh, yes. My whole system is, and I did the same with my first film: I force the actors to learn their lines, as in theater plays. I literally said, “You have to be able to do a run-through of the whole film if I ask you to, because we’re going to have group scenes. You even have to learn the line of your costars.” But then I will implement certain spaces where they can totally be free. Especially with a genius like Pete Davidson, you want to let him shine. His lines that are in the trailer, when he says, “I look like I fuck, and that’s the vibe I like to put out there.” Those are totally his lines. Rachel Sennott came up with the most beautiful improvisation, in which she says, “You’re silencing me!” when they’re trying to make her shut up.

I demand this classical theater approach that I’m used to. When you rehearse with Ivan von Hoe, you better stand at the exact same spot where he left you the day before, with your costume on and your props in your hand. But at the same time, I will totally make them feel safe and give them the freedom to be collaborators.

There’s a thing people talk about today, this notion of “elevated horror.” I wonder if that was in your head when you were making this movie.

Can I be super honest with you? Maybe my publicist is going to kill me. I don’t know what that word means. Elevated horror. I literally don’t know what I mean. Does that mean like arthouse horror?

I guess. I mean, I don’t know!

I think I know what you mean, in my intuition. Look, it did scare me to go into the genre. I was like, “Can I do that? Is that okay? Am I an expert enough?” And then I thought, the only way I can do it is, of course, do my research and be very respectful and humble towards the genre. Like when I do Taming of the Shrew, of course I’m respectful to Shakespeare. Of course I’m sure that I’m not saying any words that I make, but I’m going to wear a modern costume. I’m going to put all my shit and my pain on the stage. I’m not going to, like, destroy Shakespeare with my own shit. And so I think that’s what I did.

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