Monday, October 15, 2018

HubrisWeen 2018, Day 10: Jennifer's Body (2009)

Diablo Cody is a somewhat divisive creator. She broke onto the scene with the screenplay for Juno in 2007, which won her an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. For a follow-up, she wrote the screenplay for today's film--and promptly destroyed all of the good will she had built up with Juno.

Sure, Cody still gets acclaim from time to time, and she definitely still gets work. However, her name is more likely to elicit groans these days than approval.

Now, if you ask my opinion, Juno was insufferable. It was a bunch of great actors delivering smarmy "clever" dialogue in a barely hung together story. I can understand why it appealed to many people, but I also never wish to watch it ever again.

The strange thing to me, then, is trying to figure out why Jennifer's Body had almost the same script problems that Juno did, but it was the latter film that crashed and burned so hard upon release. The critical response wasn't terribly harsh, but it was very lukewarm, and the box office was a definite failure--it barely made back its budget in domestic grosses.

Now, it's no mystery to me that the film didn't have the same amount of awards buzz, since horror films never get recognized that way. Even at the time, however, I did not quite understand why this film was largely disliked, as when I saw it on DVD, I actually kind of enjoyed it.

Of course, if I'm being entirely unfair, I will come right out and blame the film's dismissal on the fact that most straight male viewers expected that an R-rated movie starring Megan Fox was going to finally give them a look at her naked body and when they inevitably found out that it did not, then they didn't bother with it. Worse, you had a different kind of awful straight men, who had decided that they were above being sexually attracted to Megan Fox and turned up their nose at anything she was involved in.

Unfortunately, I was definitely guilty of being the latter kind of asshole at the time, which is why I skipped it in the theater. Thankfully I have grown out of that particular phase and wised up to the fact that it isn't Megan Fox's fault that she has gotten a bum deal out of, well, pretty much her whole career by being constantly cast as "Main Sex Object" in stupid adolescent action movies.

So, with almost ten years distance, I decided to revisit the film and see what I thought of it now.

Of course, even in 2018 I can't defend the logic of casting Amanda Seyfried as "the plain best friend." Well, at least Anita "Needy" Lesnicki (Seyfried) used to be the plain best friend of one of the hottest girls in her high school, but now she's a violent inmate at a mental hospital. When she gets herself thrown in solitary confinement, she finds herself with plenty of time to think--which also means plenty of time to tell us her story in flashback.

"Glasses? You fools! You have only increased my sex appeal!"
Needy comes from Devil's Kettle, Minnesota--so named because of the strange phenomenon on the outskirts of the town, where a waterfall drains into a mysterious whirlpool. Nobody knows where the whirlpool leads, not even the scientists who like to dump things into it, but naturally the most popular theories are a portal to hell or a dimensional vortex.

That isn't super relevant at the moment. What is relevant is that Needy is the best friend of Jennifer Check (Megan Fox), a hugely popular cheerleader. They have been friends since childhood and have the sort of relationship that makes their classmates tease them for being lesbian lovers, but naturally that isn't entirely unfounded.

I mean, think we're probably supposed to read at least something into the fact that Needy's boyfriend, Chip Dove (Johnny Simmons), is the sort of non-threatening handsome guy that pre-teen girls fall for. And, sure, Jennifer's obvious dislike of Chip could just be jealousy of the fact that he takes time away from her and Needy hanging out together, but is that all that it is?

A million fanfic writers have already answered that question for me, I'd bet.
Whatever the truth might have been, it won't ever come to light in the way it naturally might have. Jennifer steals Needy away from a night with Chip to have her come along to a local dive to see indie rock group Low Shoulder play. The lead singer, Nikolai Wolf (Adam Brody), almost immediately takes an unseemly interest in Jennifer. An older man being interested in Jennifer isn't unusual in and of itself, since earlier we saw Jennifer flirting with rookie police officer Roman Duda (Chris Pratt), whom she has been having a sexual relationship with for longer than can possibly be appropriate.

However, Nikolai seems oddly fixated on whether or not Jennifer is a virgin. Needy overhears him arguing with the other bandmates about it. Thinking that the singer is just a creep who wants to bone her friend, Needy does what she thinks is the right thing and angrily walks right up to them and tells them that her friend is totally a virgin.

This is the wrong thing to do, and not just because Jennifer smugly confirms that it's a blatant lie when Needy talks to her about it right after.

No, it's because Low Shoulder are much more sinister than they seem. In the middle of their set, the bar catches fire and the band just splits while Needy and Jennifer barely make it out alive. Several bar patrons aren't so lucky. Worst of all, once outside the band pulls up in their creepy van and offers the girls a ride. To her helpless horror, Needy is unable to convince Jennifer not to go with them.

The night from hell isn't over, though, because hours later Needy is awakened at home by Jennifer in her kitchen. Jennifer's white coat is shredded and the girl is covered in blood. Worse, she complains of being starving, but when she attempts to eat a leftover chicken from the fridge she instead vomits black ichor onto the linoleum. When Jennifer flees after this, Needy notices that the black goo almost seems to be alive and it becomes spiky as it moves.

"It's OK, I just bit my tongue a bit too hard when someone said I must have loved working with Michael Bay."
At school the next day, however, Jennifer is fine. Even stranger, Low Shoulder's band members are being hailed as heroes for trying to save the victims of the fire and their single, "Through The Trees," is now getting so much radio play it's inescapable. The band has even offered to play at the school's Spring dance in honor of the deceased.

Of course, the town's tragedy is only just beginning. One of the school's football players is grieving his friend's death, when Jennifer comes up to him and seduces him into following her into the forest behind the school. Once they are far enough from any witnesses, Jennifer suddenly sprouts claws and razor-sharp teeth and rips him apart. The school's resident kooky teacher (J.K. Simmons) hears the boy's screams and thus comes upon the shocking sight of a deer nibbling on the dead lad's intestines.

Demons must have a wicked case of TMJ.
Needy can't help noticing that Jennifer is acting very, very strangely. Not long after the first murder, Needy notices that Jennifer is beginning to look sick. Unfortunately, when one of the school's emo/goth kids asks Jennifer to go to a screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show at the Bijou with him (which is a sly reference to the student theater at the University of Iowa, I might add), Needy suggests Jennifer take him up on it.

What Needy doesn't realize is that this actually means Jennifer is going to lure the boy to somewhere else that night--and then eat him, too. Though Needy does actually catch on this time, since the attack happens while she is having sex with Chip and somehow she psychically keys in to what is happening. All she gets are vivid visions of something terrible happening that involves Jennifer, but it obviously kills the mood for her.

Needy rushes home, where she is ambushed in her bedroom by Jennifer. While her old friend just presents her appearance as a simple social call, Needy knows something sinister is going on now--though she still finds herself unable to resist when Jennifer beckons her closer. And, yes, the two do make out vigorously, which I definitely no longer find inexplicable--as I did in 2009.

This also doesn't feel like just shameless exploitation any more, either.
Partly, the make out session was motivated by Jennifer wanting to demonstrate her newfound powers of seduction. Powers that are even stronger after she has just fed. And then she decides to let Needy in on what happened to her that night after Low Shoulder took her away in their van.

See, they reason they had wanted her to be a virgin wasn't for some sort of perverted fantasy. No, they needed a virgin for a sacrifice. Being a successful indie band isn't easy, so Nikolai had talked the others into making a sacrifice to the powers of darkness in exchange for success. So Jennifer found herself tied up near the Devil's Kettle and then a bunch of weirdos sang "Jenny (867-5309)" to her as they stabbed her repeatedly with a sacrificial knife. After the stabbing was over, Nikolai threw the knife into the whirlpool.

But Jennifer wasn't dead. And after leaving Needy's house, subsequent to the black vomit incident, Jennifer encountered one of the survivors of the fire wandering aimlessly--and she realized what her sudden hunger was for. He became her first victim.

After hearing this tale, Needy naturally researches what she can about demons. She quickly realizes that when Low Shoulder sacrificed Jennifer, their plan worked--but since Jennifer wasn't a virgin, she became possessed by a succubus. Trying to confide in Chip is a mistake, since he doesn't believe her. With no one backing her up, Needy realizes she may have to kill her best friend if she is going to save more innocent people. Especially with the looming smorgasbord that is the Spring dance.

Except Needy neglected to consider that Jennifer always loved to steal Needy's toys. And Chip is going to be walking to the dance that night all by himself...

2018, am I right?
Viewing Jennifer's Body now, I found that a film I had merely liked now is one I pretty much love. I say "pretty much" because there are some serious qualifiers.

For starters, I'm always a little let down by a horror movie monster that is little more than a glorified Snapchat filter. Jennifer's demonic appearance is little more than some (admittedly pretty good) CGI to give her sharp teeth and a stretchy jaw. There are some pretty effective gore effects in this film that actually involve practical effects, so it's a bit disappointing that they didn't put very much thought into the central monster.

There is also the fact that the script by Diablo Cody has some real clunkers of dialogue. However, viewing it now it's clear that these aren't really Cody's fault--she is trying to write teenage slang when that age has passed her by, and that never comes across as believable. I can't really blame her for a failing of pretty much every teen-centered movie ever.

On the other hand, there is a lot to really admire in this film and I don't just mean the fact that Lance Henriksen has a cameo.

For starters, even if this film were actually terrible it is still noteworthy for being a horror film centered on women that is written by a woman and directed by another woman, Karyn Kusama. That is a depressingly rare event, and this film's pedigree is one of the reasons that I think it works so well.

The cast of this film is also terrific. Seyfried and Fox have an effortless chemistry that really sells their complicated relationship, and Fox does an amazing job sliding from high school mean girl to demonic temptress and back again without ever feeling like nothing more than a caricature. When Needy and Jennifer finally come to blows is where the way they play off of each other truly shines.

Seriously, if nothing else this film is worth the exchange between them when Jennifer uses her demonic powers to fly and gets furious that Needy dares to point out that she's actually just hovering.

If you really look at this film, it's almost an inversion of typical horror tropes--here women are the ones who have to take matters into their own hands while men are just there to be menaced and killed. Hell, I've seen far too many hero's girlfriends that fulfill the exact same disposable role as Chip does here.

It isn't a total inversion, of course. And I think that it is a stretch to call this a specifically "feminist" horror film. I also think that that isn't really fair to the film, since it sells it as a statement the film isn't specifically trying to make. I think it's far more interesting to look at this as a horror film from a female perspective, which is something we always need far more of.

This has concluded Day 10 of HubrisWeen 2018! To see what the other Celluloid Zeroes chose for J, click the banner above!


  1. The hovering vs. flying joke is possibly a City of Heroes / Villains reference. For most of the game's lifespan, you had to take a minor travel power at level 4 (or higher) and then you unlocked a major one at 14. Hover led to flight, and Hover was just hot garbage. Very very very very SLOW aerial travel.

    1. It might be a deliberate reference, since Cody could be an avid gamer. Wish I knew enough to say for sure!