Every once in awhile it is as if the stars align and every critic in the world decides that it’s time for somebody’s comeuppance.
And lo’ such a time came for Diablo Cody, whose script for Juno was controversial before it won an Oscar and became one of the biggest hits of the decade. People tend not to be merely derisive towards Cody or her work but Apoplectic that she exists. By the time Jennifer’s Body came out there were critics who were positively thirsty for her blood (It should be noted that Megan Fox, who stars as the titular Jennifer had a big fat target painted on her as well). Helping not one whit was the fact that far from toning down Cody’s various idiosyncrasies Jennifer’s Body amped them up to the point where they made Juno sound about as naturalistic as the average Cassevettes film (“Lime Green Jello”? Mrs. Cody I like you and your work but that line made even me think, “Jesus Wept”.)
But lost in all the rancor and move on dot orgs, is the fact that beneath the surface and the Codyisms lies a fairly smart, fairly angry little genre film that has a lot to say about the treatment of women in general and their treatment in horror films specifically.
Jennifer’s Body follows Needy and Jennifer two friends since elementary school who by the time they reach highschool have become firmly entrenched in their respective alpha/beta ruts. Jennifer is the small town princess, Needy the tagalong. Unfortunately for them an indie rock band, kidnap Jennifer and then botch their Satanic Sacrifice of her, which doesn’t keep their hilariously vapid song “Through The Trees” from becoming a hit (sample line, “I’m still breathing now”) but it does bring Jennifer back from her premature death as a literal man eater.
Jennifer’s Body is primarily a film about female friendship and the way it can curdle at the drop of a hat thanks to internal tension and societal pressure. It’s something I’ve seen in my own life more than a few times and it never fails to shock how quickly and completely an intimate relationship can collapse into utter loathing. Though the supernatural certainly exacerbates things the fallout from the collapse of Needy (I know) and Jennifer’s relationship would probably have been just as vicious in the day to day world, albeit with less of a body count.
The film has an awful lot to say about the iconography of women in horror, both as victims and monsters. As I mentioned when talking about Death Proof, while I think the issue is complex, there’s no denying that the primary image of women in horror is that of the victim. You can go all the way back to The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari and see the helpless woman in the arms of the monster or watch any given movie that features a girl being chased through the woods by a man with the knife. And the sad fact is that for every Laurie Strode, Buffy Summers or Sydney Prescott there are a dozen interchangble bimbos, hired for their looks and lungs and writ with all the depth of a toothpaste add. Fodder in other words.
Now like I said this gets tricky, great horror movies gain a lot of power because anyone regardless of gender can end up fodder. And it’s not as if the male counterparts of those bland female characters were written by Ben Hecht either. If female characters in your average bad horror movies are portrayed as “dumb blondes” or shrill harpies the men are usually brainless pigs, geeks or idiots. At the end of the day good writing is good writing bad writing is bad writing and that is that. But horror does have its fair share doesn’t it?
When the female character in horror is the aggressor, it’s often a sexualized aggression. The girls in Hammer and EC were always almost unhealthily voluptuous to the point of being overripe, one of the best classic female centric horror film’s Dracula’s Daughter has a distinct DC subtext. Dracula’s Brides both in Stoker’s novel and Coppola’s film are as sexually ravenous as they are blood hungry. Often times their sexual appetite is mixed in with a harpy like domineerence, Santinico Pandemonium who explicitly links vampirism to slavery is a good example of this (interestingly enough Tarantino’s script suggests that she is specifically targeting Ritchie to punish him for his earlier violence against women though this is a subtext Rodriguez is not much interested in).
There are some exceptions to the rule of course. Poor popeyed Carrie White, for whom the lack of sexual experience is the entire problem. Ruth Gordon in Rosemary’s Baby. The bird like Elsa Lanchester. The “fame whore” in Scream 4 and Joan Crawford (what’s up Rob?) But for the most part the elements that exaggerated to make a woman monstrous in a horror film are sexual appetite, reversing of gender roles, and deviant sexual behavior.
In case you didn’t notice we are once again on some uncomfortable ground here.
The most interesting thing about Jennifer’s Body is how Jennifer ends up embodying all of these archetypes both as victim and as monster. Her death at the hands up the band is genuinely brutal and upsetting stuff (Though it is presaged by an awkward "867 5309" joke because, you know, Cody) Shot in a low fi matter of fact way that has more in common with I Spit On Your Grave than the exaggerated just short of cartoonish violence present in the rest of the movie.
As Monster Megan Fox’s Maxim cover girl features distend and warp. Her Jaw unhinges, her eyes widen, teeth become fangs hands claws, After feeding she reverts back to her standard starlet good looks in a way that’s even more disquieting. The ideal corrupted. Jennifer’s Body is one of the few movies (let alone horror movies) that honestly deals with the insecurity that young men have about sex. “We have all the power.” Jennifer crows in an early scene, and she’s dominant and aggressive in the sex scenes before unhinging her jaw. To a fifteen year old kid unsure of his ability to properly handle the centerfold in a Playboy, it’s a worst case scenario. Call it the Pin Up Al Dente.
Most of the problems with Jennifer’s Body focus around the general inexperience of its cast and crew. Say what you will about Cody but it’s clear she has a genuine affection and knack for the genre, the same cannot necessarily be said about director Karyn Kusama, who prior to Jennifer’s Body had directed the Michelle Rodriguez indie film Girlfight and the woeful Aeon Flux. Neither of which suggest a particularly adapt temperment for horror.
There are some effective scenes, I defy anyone to tell me that the sequence where needy finds the freshly resurrected Jennifer in her home, making guttural noises and devouring half a chicken before vomiting a horrible black organic mass on the floor isn’t a damn good horror scene (and that the much maligned Ms. Fox isn’t damn good in it). An invasion and a degradation.
But part of what makes that scene so effective is it’s not shot like a horror scene. When it comes to the scenes devoted to horror Kusaman displays a distinct lack of instinct for the genre. There is a genuine sense of discomfort, dare I say clumsiness, to the staging and blocking of the horror sequences, particularly the gorier ones. It’s one of the softest R rated horror films I can think of. You can tell that Jennifer’s Body is one of those unfortunate films that read better than it plays. If a director more experienced with the genre had been given the reins, say a Mary Harron or a Kathryn Bigelow, or even one who just had an authorial stamp strong enough not to get overwritten by Cody’s, like say Kimberly Peirce (imagine how much more effective the film would have been if “Devil’s Kettle” felt as real as the small town in Boy’s Don’t Cry) heck even if Cody herself had picked up the reins (she’s currently prepping her directorial debut), the film could have really been something.
As is Jennifer’s Body is a flawed film, but one that gives the true horror fan more to chew on than most of what was released in the decade. Imperfect sure, but horror films, particularly original horror films of this ambition should not be dismissed as this one has, simply because of who is in front of or behind the camera.