Director: Karyn Kusama
By Roderick Heath
I might have been alone in anticipating Jennifer’s Body as a project offering a fine opportunity for a trio of au courant It Girls—screenwriter Diablo Cody and actresses Megan Fox and Amanda Seyfried—to strut their stuff in gamier material than crass blockbusters and middling Indieville fare. My solitary position seemed more than confirmed in light of the film’s poor box office performance, yet my curiosity didn’t abate. The film, now that I’ve seen it, seems an odd, deeply flawed crossbreed that doesn’t work, but it is also far from being the contemptible disaster many were happy to dismiss it as. Sold as a femme-centric reclamation-cum-subversion of the high-school-themed horror subgenre, that description doesn’t really cover what Jennifer’s Body sets out to do: indeed, in terms of monster-woman biz it doesn’t do anything that Species didn’t cover years ago. Nonetheless, the material that Cody tried to jam into her script, and the efforts of director Karyn Kusama to keep it all in balance, demands a brief pause to take stock before launching into critical assessment.
Lack of ambition isn’t one of the film’s faults, unlike Cody’s previous, tiresome Juno (2007), for in addition to its core as a generic riff, the screenplay tries to encompass a knowing panoply of sardonic observations on modern standards of cool and social prestige, on orgiastic celebrations of communality around calamities that are more properly sources of shame, and the schizoid fixation of our media-soaked life with grotesque calamity and libido-exploiting pretty things. One key joke of the film is the sight of monstrous über babe Jennifer (Fox) strutting through her high school hallways in contemptuous oblivion of the despair and horror around her, and this being taken as a given, simply replicates the cognitive dissonance I have whenever I turn on a commercial TV news programme or open up my MSN home page these days.
Nonetheless, Jennifer’s Body is adorned from the outset by Cody’s questionable idea of smart banter, with BFFs Jennifer and Anita ‘Needy’ Lesnicki (Seyfried) skewered by Chastity (Valerie Tian) as “lesbigay” for maintaining their goofy smile-and-wave friendship, rooted in their “sandbox love” as infants, into their final high school year. Jennifer has bloomed into a drop-dead sex magnet and Needy has retained a dowdier aspect, at least partly in deference to Jennifer’s need to be the most gorgeous one in the room, and also because she has feet planted firmly in the nerdy side of the student body. Who is actually the needy one of the two is, of course, soon called into question, with Jennifer happy to use her looks to conquer police cadets, bartenders, and rock musicians with equal abandon. But Fox equips still-human Jennifer with a rapid little laugh as if astounded by her own audacity and how people let her get away with it to remind us she’s still little more than a child, although she’s no longer even a “back-door virgin.” She’s happy enough, however, to pretend to be Little Miss Purity when the members of a cute indie rock band called Low Shoulder, in town for gig in a seamy local bar, are overheard speculating about her virginity. Jennifer drags Needy to their gig, only for the bar to catch fire during the performance.
Needy manages to spirit a shell-shocked Jennifer out of the place, but several others die and Jennifer is swiftly snatched away by the band. Needy, alarmed and scared, goes home. Jennifer turns up, bloodied, bedraggled, wearing a demonic grin and vomiting grotesque black bile before disappearing again. The next day, however she’s immaculate and uninterested in the mass mourning of the fire victims that’s commenced among their schoolmates and their township. Their town becomes a cause celebre thanks to the disaster, and Low Shoulder start becoming very famous as one of their songs is declared the “unofficial anthem” of the healing process. The locality’s infamy extends when young men keep turning up with their entrails gnawed from their body by some lunatic. Guess who’s been possessed by a succubus after her sacrifice to Satan by the misinformed wannabe pop gods?
“They’re basically, like, agents of Satan with really awesome haircuts,” Jennifer describes Low Shoulder, who, as revealed in flashback, tied her up in the woods and stabbed her to death. That scene is actually the best in the film, one where Kusama intelligently has Fox play it deadly straight as a mortally terrified victim of the band, led by the unctuous pretty boy Nikolai (Adam Brody), who lay out their frustrated desire to make it big as if playing in a sitcom, and explain their decision to make a pact with the devil to accomplish their aims. They casually read out the prescribed invocation for the sacrifice as downloaded from the internet, and Nikolai bitches about how hard it is for an indie rock band to make it “if you don’t get on Letterman or on some retarded soundtrack,” a joke that would hit harder if this film’s soundtrack wasn’t stuffed full of bland indie rock. The bandmates then excitedly sing out the lyrics to Tommy Tutone’s “Jenny” whilst slaughtering Jennifer like a hog. Here, the blend of satiric humour and genuine nastiness is at its most bizarrely compelling.
Similarly odd and compelling is the sequence that cuts between Jennifer seducing and then torturing and eating a young Goth-styled writer, Colin (Kyle Gallner), whom Needy had liked, and Needy and her sweetly ineffectual boyfriend Chip (Johnny Simmons) engaged in clumsy beginner sex, with Needy afflicted by hallucinatory visions of Jennifer and her victims, her moans of fear mistaken by Chip for groans of coital pleasure: “Am I too big?” he asks with concern, but with a slight self-impressed smile on his lips. Cody’s love of slasher films, noted but (unfortunately!) not realised in Juno, is blended with a wry, antipodal take on the coming-of-age genre, with the familiar hopped-up sexuality and rigid social roles usually described in teen-oriented horror movies both recapitulated and dismantled. A long shadow is still cast on the teen horror flick by Wes Craven’s Scream (1996), with its razor-sharp Kevin Williamson screenplay, as Jennifer’s Body attempts to give that model an equally ironic but more overtly deconstructive tweak. But perhaps a better, and more appropriate, forebear to the ideas behind Jennifer’s Body is Brian de Palma’s mighty adaptation of Stephen King’s Carrie (1976).
Interestingly, especially in light of the well-publicised design of the film to reverse the usual gender dynamics of the slasher flick (which might suggest that Cody and Kusama would offer up for Jennifer’s consumption a raft of chauvinists, sex offenders, and other stereotyped male jerks), and the sharp metaphors about misplaced trust and date rape for overly self-confident, undersupervised teen girls, Jennifer’s actual targets are, however, nice young men, one of them grieving his dead friend, another showing up hopefully but with relative innocence for a plain old date. These targets are a fairly brave choice, especially considering that unlike the usual horror movie murderer, whose intentions are usually bleakly impersonal and swift even when viciously moralistic, Jennifer’s killings are personalised, sexualised, and prolonged, without the usual distancing devices usually employed with presentations of raw feminine violence.
Needy’s conspiracy/conflict with the demonic Jennifer is infused both by her resentment of Jennifer’s pre-eminence and self-centredness, and also by a bubbling bi-curious attraction that actualises in a scene of extended girl-on-girl snogging. That’s a moment which revels in its own willfully trashy appeal, but also suggests a curious nexus of the genre with the gay-friendly demeanour of so much indie film from which Kusama and Cody sprang, and also reproducing the familiar contradictions notable in many lesbian vampire flicks over the years. The two girls evoke more actual passion than the other couplings in the film, infused with layers of gamesmanship: Succubus-Jennifer trying to distract Needy and keep her on the hook so that Needy will not “narc her out,” after seeing Jennifer drenched
in blood, and goody-two-shoes Needy, bewildered at first by her friend’s attentions, drops on Jennifer for a second bout with amusing directness. Needy’s boring nicey-wicey boyfriend Chip soon becomes something of a pawn between the two, for Jennifer is envisioned as an extreme incarnation of the evil-bitch-queen boyfriend-stealer back-stabbing nonfriend.
Around this central ménage a quoi spins plentiful social satire on the processes by which overnight superstars are made, particularly by exploiting tragedy in the way many recording artists made dubious capital out of post-9/11 shock and patriotic fervour (“Low Shoulder are American heroes!” declares Chastity in protest at Needy’s cynicism), the way the emotional ambiguity following disaster can be trampled by lockstep official sentimentalising, and how repetition dulls social response to disaster. At his funeral, Colin’s mother (Gabrielle Rose, good) abuses and sends up two of his fellow Goths after they make an overwrought eulogy over his casket, a scene which, like the scene between Allison Janney and the nurse in Juno, spoils a “things we’d like to say” moment in taking the mickey out of Goth culture self-obsession and facile morbidity, with its unfair, hectoring employment in a loaded setting, and ludicrous dialogue.
In truth, the film rather painfully confirms Cody’s limitations as a writer quite apart from her much-abused dialogue style. Set-ups are often vague, and then amateurishly developed: that Needy explains for the audience Jennifer’s dictation of her appearance rather than giving some carefully written scenes to describe this subtle coercion displays why screenwriting teachers deride the voiceover as a lazy technique. Many scenes are detached and hardly seem to affect the next, with a broken-up, skit-like air inflecting many sequences. Major characters are introduced about a half-hour too late, and the script is littered with peculiar gaps: why isn’t anything about Jennifer’s home life, her parents, or whether they’ve noticed her recent bizarre tendencies even briefly described?
More problematically, the core characterisations, especially Jennifer’s, barely cohere. The filmmakers don’t seem to know whether to pitch Jennifer as a demon conveniently mimicking a personality, as Jennifer herself taken to the Nth degree with evil liberation, or a confused, Jekyll and Hyde blend of girl and monster. Kusama offers curious cutaways to Jennifer looking pained and sorrow-stricken in quiet moments, but can’t construct a successful dialogue between the aspects of Jennifer. As such, in spite of Fox’s evident enthusiasm in a role that suits her fierce beauty and capacity to project sharklike sexuality, Jennifer never becomes the galvanising villainess she’s supposed to be. Likewise, the need to maintain a clear good/bad girl dichotomy results in making Needy fastidiously—and a bit unbelievably, in light of her literate, cynical outsider status who articulates like a 30 Rock character—clean-mouthed and strait-laced. What then ought to build to a thumping emotional and physical denouement instead results in sloppily achieved climactic scenes, as Needy tries to save Chip from Jennifer’s predations and then breaks into her bedroom to stab her to death in revenge.
Even a slim hold on the necessary melodramatic impetus of a horror narrative seems to slip out of Kusama and Cody’s grasp by the end, with confrontations between Needy and Jennifer and then the members of Low Shoulder thrown away with zestless laziness. The latter villains meet their ends during the credits, for crying out loud! What should be a big, bristling showdown that lets its actresses off their leashes instead peters out in a weak bedroom tussle, where Needy pitches herself through a window like a superhero: her tearing the emblematic friendship necklace from about Jennifer’s neck seems to dispirit her and she lies prone under Needy’s knife. Her generally uninspired work on Jennifer’s Body hardens my opinion of Kusama, who made her debut with 2000’s interesting Girlfight, but then delivered the all but unwatchable Æon Flux (2005), as a director who doesn’t instinctively grasp the necessary mechanics of building tension and intensity in genre fare – and that’s a real problem here.
Perhaps the project would have been better off slapped into shape by a hardy genre salt like Craven or Robert Rodriguez, or if, as it seems to have been, it was important to keep it an all-girl affair, Kathryn Bigelow. The most unsettling images in the film, tellingly, are expressive ones from its lead actresses, with Fox’s malevolent grin and raw sadistic pleasure in inflicting pain matched at the very end by a now somewhat crazed and partly monstrous Needy, caught in a surveillance camera readying to assault the band, her eyes aglow with otherworldly retribution for herself and her friends. The movie is mostly sustained by its performances, especially Seyfried’s, and good miniature character turns by the likes of J. K. Simmons as a hippie-ish school teacher and Cynthia Stevenson as Chip’s flip, solicitous mother. Jennifer’s Body is thoroughly watchable and likable, but considering that it so eagerly wishes to be embraced as a cult item, I can’t help but wonder which cult it was aiming for. It’s still an interesting film, for me. Perhaps that’s all the cult it needs.