Now in theaters
Directed by Karyn Kusama
In all honesty, I sat down to watch Jennifer’s Body with all the joy of someone sitting down to dine on a bowlful of cold barf. I felt I had a good idea of the kind of movie it was going to be (altogether too cool and pleased with itself) and I wasn’t looking forward to the experience. I expected that self-consciously hip dialogue would be rubbing me the wrong way throughout Jennifer’s Body and that’s not my idea of a good time. I didn’t believe I’d be laughing much and I knew for damn sure that I wouldn’t be scared. On the later point, I was pretty much right. But that’s ultimately no knock against Jennifer’s Body. Even if it’d been played completely straight, the tale of a high school succubus was unlikely to ever be as scary to me as, say, Psycho, Carpenter’s The Thing or The Blair Witch Project. On the former point, though, I was dead wrong as I laughed out loud frequently throughout the film. And yet Jennifer’s Body is not a send-up or a spoof. From its tagline â€“ “She’s evil. And not just high school evil.” â€“ I expected (and dreaded) a sardonic, ironic pseudo-horror film but instead Jennifer’s Body is a sensitively scripted character piece that just happens to involve one character becoming a demon.
As penned by Diablo Cody (Juno), this tale of two unlikely life-long girlfriends is about their unbalanced, borderline toxic, relationship first and about botched demonic sacrifices second. Anita ‘Needy’ Lesnicky (Amanda Seyfried, of Mama Mia) is the bespectacled, slightly dowdy chum to the Jennifer Check (Megan Fox of the Transformers films â€“ in case you hadn’t heard), the undisputed hottest girl in the small town of Devil’s Kettle. But while this set-up may suggest that Needy is going to be a Carrie White or Arnie Cunningham-esque wallflower, Needy is not Jennifer’s dork sidekick. Sure, she isn’t as glamorous as Jennifer but that would be a tall order to fill for any ordinary high schooler. On her own terms, however, Needy has things together â€“ being in the midst of a budding romantic relationship with her classmate Chip (Johnny Simmons). At the same time, being a devoted friend, she will drop whatever she’s doing to cater to Jennifer’s whims.
For her part, Jennifer is a man-eater well before she becomes a literal man-eater. But as with Needy, this character isn’t written by Cody to fit an expected stereotype. For one, Jennifer is dumb about almost everything except her own sexuality. This is a girl who’s keenly aware of the affect that her looks have on others but otherwise there’s something poignantly average about Jennifer. She’s cunning, but not very bright. She’s aggressive about what she wants but shortsighted about life. Early on in the film, she and Needy are at a dive bar as some cheeseball (and, as it turns out, evil), Maroon 5-style band called Low Shoulder performs their brand of safe, pre-packaged pop rock and as the music plays, we perceive that it’s just the kind of generic, teen-orientated fluff that Jennifer is happy to listen to. And yet the film doesn’t mock her for it. This is a film that’s understanding, rather than smug, towards its characters.
Once Jennifer becomes demonic, thanks to Low Shoulder’s attempt to appease their Dark Lord by sacrificing Jennifer (who they mistake for a virgin) not quite going as planned, her evil wrath is strictly small scale. She isn’t out to devour the school, or take over Devil’s Kettle. She’s the same high school vixen she was before only now she needs to dine on the occasional boy to stay alive. This lack of a substantial body count or real villainy on Jennifer’s part may frustrate horror fans that were expecting more demonic action and more evil with a capital ‘E’ but carnage isn’t what Jennifer’s Body is about. Even as a demon, Jennifer is aware enough to know that high school is guaranteed to be the pinnacle of her life; this is where she will always be most adored. This isn’t like some outcast being gifted with the powers of Hell; Jennifer has no reason to level a place that’s been very good to her. This is someone who has never been able to walk down the hall without being asked on a date. But yet as much as Jennifer has it all, as much as life in her high school revolves around her, she nurses an almost pathological jealousy towards Needy.
In Jennifer’s Body, boys may commit horrible acts (like human sacrifice, for instance) but they have simple, surface motivations. The actions of Jennifer, however, are more mysterious and less easily understood. We see Jennifer grotesquely lapping up the blood of a victim at one point but that’s a physically driven, animal act of survival â€“ it’s hunger. The really heartless acts that Jennifer performs are the deliberate acts of cruelty that she inflicts on her supposed best friend as she chooses to stalk any boy that Needy may like or who may like her. Jennifer’s Body is a film that’s wise to the inexplicable ways that girls can be possessive or protective of and yet destructive towards each other â€“ often times in the same moment. This would’ve been an easy film in which to make boys the bad guys and to have Jennifer transform into an ‘avenging angel’ of sorts, smiting boys on behalf of herself and Needy, but yet save for the rank amateur Satanists of Low Shoulder, the guys of Jennifer’s Body are generally decent people. It’s Jennifer’s inability to be a good friend to Needy that’s the source of the pain here. Seyfried and Fox are both excellent in their roles and although some might say that Fox is just playing a not-so-disguised version of her sex siren self, the fact that she’s able to convey the different layers of Jennifer belies the assumption that what she’s doing isn’t really acting.
Like Cody’s script, director Karyn Kusama’s work here is stylized but not in a show off-ish, overly mannered way. One thing I loved about Jennifer’s Body is that it isn’t afraid to embrace having a slick, pop sheen to it. This isn’t an example of retro-chic; Kusama isn’t trying to score credibility with genre fans by evoking the horror heyday of the ’70s, or ’80s, or whatever. This isn’t some faux-grindhouse film. It’s an unabashed pop horror movie of 2009. Some might call that being trendy but ‘trendy’ is something Jennifer’s Body is not. It’s a quirky genre mishmash that will likely alienate anyone looking for a movie that plays it safe. Cody’s trademark dialogue might continue to rankle some but save for a too-glib moment or two (especially during the climax), I think it worked perfectly here. Even if the dialogue isn’t 100%, or even 20%, natural to how actual people talk, I think that’s appropriate for a film in which demonic possession is supposed to be real. It’s a fable-like horror-fantasy â€“ to take some license in its language is permissible.
I expect this film will be receiving its share of “it wasn’t scary enough” or “it wasn’t funny enough” or “why didn’t Megan Fox show us her boobs?” type of reviews but I found Jennifer’s Body to possess an unexpected heart rather than just being too smart for its own good.