2000s, Horror/Eerie

Jennifer’s Body (2009)

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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.

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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.

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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?

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“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.

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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).

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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 distancing devices usually employed with presentations of raw feminine violence.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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 but 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.

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1980s, Romance

Pretty in Pink (1986)

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Director: Howard Deutch

By Roderick Heath

The death of Michael Jackson and John Hughes within a few weeks of each other had me thinking a lot about the 1980s. I never had much time for ’80s youth pics when I was an ’80s youth, and I watched most of Hughes’s later cornball films, like the intolerable Plains, Trains, and Automobiles (1987), without digging them in the least: they were broad, sticky, and slick in the wrong way. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1985) was funny, but also queasy in its celebration of a self-impressed jack-off passing off his gross egotism as rebellion, an accusation I feel like aiming at the whole parade of ’80s teen flicks. At least part of my distrust of such works was, to put it in the parlance of this film, the Duckie in me: they’re the richies, smooth and carefully buffed so that no matter what truths they reflect, they come back bathed in a glitzy sheen. I’d much rather one of the more recent films that have made a meal of the tired carcass of ’80s pop culture, like Zoolander (2001) or Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle (2004).

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But the accolades after his death for the core group of Hughes films—Sixteen Candles (1984), The Breakfast Club (1985), Bueller, Pretty in Pink, and Some Kind of Wonderful (1987)—that retain a tremendously loyal cult made me feel, as Iona (Annie Potts) says of her friend who never went to the prom, like I’d missed something. And in Pretty in Pink, I found something of what they were talking about. In that very narrow range of experience those films charted, most of the praise comes for their accuracy in portraying teenage self-dramatisation and for not eliding the social schisms that plague high school society. I suppose this praise is something of a slap at recent, nakedly materialist youth fiction like Gossip Girl and the pretty dullards who bounce through contemporary teen dramas.

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But a socially cynical aspect was always present in films looking at American rites of passage in diverse works like King’s Row (1940), Rebel without a Cause (1955), Peyton Place (1957), Home from the Hill (1960), and a host of others, quite often with rather more caustic, troubling perspectives. There have always been the friends from the wrong side of the tracks, the Cinderella romance, the troubled outcasts, the skeletons in the closet, the intergenerational hang-ups. Hughes “reinvented” the genre for the ’80s, which meant, in essence, gluing synth-pop and shitty clothes all over it, and providing a set template of predictable story arcs and familiar dramatic beats delivered with the sort of rhythm screenwriting guides adore.

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Pretty in Pink displays the strengths and weaknesses of this little subgenre in equal measure, though Hughes didn’t direct it (and it’s interesting to note the popular auteur status Hughes gained despite mostly being a writer and producer). Far more modest and low-key than the greasy Bueller, it’s fairly amusing in places, with some deftly sketched comic types abutting moderately detailed protagonists and a sense of detail. The key moment comes early on, having noted how Molly Ringwald’s financially strapped heroine Andie Walsh constructs inventive costumes to wear, only to be instantly skewered by the rich girls for whom it is the precise lack of necessary inventiveness and industry entailed in being able to buy fashionable clothes that is significant. There’s a lot of truth in that moment, but one shouldn’t mistake it for much more than a good way of getting us on the heroine’s side. Andie, the daughter of Jack (Harry Dean Stanton), a sad-sack, semi-employed divorcee, has two loyal companions: Phil “Duckie” Dale (Jon Cryer), her high-pressure, low-achieving admirer, and Iona (Annie Potts), her thirty-something, lovelorn, nostalgic coworker in a shopping mall record store.

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On the threshold of moving on, with a scholarship in sight, Andie catches the eye of two “richies,” as they call the yuppie larvae who stride around with their mullets and Don Johnson suits. One of them, Steff (James Spader), makes sly propositions to Andie whilst claiming to deplore her as trash, but she rejects him out of hand. The other, Steff’s friend Blane McDonnagh (Andrew McCarthy), is gentle and engages her in discursive, uneasy conversations that accurately record the way intelligent young people flirt. However, their first date is a near- calamity. Blane takes Andie to a party of Steff’s, where she’s treated with colossal contempt by the other richies, and Duckie, jealous beyond all reason, rebuffs Blane’s efforts to be friendly. But they have a great kiss, and Andie gushes excitedly to her father. The snaky Steff, however, instills enough doubt in Blane’s mind to make him back away from Andie, inspiring two furious showdowns, one in which Andie repeatedly demands Blane admit that he’s dumping her because she’s poor, and then Duckie crash-tackling and brawling with Steff before running off and tearing down the prom banner.

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It’s a strong, if corny, sequence, that captures the inevitable moment for a teenager when just how unfair life can be first shocks us. But Hughes built his films out of alternations of high comedy and melodrama, jerking from one pole to the other according to what point in the running time it is. Quick, we’re at the end of the first hour: let’s have Andie fight with her old man and bust up with Blane so we can resolve it in another half-hour. Hughes also loved constructing smart-mouthed, hyperactive characters whose lovable/annoying bluff often conceals deep insecurity. Ferris Bueller lacked the insecurity, which was passed off onto his troubled friend; later, John Candy’s characters in Planes, Trains and Uncle Buck portrayed them as grown ups. Duckie fits this template to a tee. Cutaways to Duckie in his seamy, lonely apartment are not explained or contextualised: how or why he’s living there isn’t clarified. In a Stephen King story, he’d conjure up a demon lawnmower or something to take bloody revenge. Here he settles for showing up at the prom with a pompadour and spiff suit, and saves Andie from the embarrassment of entering alone.

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Some of the film’s minutiae, like Andie fretfully pondering if going out with a rich guy reeks of “material,” or Iona stapling unsold records to the store’s ceiling in an attempt to jazz the place up, possess authentic flavor, and Hughes and Deutch have a real affection for their characters, holding their interaction up as the real prize. But it’s an interaction that is continually built around pop images, from Duckie, singing John Lennon’s “Love” during a study session with Andie, to Iona making Andie dance with her whilst Iona wears her prom dress and a beehive wig. In a superfluous, yet crucial scene, Duckie dances to “Try a Little Tenderness” in the record store, amateur, but dynamic in his moves. It’s a moment that shows what happened to the musical: it didn’t die immediately, it just went naturalistic. Pretty in Pink is a film dotted with those immortal, long-derided mainstays of ’80s pop-cinema: music-scored montages, sing-alongs, and mime-alongs. These were part of the compromise Hollywood wrung out of templates like The Graduate (1967) and American Graffiti (1973) in trying to reconcile new realism in cinema with the epic flavouring that had always been Hollywood’s specialty: as effectively as any musical, Pretty in Pink finds the self-mythologising potential in everyday lives.

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The trouble is it’s never hard to perceive the contrivance. The story wouldn’t work without placing passive characters at the mercy of broad manipulation: Blane, charming and dry in the early part, spends the latter half of the film glaring in cross-eyed fashion at people who act in grossly offensive ways. The filmmakers elide the moments of real crisis (like, say, when Blane will have to tell his apparently snobby parents about his low-rent girlfriend, or when Duckie may have to come clean about his circumstances) and provides easy out-clauses for the characters. Jack can’t get over his wife leaving him to the point where it’s corroding his ability to survive? Well at least he and Andie can have a teary get-together. Duckie’s left without the love of his life? Let’s casually toss him a blonde at the prom.

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Andie, despite her independence and intelligence, finally reveals herself to be entirely at the mercy of her own social anxiety, a convenient touch that allows her to appeal to both the feminist and wannabe princess in the women watching. Duckie is more demonstrative, but equally malleable, swinging from hyped-up caricature to would-be empathy figure from scene to scene. In his first appearence, he makes a ludicrous come-on to two girls, which gets him floored by a punch, a silly moment that only makes sense in movieland. Hughes’ sociology is not to be mistaken for depth. It’s more a charting of common impulses—for the (then) over-30s to miss their fading youth; for under-30s to claim their post-counterculture right to self-expression; for everyone to feel sorry for the losers without having to yield them substantial solace.

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The film’s conclusion was infamously altered according to test screenings from Duckie landing Andie to a final clinch for Andie and Blane in the school parking lot. This was held to be a betrayal of the theme, but in truth, neither ending is terribly comfortable. The current ending feels rushed and scant, but the first one wouldn’t have worked on account of Duckie’s being barely tolerable. As it is, at least it doesn’t validate refusal to grow up: Duckie confronts the idea that he doesn’t need Andie to grow up, Andie accepts human weaknesses, and Blane overcomes his passivity. In truth, Spader slams them all into the ground in terms of charisma, moving with the feral pride of a lion through all his scenes whilst hinting at some repressed injury behind his patent asshole exterior. I can see why Ringwald made a mark in these films at the time and also why she never became a star of substance: a gracious and easy screen presence, but also not much of an actress, she makes Andie winsome and sensitive, but is a dud at providing the spikier, more cynical intelligence and social awkwardness the part demands. But possibly that’s the filmmakers’ fault, too, as well as the secret of their success—knowing how to provide a main character to whom labels are constantly affixed, but who is actually a blank slate. So, yes, I’m still not on board with the Hughes thing. Still, there are worse way to spend an hour and a half.

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