Where do women fit in horror films? In a world dominated by Michael Myers, Leatherface, and Jigsaw, how can women identify with the onscreen action of fright films, except as victims? Over the years, many people much smarter than myself have considered these questions and written essays, dissertations, and entire books on the subject. My favorite is the illuminating 1993 tome Men, Women, and Chainsaws by Carol J. Clover. In this work, the author explores gender in modern horror films and how flicks like I Spit on Your Grave, Slumber Party Massacre, and Carrie took a new approach to the traditionally male-centric horror genre. Its’ a terrific read, and wholeheartedly recommended to anyone interested in the topic. So what about Jennifer’s Body, the latest candidate for gender-bender horror fun? That’s harder to recommend. Scripted by Juno’s Diablo Cody, directed by Girlfight’s Karyn Kusama, and starring this Megan Fox person who everyone is talking about at present, Jennifer’s Body had the potential to be a bright, new, girl-sharpened blade in the chainsaw of contemporary horror. Instead, we get a semi-flat, by-the-numbers high school demon movie with a smattering of inspired moments.
Set in a podunk town called Devil’s Kettle, Jennifer’s Body is the story of two best friends, babe Jennifer (Megan Fox) and dork Needy (Amanda Seyfried), who navigate the murky waters of a cliquish high school, hormone-crazed boys, and satanic possession. Sounds fun, right? It almost is. When Jennifer and Needy encounter horrific indie rock band Low Shoulder, featuring Adam Brody as the makeup-wearing lead singer, their lives are never the same. Adam and his hipster pals, who idolize the boys in Maroon 5, have a plan to make it big: “Do you know how hard it is to make it as an Indie band? Satan is our only hope.” That’s a funny line, and a great premise: Desperate, mediocre indie band turns to the occult to get a record deal. To get Satan on their side, they attempt to sacrifice Jennifer, but it doesn’t totally take. Due to some demonic possession bylaws (she is so not a virgin), she survives the sacrifice and must now feast on high school boys to keep herself alive and vibrant. Meanwhile, Needy is confused and intrigued by her BFF’s new flesh-eating disorder.
From here, murder and chaos ensue as Jennifer tries to stay nourished and popular at once. On paper, this film sounds like it might be funny, hip, and spooky. In reality, it’s just a little of all of those things, but not enough of any of them to make it memorable. The biggest problem with Jennifer’s Body, however, is that it’s simply not scary. Sure, there are horror movie setups including old empty houses, people creeping around in the dark, and wooden stakes to the heart, but there’s no real tension, no moments to spike the viewer’s heart rate. So the question becomes, is this a horror satire? But a quick tabulation suggests that’s not what’s happening here either, as there’s simply not enough to support such a read. There are quick flashes where the script and direction subvert genre conventions, including silly discussions of demonic transference, but overall it’s played too straight for satire. The question then becomes, more to the point, what exactly is Jennifer’s Body? Is it a movie about female empowerment, sexual politics, or the male gaze in modern horror? Is it an updated take on what Carol Clover calls the “female victim hero?” The film raises questions about all these things, but it fails to provide any point of view or consistent message. It’s tone is muddled throughout, which only makes the development of any themes even more difficult.
To be clear, Jennifer’s Body does have its moments: it’s a winning moment when Tommy Tutone’s classic “8675309” prominently features in a satanic ritual; and a scene where Jennifer swims in a lake after one of her first human meals is beautifully shot and infused with energy that’s sorely lacking elsewhere. J.K. Simmons, as the film’s lone teacher, and Amy Sedaris as Needy’s Mom are delightfully odd throughout and provide much needed eccentricity to the otherwise straightforward proceedings. Amanda Seyfried is down-to-earth and engaging as the confused and occasionally tough best friend to a flesh-eating demon. And what about the mysterious Megan Fox? She quite sharp here, funny and convincing in a role that requires her to be both menacing and seductive at once. Given the littered strengths and oddball pedigree, it wouldn’t ’t be surprising if the film finds a cult audience at some point — it almost seems designed for that fate, in fact. Quirky and “shocking” with plenty of jokes and pop culture references, Jennifer’s Body will appeal to non-horror fans in the mood for an offbeat trip into high school misery and mayhem. But, for a more satisfying exploration of the horror and power of budding sexuality and teenage girl angst, the funny, twisted 2007 film Teeth is a stronger entry. In the end, Jennifer’s Body conjures fond memories of Heathers and Carrie, but just it simply can’t bring the fear, fun, or philosophy of those high school hell masterpieces.