In her seminal book Men, Women and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film author Carol J. Clover posits that horror films are not rooted in the joy of violence. Rather, the thrills this genre offer stem from an empathetic view by the audience of the (typically female) protagonist. She touches upon shifting gender roles, both in society and the cinema, and how the final girl is an empowering trope. If you haven’t read it, despite its age, it is well worth it for a dynamic take on horror. I believe Clover would be thrilled with Body At Brighton Rock’s exploration of female identity and strength of will.
Marking the feature-length writing and directing debut of Roxanne Benjamin Body At Brighton Rock takes place in the titular park. Wendy (Karina Fontes) likes her job as a park ranger there but is consistently late. This is partially due to the basic assignments her superior Sandra (a fun Miranda Bailey) give her. However, those kid-centric and easy tasks are due to her low-level clearance. One day, her friend and co-worker Maya (Emily Althaus) wants to switch jobs with Wendy. Wendy agrees as this will let Maya hit on one of their co-workers.
Wendy heads out to the woods to switch out the signage. While she’s dancing about the trail, her co-worker Davey (Martin Spanjers) scares her. He apologizes and offers to help her out since he caused her to scatter the papers to the winds. Wendy declines the offer, as she’ll be done soon. As she climbs to the peak of Hitchback Ridge, she takes a selfie to send to Maya. Maya informs Wendy that she is not on Hitchback and that there is a body just below the ridge she’s on.
“…Wendy has just the corpse, her thoughts, and the stories of the woods being haunted to keep her company atop the mountain peak.”
Wendy radios her superiors, and they call cops. However, due to the time of day, the authorities will probably not be able to get to Wendy until the morning. Now, Wendy has just the corpse, her thoughts, and the stories of the woods being haunted to keep her company atop the mountain peak. Or is she? While scouting the area, she stumbles upon Red (Casey Adams) investigating the body. Did he kill the man? Does Red now want to kill her or is he honestly just a hiker?
Roxanne Benjamin has worked on a few horror anthologies such as the atmospheric Southbound. Her understanding of the genre is evident from the first frames. Body At Brighton Rock opens with a postcard-esque shot of the park’s forest as the bright yellow credits flash across the screen. This sense of ease is juxtaposed right away with Wendy’s fast running as she tries to get to work on time. Horror is all about jarring one out of their comfort zone, and the tranquil, almost comedic credits followed by scenes of such speed do just that. However, they do that in a non-threatening way.
Benjamin’s mastery of these tricks is what make the truly horrifying moments so impactful. Before the creepy and bizarre begins, she has already subverted audience expectations by the rare use of jump scares and in sequences as described above. Thus, when things do get shocking, the audience feels it. Wendy, in an effort to properly secure the potential crime scene, discovers a tent and fire pit near the dead body. She calls out to see if anyone is around. No one replies. She gets near the shelter and calls out again. When she opens the tent, no one is there. There isn’t even a sign of a struggle. But, upon exiting the tent, she discovers a bleeding bag hanging in a tree.
“Horror is all about jarring one out of their comfort zone…”
Of note, especially in the scene just described is the outstanding sound design work. The wind shaking the trees go from a natural occurrence to an intense howling, suggesting Wendy’s gradually growing desperation. In the tent sequence, just before the discovery of the bleeding bag, the scraping of the rope grows incrementally louder until Wendy has convinced herself that someone, or thing, must be shaking the tent walls on purpose. These audible clues help chime the audience into Wendy’s questionable mental state.
While all the actors do an excellent job, it is Karina Fontes’s movie from start to finish. She is in every scene and her arc from naive to scared to well, you’ll see, is engaging. The audience must be on Wendy’s side from the first moments of the film and stay with her the entire time. That is a lot to ask of any actor, much less someone with only three credited roles; Body At Brighton Rock included. Fontes is so happy and fun early on, most evident in her extended dance. Her reaction to a nightmare in which the corpse rises to kill her causes Wendy to have to calm herself. The way Fontes calls into question her character’s sanity during these hallucinations, while still being relatable makes her a force to be reckoned with.
Provocatively toying with horror conventions, Roxanne Benjamin ensures maximum impact when the terror begins; though the occasional awkward edit rears its ugly head. Anchored by a star-making lead turn and sporting superb sound design, Body At Brighton Rock is a bloody good time.
Body At Brighton Rock (2019) Directed by Roxanne Benjamin. Written by Roxanne Benjamin. Starring Karina Fontes, Casey Adams, Emily Althaus, Miranda Bailey, Martin Spanjers, Susan Burke, John Getz. Body At Brighton Rock screened at the 2019 SXSW Film Festival.
9 out of 10 Crags