When Paul Davis and Paul Fischer initially set out to expand their 2013 short film “The Body” into a feature, they did so on spec, not knowing Blumhouse was going to set a deal with Hulu for a monthly horror anthology series called “Into the Dark.” Although their story — about a hitman who is lugging the corpse of his latest victim on Halloween — lent itself perfectly to the holiday theme Blumhouse was going for and became “Into the Dark’s” premiere piece, there was one big change they wanted to make in the adaptation.
“The hitman, Wilkes, he got away with it in the short — he got pranked by a couple of guys that you thought were police officers, but were actually two guys dressed for Halloween, and they kind of sent him on his way, the joke’s on him, ha ha ha. But in this one, I said to myself, Wilkes, at the end of the movie, has to get a taste of his own medicine,” Davis, who co-wrote and also directed “The Body,” tells Variety.
Wilkes (Tom Bateman) is the kind of character who Davis wanted the audience to find charming, despite knowing he was a bad guy from the beginning — “a little bit of Malcolm McDowell in ‘A Clockwork Orange,'” he explains. But he is intentionally countered by Maggie (Rebecca Rittenhouse), whose story, Davis says is either “a superhero or super villain origin story, depending on how you look at it.”
“Both Wilkes and Maggie have this very distinct way of looking at the world. She feels as though she’s trapped, and he’s like the personification of a liberated being, and that’s her awakening — her seeing him do this. And he’s so matter-of-fact about it, it’s his job, and it’s the way he is, and you can do what you want to do. He awakens that in her,” Davis says.
Between Wilkes and Maggie is the body itself. Davis says production had only two versions of it, which they called “Bert and Ernie.” The first was a “clean look” used for the earlier sequences, while the second was the beaten up version that is seen later in the film, after it has been dragged around the street and attempted to be destroyed. The most important part of using the prop body, Davis says, was to “see people reacting to it but never find out who it is.”
“We use it in the film as kind of like the briefcase from ‘Pulp Fiction,'” he notes. “You know it’s someone important, but that’s it. The idea with that was that I want everybody to watch it and put their own person inside. It can be whoever you want it to be — whoever you’re mad at.”
Davis says his usual benchmark for a horror movie is John Landis’ “An American Werewolf in London,” and he wanted “The Body” to fall in line with that tone. But as he got deeper into the process, he also found himself drawing references from more contemporary horror films such as “Scream” and “Happy Death Day.” When it came to the political subtext of “The Body,” “Get Out” was an inspiration, as well.
“Both Paul Fischer and myself, we have things to say — we have our own little soapboxes — and we wanted to use the movie to thread subtext. And it kind of came at the right time. It wasn’t intended when we were writing it, but it kind of became a #MeToo movie,” Davis says. “CNN was influencing us as much as Wes Craven and all those guys.”
However, as much as Davis points out there is “stuff in there about racism in the world right now, about control, about the way police treat civilians, and sexism,” at the end of the day, they wanted to entertain people first and foremost — whether that entertainment came in the form of scares or laughs.
“One of the funny things I love about this story that plugs a lot of logic and plot points is that it is a movie that is driven by each one of the principle characters making one bad decision. And we’ve all been on a night out — be it Halloween or any night — where we’ve made a bad decision,” Davis says. “We’ve all had those nights where we’ve done something we shouldn’t have, but [‘The Body’] just takes it to the next level.”
The Halloween backdrop lent itself to the storytelling, Davis says, because of the wildness of the night, where characters are naturally drinking, taking drugs, and partying. In order to fully immerse the audience in the slightly surreal world, he wanted to “really amp up” the opening party sequence — “where Halloween thrives,” he notes — in which characters, including Maggie, assume the dead body Wilkes is dragging is just a dummy — an elaborate costume and true commitment to the occasion. Once he established the “debaucherous environment,” Davis could take his characters on a downward spiral that led, in part, to a dive bar “where Halloween goes to die.”
Characters such as Jack (Ray Santiago), Nick (David Hull), and Dorothy (Aurora Perrineau) learn that the titular body really is a dead man and get sucked into the disposal. “Thinking on their feet … or not thinking at all,” Davis says, they end up trying methods they’ve seen on “Breaking Bad” and look up on Wikipedia.
“That was kind of the fun for us in telling the story and keeping it entertaining, keeping the shock value there, keeping it moving,” he says. “Keeping that blend consistent is first and foremost, [but] you never make fun of the threat. If you do that, then you can never scare the audience, it’s game over.”
“Into the Dark: The Body” streams Oct. 5 on Hulu.