Monday, 26 January 2015

CULT CLASSIC: Jennifer's Body (2009)

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Jennifer's Body (USA, 2009)
Directed by Karyn Kusama
Starring Megan Fox, Amanda Seyfried, Johnny Simmons, J. K. Simmons

When I reviewed Byzantium, I spoke about the horrors genre's reputation regarding its female characters and general attitudes to women. I praised Neil Jordan's film for avoiding many of the pitfalls associated with female characters in horror, possessing as it did two well-written, very different women with agency and complex personalities. While the film was not without its problems, it was a refreshing example of how something so easily written off as tacky and tedious still has the power to innovate and reflect changes in social attitudes.

Jennifer's Body is a similar attempt to create a horror film (or in this case a horror-comedy) primary driven by and about women. While both films are written by women (Moira Buffini and Diablo Cody respectively), this one also has a female director in the shape of Karyn Kusama (Aeon Flux). Ultimately it's neither scary nor funny enough to match the standards of the best horror-comedies, but it's an interesting little film worthy of its cult status which deserved to do better at the box office.
Broadly speaking, there are three different categories of cult film. The first, and rarest, are those which achieve success and whose cult status comes from being entrenched in a specific sub-culture - films likes Flash Gordon and Monty Python and the Holy Grail. The second, and most typical, are those so far outside the mainstream that they never stood any real chance of turning a profit. Pink Flamingos, The Bed-Sitting Room and Eraserhead never courted popularity in the first place, being either knowing and provocative trash or at the weird end of the arthouse circuit.
Jennifer's Body belongs in the third and final category: films which could and should have been hits, but for some reason failed to resonate. Like Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, the film contains at least one bankable star with mainstream hits behind them (Michael Cera and Megan Fox respectively), and a screenwriter or director with critical and commercial acclaim (Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz with Edgar Wright, Juno with Diablo Cody).
Numerous explanations have been offered as to why Jennifer's Body failed at the box office, ranging from American preconceptions of horror-comedies to the R-rating it received and the exploitative marketing, which played up the lesbian aspects of the film in a vain and shallow attempt to bring in the boys. None of these reasons are entirely plausible and none of them have any impact on whether or not the film is any good. It is simply depressing that a film made with such good intentions failed to find the audience which needed to see it the most.
Whatever your ultimate feelings about it, you have to admire Jennifer's Body for what it is attempting to do as a horror-comedy. At their most essential, Cody and Kusama are trying to tell a story about female empowerment in a genre which so often reduces women to cannon fodder or base titalation. Even efforts like The Slumber Party Massacre and Sorority Row, where female characters outnumber male ones, all too often turn their women into screaming obstacles who have little to no intelligence or control over their own actions. 
 
Jennifer's Body owes a big debt to two horror films about powerful women, one old, one relatively new. The first film it strongly takes after is Carrie, which is visually referenced in Fox's blood-soaked prom dress towards its climax. Both films have protagonists who are dealing with a sudden rise in their sexuality, whether through menstruating for the first time or being the most popular girl in school. And both films use their characters' ultimately malevolent power as a metaphor about underestimating women: the men who come a cropper in these films are generally those who try to take advantage of the main character.
The second film to which Jennifer's Body owes a debt is Ginger Snaps, a cult Canadian horror film which used lycanthropy (becoming a werewolf) as a metaphor for puberty. The film took many of the key elements of An American Werewolf in London, and turned them from a very male tale of lust and rage into a story about relationships between women, and how people deal with their best friends altering beyond all recognition. The relationship between Needy and Jennifer is to some extent an American version of Ginger Snaps, while Jennifer's feeding on men reflects her Canadian counterpart's first attack after she is bitten.
While Ginger Snaps is marginally the better film, Jennifer's Body does manage to get its message across in a fairly convincing way. We are lured into believing that Jennifer's changes after that fateful night are merely a sudden step up in her journey through adolescence. The film tricks us into condoning the male character's attitudes towards our leading lady, believing them to be either reasonable for people in that situation or warranted in some messed-up way. Jennifer's subsequent attacks are a wake-up call and a challenge to cultural attitudes wherein women are depicted as weak, submissive and harmless.
The film deserves props for managing to turn the pain of its female characters into something meaningful. So many horror films begin or centre around a painful act perpetrated against a woman, which is then used to justify all the vengeance and bloodshed that follows - I Spit On Your Grave being a prime example. Jennifer's Body does feature an awful moment, but it turns it on its head, first by the ritual backfiring to create an evil force, and then by the band receiving their comeuppance through Needy. The difference is that the violence is being carried out by the women who have been wronged, rather than men on behalf of women who are too broken or dead to avenge themselves.
The performances in Jennifer's Body are all of a decent calibre. It's easy to laugh at Megan Fox following her work on the Transformers series, but she is pretty capable here; even if she is a little old to pass as a teenager, she's playful and teasing enough to fit our expectations. Amanda Seyfried is a decent match for her, and while she has less material to work with overall, she still gets a few juicy lines in the pool scene. The supporting cast are generally unremarkable, with only Johnny Simmons of Scott Pilgrim fame making an impression.
Despite the best efforts of its cast, the writing in Jennifer's Body is one of several problems which prevent the film from fulfilling its potential. Cody is a talented screenwriter, as Juno demonstrated, but this time around her characters begin to blend together with very samey dialogue. When Mark Kermode reviewed the film, he remarked that Cody was in danger of becoming "the female Quentin Tarantino", namely writing dialogue in such a way that all her characters sound the same. It's not so bad that it runs the film into the ground, but having all one's characters as spiky and hipsterish isn't a good way to go.
The film is also conflicted from a visual point of view. While it is thematically subversive, it often looks every bit as scuzzy and sleazy as the horror films it is trying to subvert. The film is a very sexualised affair, and sometimes it's hard to tell whether the sexuality is there to challenge expectations or to simply pander to the whims of horny teenagers. As Aeon Flux demonstrated, Kusama has yet to find a distinctive style as a director, and the film suffers from having an aesthetic which all often resembles all the awful horror remakes produced by Michael Bay's Platinum Dunes.
The final issue with Jennifer's Body is that it isn't scary or funny enough to cut the mustard. It's definitely plumping for horror over the comedy more often than not, insofar as it doesn't try to turn Jennifer's killings into a gleeful gorefest, a la The Evil Dead. But the film is more unnerving that it is scary, and only moderately unnerving at that, while the comedy is fun but not fully realised. It's not enough to derail the film, and non-horror audiences may get more out of it, but for dyed-in-the-wool horror fans, it's not quite the hearty meal it needs to be.
Jennifer's Body is an interesting and enjoyable little film whose cult status will undoubtedly grow in the years to come. It remains one of the best things that Megan Fox has ever done (and perhaps will ever do), and thematically speaking it has its heart and head in the right place. Ultimately it's too riddled with problems to be given a clean bill of health, but for those wanting more from teen horror, it's not a bad way to pass the time.

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NEXT REVIEW: Shrek 2 (2004)

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