Body at Brighton Rock begins as Wendy (Karina Fontes) sprints to her summer job in a state park to Oingo Boingo’s upbeat 1987 new wave classic Dead Man’s Party, the song’s title a telling indication of both the content and tone of the film that follows. She’s late, so trying (and eventually failing) to sneak into work without catching the attention of her boss, despite the best efforts of her friend and colleague Maya (Emily Althaus). As even Wendy herself wonders aloud later in the film, it’s clear to everyone – even her friends – that this is just not a job she is really cut out for. In an attempt to do Maya a favour and simultaneously prove herself to her peers, Wendy offers to swap her allocated comfortable indoor job on this particular day with Maya’s more demanding task hiking a tough trail to put up safety notices. Despite Maya’s initial doubts, she eventually agrees, setting the scene for Wendy’s discovery of the eponymous body at the foot of the looming, beautiful Brighton Rock.
The feature directorial debut for Roxanne Benjamin has a playful, fun surface, but scratch into it and there are some perhaps surprising thought-provoking depths. While Body at Brighton Rock is a comfortable fit for ‘psychological survival thriller’ territory, Benjamin is already an established name in horror circles specifically with strong form as both a writer and producer. She wrote, produced and directed the segment Siren in the 2015 horror anthology Southbound, later making her mark on the much-hyped 2017 all-woman directed anthology XX with filmmakers including Karyn Kusama and Jovanka Vuckovic, not only writing and directing her own short Don’t Fall, but also penning the screenplay for Annie Clarke’s (aka musician St. Vincent’s) darkly hilarious inclusion, The Birthday Party. Again multiskilling in director, screenwriter and producer roles, Body at Brighton Rock marks a logical progression for a genre-making polymath whose career has already demonstrated significant momentum.
Filmed at Idyllwild in California’s beautiful San Jacinto Mountains, while Body at Brighton Rock could at first be mistaken for typical 80s-drenched pastiche, Wendy proves to be a deceptively sophisticated and compelling character. Wendy is a fascinating character if only for her seeming mediocrity; there’s something universal about Benjamin’s unpacking of the pressures the young woman faces, and for anyone who has ever found themselves in a job they are clearly poorly suited for, Wendy’s almost a patron saint. Even before she discovers the body, Wendy is notably nervous and jumpy, and that she makes a series of seemingly obvious mistakes – some with serious repercussions – all of which demonstrate (at first, at least) that her colleagues running joke about her incompetence and lack of commitment are not wholly unfounded.
Wendy is unambiguously far from the idealized contemporary model of the ‘strong woman’ character; she cries, she panics, she’s at times immature, she makes mistakes, and in some key moments she is just very clearly bad at her job. But the survival instinct being what it is, she finds a way to muddle through that takes her on a curious journey. Through their collaboration, Benjamin and actor Fontes ultimately reclaim the notion of ‘strength’ for flawed women more broadly; Wendy achieves things, but those achievements are always consciously framed by her own subjective experience and understanding of what is happening to her. This notion of subjectivity is fundamental to how Benjamin crafts her genre-friendly thrills; jump scares that might otherwise be read as clichés here instead give us insight into the simplistic, even naïve way that Wendy interprets her circumstances, so thoroughly ill-suited she seems to be to the situation that she finds herself in.
Coming to Body at Brighton Rock with an awareness of Benjamin’s background in horror makes it an even more intriguing watch, as it is not so much a ‘horror’ film as such but rather a thriller that employs the iconography, codes and conventions of horror to paint a compelling portrait of its desperate protagonist’s psychological terrain. Unlike a textbook ‘horror film’ where the woods are automatically coded as inherently ominous or malevolent, it is this precise imaginary that overwhelms Wendy and distorts her comprehension of what is actually going on – and, more important, our ability to accept her vision of the story as what is in fact happening. Body at Brighton Rock hinges on a mystery which only becomes more complicated and ominous as the film progresses, but what is so intriguing is how much we almost subconsciously do not trust her perception; Wendy’s perspective is wholly sympathetic, but also undeniably skewed.
Less a classic unreliable narrator than a vulnerable, impressionable protagonist, Body at Brighton Rock may not appeal to those who stubbornly insist that all ‘positive’ representations of women characters must boil down to cookie-cutter failure-proof superwomen who embody a simplistic ‘girl power’ clichés in every word and deed. This is not that film, and I at least am deeply grateful for that; as much as Wendy has undeniable strengths, it’s her flaws, fears and insecurities that bring her to life. Body at Brighton Rock is a confident and deceptively sophisticated celebration of women who can’t do everything, but who find a way to make it through regardless. The greatest strength of this superficially fun romp is how it uses genre’s familiar codes and conventions to say hey, women characters don’t always have to be able to do everything; they don’t have to always excel. They can find things hard, they can make mistakes, and they are still worthy of our attention and empathy, not because they are women, but because they are human.