Directed by Karyn Kusama
Barbican Comic Forum
00000000 / Kraken
My favourite Family Guy joke is the one where they’re looking through their family history and Peter is all like: “And his great-grandpa was Thomas Griffin, a great philosopher.” Cut to: A Peter-Griffin-look-alike with a scraggly beard sitting on a chair deep in thought in a run down poverty-afflicted house – broken window and bits of wallpaper hanging loose from the walls etc. His wife walks in holding a baby.She says: “Thomas, would you please go look for a job?”
He thinks about this for a second and then very ponderously lifts up his hand like he’s proclaiming a great and powerful thought and says: “Why?”
(Like that guy in that other cartoon once said: “‘It’s funny because it’s true.”)
I got into Philosophy at a young age. It corrupted my brain and forever altered the way I approach the world. Mostly I put it down to that one simple word – “why?” Many different people have told me that I often sound like a small annoying child often repeating that one word over and over and over again – attempting to somehow understand the things and people around me and lock down and understand all of the reasons that explain exactly how it is that the world is in this exact state rather than being in some other possible state. In fact – I think that’s where most of politics comes from – asking why our society is the way it is and structured in the way that is: rather than being fashioned in some other way where – I don’t know – more people were happier and had more fulfilling and enjoyable lives. Oftentimes I feel like the people who are most resistant to that type of thinking are those that don’t like asking “why” – instead they see the world as being a solid and immovable thing that could only ever exist as it is – and any attempt to consider it otherwise as being idle childish flimflam. You need to accept the real world buster etc.
(Mmmmm. “Flimflam” is a good word.)
Philosophers have spent many countless numbers of years trying to ascertain the exact difference between what makes a film “good” and what makes a film “bad” and truth be told they’re probably not any closer to getting to the truth – but I’d like to put forward my idea: what makes a film good is that it constructs a story in such a way that it propels you forward in a frictionless state of bliss. Everything that happens on the screen is constructed in such a way that all of your critical facilitates surrender to the various emotional and sensory manipulations of film so that (in the very best cases) you end up forgetting yourself completely so caught up are you by the assault of the sounds and moving images.
A bad film on the other hand is the one that turns me into a small annoying child / Philosopher awakening the Thomas Griffin in my brain and repeating the same word over and over and over again: “Why?” Why are these characters acting in this way? Why has the director decided on that shot? Why does this scene tell me? Why have they decided on this sort of tone? Why are they in this location? Why is the actor saying their lines in that way? Why is the story doing this stuff? Why am even I watching this? Why? Why? And again: why?
And well yeah just in case you didn’t see where this was going: Jennifer’s Body is pretty much a really bad film.
What’s really strange right from the start is that even tho it came out in 2009 it feels like something that was made in the 90s. And for once – I don’t mean that in a good way. It’s basically like one of those horror-comedy things that if I’m being kind you’d see on late on a Friday night on Channel 4 and if I’m being unlike – then late on a Friday night on Channel 5. I mean there are good examples of the type out there (The Faulty, Tremors, Scream and Braindead spring to mind) but Jennifer’s Body is particularly impressive in that it’s a horror-comedy that is never that scary and never that funny instead it just kinda – sits there.
Credit where it’s due: the director Karyn Kusama also directed The Invitation which is one of the best films I’ve seen in the last decade (and would make a perfect double-bill with Coherence which is also pretty darn fantastic). But apart from that I’m really struggling to think of anything nice to say… I mean: why do they decide to pay the rape/murder scene for laughs? Why do they say that Jennifer’s soul has been replaced by a succubus but then also still treat her as Jennifer? Why does the film spend so much time on the Colin school goth/emo kid when he’s just there as cannon fodder? Why does the film cut between a love sex scene and a murder sex scene being that there’s no real parallel between the two apart from they’re both just erm – sex scenes? Why doesn’t the film spend any real time getting to know three of the major character – who all still feel like cyphers by the time the movie ends? Why is the film tonally all over the place – is it an action film or a comedy or a horror film or a fantasy or a satire about the music industry or what? Why do the suddenly end up going to a swimming pool for no reason? Why is taking off the BFF locket the thing that the whole movie hinges on when it’s barely referenced? Why are none of the jokes funny? Why do they have a scene where the two female leads start making out with each other?
Oh wait – hang on: I think I the know the answer to that last one…
Basically the whole film feels like a succession of moments that someone thought would be cool (“Imagine someone with super powers walking through a barbed wire fence” “Imagine someone puking black vomit on a kitchen floor” “Imagine a fire in a seedy bar” “Imagine a teacher with a hook for a hand” “Imagine an Evil Dead style zoom to introduce a random character” “Imagine a bunch of animals coming around you in a woods” “Imagine Megan Fox putting make-up on”) without any sense or understanding of how all of those cool things really fit together.
Instead it’s all just – stuff happening.
With no real sense as to why.
Alright I’ll tell you why.
Jennifer’s Body belongs in that special little subclass of films that are smarter than they look – films like Zemenick’s Beowulf which have the feel of disposable trash on the surface but are doing some interesting subversive things underneath. There was a time when I valued this quality particularly highly, partly in rebellion against films that looked smart but were actually stupid – particularly in the arthouse end of the medium. Piecing together the subtext and digging out the hidden riches in movies that were almost universally derided was like discovering a secret. And I remember when I first saw Jennifer’s Body in 2009 it did feel a bit like that, where if you mentioned the film most people were indifferent but a few responded extremely positively. If you know you know. It’s how some films become cult films.
And turns out Jennifer’s Body has recently become a cult film, thanks in part to the increased scrutiny of the way women are treated by the entertainment industry as a result of #MeToo. The film’s very emo look and soundtrack also acquire an added significance given the recent revelations about the behaviour of scene idols like Brand New’s Jesse Lacey, and more generally the increased attention given to the misogyny in a lot of emo bands’ lyrics. That said, people really should have picked up on it at the time, given the very pointed way the film uses Megan Fox, who had become famous for being eye-candy for teenage boys and got fired for talking back at the director who put her in that position. I mean, it’s right there in the title – this is a film about the exploitation of female bodies by a male-dominated culture.
But it’s more complicated than that, actually, because Jennifer is at least initially complicit in that exploitation, as Megan Fox probably was with Transformers. She’s not a virginal innocent when she goes to watch the evil band play – she wants to get off with them because status and celebrity are attractive things and sex is a way to acquire them. There’s an interesting twist here on the traditional horror film trope where abstinence gives women the strength to resist their pursuers, in that Jennifer’s sexual experience is what allows her to come back from the dead and wreak her revenge.
But that, in turn, is twisted back, because normally in rape-revenge films we’re rooting for the victim to massacre her assailants, but here Jennifer is literally a demon preying on innocent boys with raging hormones. Unlike Needy at the end of the film, she’s not going after the real bad guys. Instead she’s doing what she’s always done and using her looks to assert herself and get what she wants – not only youth but superpowers. Her own traumatic experience becomes the trigger for inflicting trauma on other people. Probably the most subtle message in the film is that if you try to use the weapons the patriarchy has given you (the status conferred on you by conforming to a very particular acceptable form of femininity) against the patriarchy, you only perpetuate the problem and cause more damage.
In fact Colin is interesting only in so far as showing how a seemingly smart and sensitive boy who clearly has nothing in common with Jennifer would still want to go out with her because she’s a fox played by Megan Fox. The patriarchy and its beauty ideals messes up everyone’s heads. Colin can’t tell that Jennifer’s a monster because she’s tall and pretty and that’s kind of all that matters. The way his seduction and dismemberment is intercut with Needy’s less that blissful first night with her boyfriend Chip is to that point, in that Chip for all his fumbling is well-adjusted enough to see Jennifer for what she is.
Although part of that might be envy, in that Chip can sense that his girlfriend’s relationship with her best friend is a particularly close one, and the kiss between them confirms it. Interestingly Seyfried found it quite difficult to film, and apparently both her and Fox thought it was a marketing gimmick, but Diablo Cody insists it’s not a stunt but a reflection of the intense relationships teenagers have (although I wonder whether it’s also an homage to the lesbian vampire subset of the horror genre). It’s out-of-nowhere and revelatory at the same time, in that Needy’s otherwise rather baffling attachment to Jennifer is given a sturdier foundation. But it’s also just another facet in the way Jennifer uses and bullies Needy. Ironically Jennifer is probably the more insecure and needy of the two. Needy has a stable relationship with Chip, which Jennifer is jealous of and ultimately destroys. Her domination of her best friend is the rock on which her domination of others is built, which is why when Needy turns on her and breaks her friendship necklace Jennifer’s powers drain away.
Part of the difficulty of the film is deciding whether to pity Jennifer – given that her toxic attitude grows out of insecurities fostered by a culture that makes her an object. If she’s lashing out at gross boys and their gross desires, maybe they deserve it. But ultimately the film is clear that this is the devil taking possession of you, whereas Needy is only bitten by the devil. She’s got a little bit of Jennifer’s fire and rage in her, and she’s going to use it to take out the real bad guys. Teenage boys may be gross and stupid but it’s the guitar gods they worship and the sexism they embody that make them this way, and ultimately attacking that system is a better outlet for that anger that the people trapped in it. I’ll go on to the problems with the film another time – but that message of resistance is what makes it stand out despite its flaws.
One has to hope that in the next decade, when the inevitable communist revolution comes to pass, that it would become clear to everyone what cinema could have been. At present it’s hard to think of an art form where commercial choices are so evident, but Jennifer’s Body feels like a clear border case between artistic endeavour and a studio desperately trying to secure a return on their investment. On the plus side it’s trying to tell the story of 2 teenage girls, their different experiences and how terrifying everything is. But on the negative side it clearly also wants to be a *big* hit and so scenes that serve only the trailer make it feel like a series of set pieces rather than a story. I mean what even is the story? In principle some of these set pieces could have been glorious, but without the emotional build up of the characters or the heft of consequences, you just move on. It’s easy to forget that the eponymous character is killed twice in this film, because the impact is almost non-existent, and indeed largely treated as an inconvenience. Similarly with the death of the boyfriend when his opening scene and every subsequent establishes him as (distant) second choice is another example where you already know the main character will basically be fine, so where’s the jeopardy?! And then of course the cold open where the main character is a badass means all stakes are lowered to almost zero, although if her powers had been the result of some sort of Faustian pact it would have meant more. I’m being down on these elements not because they were done badly but because the film offers these little morsels on a Yo! Sushi style conveyor belt and they just disappear into the distance while you’re still thinking about them.
While Buffy is an obvious reference point, the film reminded me more of Heathers. Indeed Jennifer murdering the footballer wearing a letter-jacket in the woods feels like at least a callback. The perspective from the more “innocent” character’s perspective of a selfish socialite is also very similar. And of course the lead musician brings that knowing “edgy” charisma which recalls Christian Slater. And this is perhaps where the similarity literally ends, because all but ditching the murderous lead singer and the band is a tragic waste of an excellent premise, and it tragically casts aside what could have been an excellent antagonist.
It would, for example, have shown Jennifer’s picking on weaker boys in a different light, if all the time you were wishing she would go after the clearly evil band, yet she just refused to get round to it, like Tony Soprano always waiting an entire series to bump off his obviously enemy. And having a sneering pompous lead singer chewing up the scenery would have given Needy someone to go after instead of just constantly reacting to Jennifer.
It could also have allowed for a great pull out and reveal where having tracked down the real villains of the piece it transpires actually *all* famous people have committed ritual sacrifice to make it. Sure Jennifer is a dangerous predator but in the face of an army of psychotic celebrities she would become a sort of River Tam walking smart bomb character, enacting sadistic sexy justice. Instead she just wanders around aimlessly being mean while Needy just clutches her pearls wondering why she’s so awful.
So that leaves me thinking that rather than mourning the lost story of the confused emotional relationship of two teenage girls, I think it might actually be the film’s attempts to deliver actual drama which trips makes it over its own feet and undercuts the cooler bits of the movie.
This is a bit of a tangent but through a series of fortuitous accidents I ended up watching David Mamet’s latest play Bitter Wheat a few weeks ago – which has John Malkovich playing a Harvey Weinstein-type Hollywood producer brought low by an actress who exposes his skeezy ways (so a bit like his Valmont in Dangerous Liaisons but without the charming refinement). It wasn’t favourably reviewed (to put it mildly) but in fairness to Mamet it’s a satire about Weinstein rather than about #MeToo, and Mamet whatever his faults doesn’t try to make Malkovich anything other than a ludicrous monster. But I guess where audiences felt a bit suspicious is that it’s just quite a weird thing to try to elicit laughs at a scenario so gross. I watched it with my wife and she didn’t find it a particularly pleasant experience. Malkovich (and by extension Weinstein) are horrible, but why put us through all the misery, awkwardness and humiliation just for some not very good laughs.
Which is fair enough but then I realised that Jennifer’s Body does exactly the same thing in its portrayal of Jennifer’s murder. That scene is also played for broad comedy – so does Cody get a pass when Mamet doesn’t? Why? I think the answer might lie in comedy’s origins in resolving discomfort and neurosis, and the sources of the comedic urge in these two stories being different. In Mamet’s case it feels like the nervousness is about assertive women undoing powerful men. No matter how much we sympathise with the women preyed on and exploited by Malkovich ultimately he is the star of the show, even if we are laughing at him, and Mamet is interested in his story. With Cody, the comedic turn feels like a distancing effect that can take you out of the full horror of what’s happening. We’re still looking at the evil boy band through Jennifer’s eyes, but Cody wanted to shift the tone to pitch-black humour rather than full-on terror, because facing up to the latter is an uncomfortable thing to experience or relive.
And that displacement manoeuvre might be the source of the weird tonal shifts in the film – which befuddled reviewers when it came out. They couldn’t work out whether this was a comedy or a horror film or what. Cody was trying to write the latter but through her own admission couldn’t resist adding her own spiky quippy dialogue to the script to the point where everyone speaks in this irony-laden, detached way, and you can’t really get at the emotions underneath. I watched Scream for the first time this week and it provides an interesting contrast – in that it’s also a horror-comedy mash-up but somehow the combination is a roaring success. I think that’s down to the fact that it’s not actually a mash-up, the film stays mostly in horror mode and switches to comedy at the very end. For most of the film the characters are earnest and on-the-level and the meta elements left pretty understated, It’s also genuinely scary, and only skips into the comedic and absurd once the killers are unmasked. Jennifer’s Body on the other hand mixes together the two tones throughout.
Maybe in the intervening decade and a bit between Scream and Jennifer’s Body audiences have become savvy enough to become accustomed to the whiplash of constant switching between genres. We’ve seen it all before so it’s both harder to be surprised and easier to adjust. And because I have to mention it, this is a feat Buffy the Vampire Slayer turned into an art form. Buffy is probably the final instructive parallel here, in that there was still enough internal integrity to the characters for them to ride out these fast turns in tone, whereas Jennifer’s Body makes everyone so sarcastic for so much of the time that it’s harder to get at who these people really are, or care when they stop being funny and start being scared. Historically Buffy ran midway between Scream and Jennifer’s Body and maybe it got the balance between snark and earnestness just right.
I’m with Ilia on this one. I didn’t think it was an amazing film; it never goes hard as something like Heathers, either in horror or in comedy, which may account for its flatness in parts. There’s nothing really like that kind of Heathers intensity you get in the fantasy spots or the really over-the-top dialogue. Low Shoulder makes literal the demonic, inescapable quality of ‘Teenage Suicide (Don’t Do It)’, but ironically, because Heathers is so much more stylised and heightened, Low Shoulder never feels as grotesque and vampiric as Big Fun. There is a kind of indecisiveness there that dulls the impact.
On the other hand, I had fun! I enjoyed it. And far from being some disposable flick Jennifer’s Body does have something to say; it has a clear thesis about male desire and objectification, but as Ilia points out, there is also this interesting role reversal with the way Jennifer only targets innocent boys, not the adult men who killed her. There are other, smaller reversals: Chip placed in the role of the supportive but put upon partner, or Needy climbing over the vines into the swimming pool at the end like Prince Charming come to rescue Sleeping Beauty. It’s in what Jennifer offers her victims and how she lures them. They’re not arseholes. We never even see them do anything really bad. But Jennifer’s manipulations can be completely, lazily transparent, because she’s hot enough that they’ll swallow any excuse to get with this girl who seems like the embodiment of everything a man should want, everything their society tells them is desirable. At the same time, Jennifer actually has to resort to emotional manipulation, not just offering sex, to get her victims to follow her. She uses the jock’s heartbreak over his friend’s death to lure him into the woods. Colin wants to share a movie he loves with Jennifer, and withdraws his proposition when he realises they have nothing in common. Chip is initially tricked by his concern for Needy, and even when Jennifer tells him Needy betrayed him, he’s still conflicted and can’t quite trust her. In the end, none of the boys want to go through with it – they all say variations on “this isn’t right” and start to pull back, only to find it’s too late. Kind of interesting that Jennifer’s kills are always preceeded by the rejection of her body.
In that regard it reminds me of another teen comedy horror – The Faculty. Not just because of the swimming pool ending, which, sure, probably doesn’t have a good reason, but it looks cool and is for some reason a staple of teen horror movies (or is it just this, The Faculty, and It Follows?). For the kids of The Faculty, success is imagined as a series of trophies: captain of the football team, dating head cheerleader, beating up the nerds, getting respect, regardless of whether any of those things actually bring you joy. And all those markers of success involve turning other people into props for your triumph. The jock in The Faculty doesn’t actually like his ambitious girlfriend, and she doesn’t respect him, but she’s very into the optics, so she pressures him to keep up appearances. There’s a kind of similar thing going on with Jennifer and the boys she kills: she’s frozen in that place of needing to use someone else for your gratification, because even before her death, that’s the way she’s always seen life. Men turn her into a still image, a prize to be won and thrown away; she uses that to destroy the weak, to inflict on them the fear and hopelessness that was inflicted on her. She is, after all, a demon – and evil is making sure the shit rolls downhill. What does Needy tell Jennifer near the end that gets her so mad? That she’s socially irrelevant. That Needy knows the real, imperfect, insecure Jennifer behind the image. Jennifer the Demon is what that image would be if it was stripped of all humanity, if she really was the way the boys all see her, this perfect, terrifying goddess. It’s chasing that image that rips their guts out.