J.K. SimmonsKaryn KusamaAmanda SeyfriedMegan Fox
Jennifer's Body
Medium: film
Year: 2009
Director: Karyn Kusama
Writer: Diablo Cody
Keywords: Razzie-nominated, horror, rubbish
Country: USA
Actor: Megan Fox, Amanda Seyfried, Johnny Simmons, Adam Brody, Sal Cortez, Ryan Levine, Juan Riedinger, Colin Askey, Chris Pratt, Juno Ruddell, Kyle Gallner, Josh Emerson, J.K. Simmons, Amy Sedaris, Cynthia Stevenson, Lance Henriksen
Format: 102 minutes
Url: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1131734/
Website category: Horror modern
Review date: 24 April 2010
I remembered this as bombing badly enough in America that in Britain it went straight to DVD. I can't find any evidence of this online, but the movie certainly disappointed financially and many people have speculated as to why. Maybe horror-comedies are bad news at the box office? Maybe it's because it's a high-school teenager film and yet was R-rated, thus excluding much of the target audience? Personally though, I'd venture to suggest my own pet theory, which is that it's rubbish.
First, this alleged label of "horror-comedy". I was astonished to read about it being so described, since it honestly hadn't occurred to me while watching it that it might have been meant to be a comedy. I don't merely mean that its jokes aren't funny, but that I hadn't realised they were meant to be jokes in the first place. Nevertheless this is the work of Diablo Cody, who won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for Juno (2007) and that was a successful comedy, so maybe something hadn't translated properly. Seeking enlightenment, I looked up bits of the script online and was astonished. They're witty! If you can separate the script from its production, you'll find some killer lines in here. Furthermore they're from a strong authorial voice with a distinctive point of view, which has impressed me enough that I now want to watch Juno.
Clearly things went very wrong in making the completed film, but the worst problem is Megan Fox.
She has no clue. None whatsoever. The gap is terrifying between the material she's been given and what she makes of it. It's a superficially competent performance, doing everything the script asks of her, but she's achieving nothing with the character. She isn't funny. She doesn't know how to talk dirty and her witty put-downs are merely unpleasant. She's not interesting. You don't care what happens to her, except to the extent that you'll dislike her quite strongly. This was supposed to be a feminist horror movie, with both the female director and the female writer having said this was their agenda, but they've based it around Megan Fox and she's running on empty.
Then you've got the heroine, who we first meet as a self-obsessed violent bore in a mental institution. She's played by Amanda Seyfried, who's done quite a lot of television (e.g. Big Love, Veronica Mars) but also the wildly successful and mega-kitsch Mamma Mia. Although to a lesser extent than Fox, I thought she too was unlikeable and not particularly good. Her role is less challenging, but she has a couple of wooden reactions. "God, this is a nightmare." Was that really the editor's best take? Oddly enough, Fox and Seyfried have similar CVs, with the former's Mamma Mia being the Transformers movies.
Furthermore I'm not sure what Cody had in mind with these characters. Were we meant to like them? The film's trying to address female relationships, but in practice this means that Fox is a bitch and Seyfried isn't, but goes along with her anyway. There's a scene where Fox goes off with an arrogant trash-talking lead singer in a band and we're supposed to think he's despicable, but the two of them are identical except for being gender-switched. Cody also wanted the film to be about female empowerment, but in practice this seems to be getting confused with the message that "flesh-eating demons give you superpowers".
I like the way Cody was thinking, though. Quote 1: "the last survivor standing in the typical horror film is a woman", so "horror has always had kind of a feminist angle to it in a weird way and, at the same time, it's kind of delightfully exploitative." Quote 2: "We wanted to subvert the classic horror model of women being terrorized. I want to write roles that service women. I want to tell stories from a female perspective. I want to create good parts for actresses where they're not just accessories to men." Believe it or not, I'm with her on this. It sounds good. I also think she's found themes that even in the film as it stands are on the verge of getting interesting. She also says that "a key reason for writing the film was to bring to the screen a new way of expressing the intensity of female bonds", while it's worth noting that she did something almost unprecedented in horror cinema and attracted an audience that's more than half female. 51%, to be precise.
Unfortunately all these laudable goals aren't really coming together on-screen and some of this is down to the script. Cody's reinventing cliches. 1. The finale is unintentionally hilarious. "I think I already died before you got here, but I woke up when I heard your voice." Someone goes stake-less to attack a demon which needs staking through the heart and deactivates its levitation powers by tearing away a "best friends forever" locket. (I suppose I'm being silly about the stake since her actual weapon might be a better choice, requiring less physical strength, but on first glance it looks way too small for the job.) 2. At one point the film invents a psychic link because it's feeling lazy, then never refers to it again. 3. At the end, if it's that easy then why hasn't she broken out already? 4. There's a boyfriend who's the smartest person in the film for the first two acts and then the stupidest for Act Three. I can see that he's the gender-switched equivalent of the traditional damsel in distress, but that's still a reflected cliche. Naturally Fox targets him solely out of adherence to genre formula, which is sufficiently unmotivated to get a Signal from Fred. Note that he's carrying pepper spray to defend himself against psycho killers, but he never uses it even when Fox is chomping on his neck and instead waits for his girlfriend to show up so that he can throw it to her.
Then you've got the "tell, don't show". I like the fact that tragedies have an impact on the local community and that this even evolves over time, but I'm less keen on this only being communicated through Seyfried's voice-over. "No one seemed to care any more. Sorrow was last week's emotion." Stuff like that could have given the film bite, but unfortunately they've forgotten to put it in a scene.
Don't think too hard about the logic either. The only reason for Fox coming on to her victims sexually before eating them would appear to be adherence to genre, unless her demon likes getting a hard-on before dinner. Then we have the evil Disney animals. Admittedly it's weird to see a flesh-eating deer, but I don't remember the film never getting around to explaining that one.
However I'm amused by the placeholder names, such as Needy, Chip and Chastity. Even the eponymous Jennifer's surname of Check is a placeholder that never got removed. Furthermore very occasionally there are scenes where even I can see that it's a horror-comedy, with my favourite being the sacrifice to Satan about two-thirds of the way through. "Do you know how hard it is to make it as an indie band these days?" Awesome. That was nearly funny enough to make the whole film worth watching, although in an odd way it almost slipped past me. It's as if they'd snuck in a good scene while I wasn't paying attention. I'd also count as intentional comedy the mother walking in on a daughter-stabbing.
Next: the director. The tone is flawed. There's a huge tragedy early in the film in which lots of people die that's never explained. (I kept waiting for the revelation that Fox and/or the indie band had deliberately done it, but no.) I'll take it as read that it was one of them, since that would make for a better story, but the important thing is that the film gets all serious and moralistic about it. We're supposed to be shocked that Fox is being a callous bimbo as usual, but the film itself didn't give the disaster much weight when it happened. Oh look, special effects and stuntmen. Hey, Fox just went off with a boy! Furthermore the film will sometimes go into Look I'm Scary cinematography without having earned it.
Then we have the aesthetic lapses. Seyfried's dance dress is a monstrosity and the music's vaguely annoying. Most importantly though, they aren't delivering on the exploitation. I shouldn't think Cody's to blame, given her quotes above and the fact that she's an ex-stripper. However there's something prudish about this R-rated film's refusal to go beyond PG-13 teasing when it comes to nudity, despite the lesbian kiss that was featured prominently in the advertising. That's a laughable moment, by the way. Seyfried's just seen her blood-slathered friend jump out like from something from the Exorcist. There's a bit of wannabe porn footage, then Seyfried says "what was I thinking?" and the scene continues as originally written. One could try to justify this with reference to the "teenage best friends" theme and dialogue references elsewhere to lesbianism, but it still feels like the studio trying to rescue something that isn't working by making it even worse.
I got a similar feeling about the "mustn't offend middle America" moments early in the film, by the way. We believe in God and don't smoke.
How does it compare to the Killer Vagina movies of which I'd guessed it felt like an attempted mainstream remake? (A strike against that theory is that Cody wrote the script in 2006.) It's clearly less interesting than any of them, including the sleazy Japanese porn one, but more importantly it's not even particularly sexual. Occasionally it's trying to be sexy, but in a rather clumsy studio-inserted way. However its lead character has the same name as Jennifer in Bad Biology and they've got an even more Freudian waterfall than the one in Teeth.
At the end of the day, it's a Torchwood episode. It's exactly like that show in its unlikeable and badly acted lead characters, occasional gore, nudity taboo and good-looking but ill-judged production. It has good ingredients, but it's making them mediocre. It has J.K. Simmons and Lance Henricksen, but don't blink or you'll miss them. I've talked myself into an admiration for Diablo Cody, who sounds like an interesting person, but I probably wouldn't have got there without reading around on the internet afterwards. The film itself is a failure.