I have a soft spot for brave-but-flawed movies that are rewarded for their efforts with Worst Movie of the Year awards. Jennifer’s Body has its problems, but it is one of the best “mainstream” films of 2009, not one of the weakest. At some points, the film is brilliant. At others, it is offensive and silly. However, it is always interesting and provocative. The film was written by Diablo Cody, directed by Karyn Kusama, and starred Megan Fox and Amanda Seyfried, making it a cutting-edge work of a team of passionate female filmmakers daring to make a movie in an industry dominated by men. The fact that so many women were central players in the making of this film is, in itself, remarkable. The movie they made together is a wild, disturbing ride.
As a rape-revenge horror-comedy film, Jennifer’s Body is an odd amalgam of Juno, Rosemary’s Baby, I Spit on Your Grave, Prime Cut, The Craft, and Fahrenheit 9/11. It has an odd mix of influences, to be sure, but director Karyn Kusama’s oddball vision is wonderfully explained in one of the best interviews I have ever read with a filmmaker.
Still… let’s be honest. Can any of us identify the target audience for this film? I sure can’t. I think there is virtually no ideal viewer.
Generally speaking, women who are hostile to Megan Fox as the (then) overnight star sex symbol from the Transformers films are unlikely to embrace her as a tragic wronged woman anti-hero. And the feminist critics of Bitch Magazine understandably felt that the use of humor in Jennifer’s Body was often inappropriate, especially considering that the conflict’s “initiating incident” is the ritual murder of an innocent teenage girl, depicted symbolically as a gang rape.
In contrast, the readership of Maxim is hot for Megan Fox but would prefer to fantasize about her body without contemplating what it would be like to be disemboweled by her if they dared to touch her.
So no wonder Jennifer’s Body didn’t clean up at the box office.
But I like it. As much as the Bitch Magazine critics doubt Jennifer’s Body‘s feminist street cred, I believe that it is unflinching in its portrayal of masculine evil and is suitably sympathetic to Jennifer as a Greco-Roman “Fury.” Hence, my disappointment that more women did not embrace the film.
And Jennifer isn’t the central evil of the film. Not really. The real villains of the movie are several twenty-something males in a demonic rock band. Failing to find fame after years of playing bars across the country, the band members achieve nationwide success by making two major sacrifices to Satan: first by burning down a small town pub and killing all the patrons and, secondly, by ritually sacrificing Jennifer (Megan Fox), a sexy young girl whom they wrongly believe to be a virgin. The spell works, and the rapist-murderers go on a nationwide tour with a hit single that, hypocritically, pays tribute to the bar patrons whom they themselves are responsible for killing.
Meanwhile, Jennifer returns from the dead, possessed by the spirit of a succubus. She is reborn with an insatiable desire for human blood. She chooses as her targets all of the boys in her high school, indiscriminately killing jocks, Goths, nerds, and preps. Interestingly, all of her victims are arguably sympathetic, and the film suggests that Jennifer is taking a form of revenge on all the wrong people. These boys didn’t hurt her. The band members did.
And yet, Jennifer’s Body seems very uneasy about masculine sexuality, and suggests that there is something fundamentally horrifying about the male libido. Consequently, Jennifer may well be “correct” to punish the lustful feelings of even gentlemanly and inhibited young men. This is an interesting reversal of viewer expectations. Based on the poster and the title, one might expect Jennifer’s vagina dentara to be the main source of revulsion in this particular horror film. No. As it turns out, the real horror show here is male lust. Whether that makes the film feminist is, of course, up for debate. Bitch Magazine votes a resounding “no.” I kinda say, “yes.”
If Jennifer is the film’s anti-hero, the heroine of the film is the poorly named character “Needy” (Amanda Seyfried). She is sympathetic to Jennifer’s pain, and shares her desire for revenge against the touring band members, but she cannot stomach Jennifer killing innocent boys.
An amusing line from the coming attraction, that was sadly cut from the theatrical print of the film, has Needy yell at Jennifer, “You’re killing people!” And Jennifer wryly rejoins, “No, I’m killing boys.” Jennifer may be a succubus, but it is the humanity of boys that is really in question here. That is a funny line, and goes far to justify the presence of the comedy elements, even when they sometimes mix uncomfortably with the horror and the drama. Sadly, since its target is men, this joke was dropped. And, unsurprisingly and unfortunately, jokes at women’s expense, concerning “gusher” periods and exclamations of “Ow! My tit!” sadly remain in the film, unfunny and drama-killing as they are.
Needy’s emotions throughout the film are complex. She is Jennifer’s friend. She is attracted to Jennifer. She hates Jennifer. She is jealous of Jennifer. She is protective of Jennifer. Much of this works. Some of it falls a little flat. But her main concern is not so much that Jennifer is seeking revenge for her rape and murder. She just wants Jennifer to avenge herself on the right men.
The humor and the horror in Jennifer’s Body are designed to make the viewer uncomfortable. Much like Hard Candy, this is not a fun viewing experience. In some ways, it is like the 1970s crime film Prime Cut that the filmmakers themselves cite as an influence. That movie features scenes of naked, doped-up prostitutes being auctioned off like prize cattle to rich male buyers, and cross-cuts between sides of beef being processed in a food plant and shots of men sizing up the breasts and thighs of hog-tied women. The message is unsubtle and stomach churning. It also makes one take a hard look at how sexist American society remains to this day.
Jennifer’s Body confronts its audience with similar uncomfortable questions, centered around the perfectly cast lead, Megan Fox, who happened to be the sex symbol du jour the year the movie was released. She was primed to be the Marilyn Monroe of the 21st century. Turns out, her tenure as queen of sex was short-lived. Perhaps that was for her own good, in the end. We all remember what fate befell Marilyn Monroe.
Jennifer’s Body inspires viewers to consider the questions: what do I think of Megan Fox? Am I jealous of her? Do I want her? Do I have no respect for her? Am I at all interested in acknowledging that she is a human being? Or is her body all that really matters in the end? Should her soul be damned, for all we care?
Is that what we think of her?
Is this what we think of pretty, sexy women?
Is this what we think of women?