Jennifer’s Body (Karyn Kusama, 2009)

by Douglas Buck October 14, 2019 6 minutes (1330 words) 35mm Egyptian Theatre, part of Beyond Fest

‘They make this great 9/11 tribute shooter? It’s red, white and blue, but you have to drink it fast or it gets all brownish.’

After a day of wandering around LA (and ending up, naturally, seeing a coupla rep movies), it was time to head back to Beyond Fest, just in time to catch a film (on a beautiful, fairly new 35mm print, no less!) that’s been on the list to see since its release a decade ago, when many a trusted cinematic ally spoke highly of it (even with it scripted by Diablo Cody, writer of the oft-equally despised from those same allies Juno from a few years earlier, that I also had never – and still haven’t — seen).

With its narrative circling about a friendship between two girls – namely, the self-centered, boy-insane titular hottie (a deep-fantasy-worthy Megan Fox) and the studious duck ‘Needy’ (Amanda Seyfried, doing her best to pretend she isn’t hot) – the type of high school friendship that isn’t all that uncommon – that leads to Seyfried’s nerdie girl coming to grips with the fact that her smoking girlfriend isn’t suddenly attracted to boys who normally wouldn’t stand a chance with her because she’s become nice, but because she’s been turned into a succubus with a new-found insatiable appetite for human flesh, and it’s up to Needy — and her sensitive boyfriend Chip (Johnny Simmons) – to stop her, I was already familiar with the early rumblings of the film as a worthy feminist horror film that the world ‘just wasn’t ready for’ at the time, hence its dismal performance at the box office (an estimation that has catapulted higher in the last few years with the #metoo movement in full bloom).

Between the consistently clever dialogue and carefully rendered scenes and locations, Diablo and director Kusama impressively reveal a knowing and deft sense of those ol’ high school days. With a tongue-in-cheek sensibility (straight from that weird observational distance many of the wiser high schoolers experience those seminal early years with) underneath even the intense moments (including the initial fairly harrowing kidnapping and ‘sacrificing’ of Jennifer and her eventual demonic transformations and munching on some dimwitted high school boys), its female lead and her trusted good natured (slightly dopy) boyfriend confidante, Jennifer’s Body plays out like a quality episode of that quintessential female-centric high school supernatural monster show – a series that had no right being as good as it was, starting out as merely pretty good before ascending into pure emotional brilliance by Seasons five and six – namely, Buffy, the Vampire Slayer (I was gonna say also that “Jennifer” plays as an R-rated version of “Buffy”, but, man, having just recently finished watching the entire series with my daughter, some of those eps lean pretty close into “R” territory with its violence and sexual suggestiveness – show creator Joss Whedon was certainly pushing a lot of television landscape envelopes).

While Jennifer’s Body isn’t a radical masterpiece or feminist tract, by any means (and if you think it is, do yourself a favor, take a gander over at something like Lizzie Borden’s in-your-face call-to-female-arms Born in Flames for a little education – or, hey, even 1965’s That Darn Cat!, the surprisingly – for Disney that is – girl-power film I’d seen the day before at the New Beverly Cinema!), like “Buffy”, “Jennifer’s” use of the horror genre to metaphorically illustrate the oft-overwhelming painful difficulties of navigating the dangerous high school terrain – in this case, with its story of a high school nerd violently breaking out of the enabling relationship with her self-centered Prom Queen friend who eats boys for lunch – is cleverly done and really engaging (and the ending scenes following Needy certainly do kick some ass).

Jennifer’s Body has a lot to offer – and that’s even up and above the opportunity to watch Megan Fox saunter seductively across the screen (and Kusama thankfully gives us plenty of that, showing off Jennifer’s confident ‘hot girl’ showstopping force that grows even more powerfully seductive – if that’s even possible – with her demonic power), but having her character and Seyfried’s fellow high schooler Needy almost consummate Needy’s underlying lesbian attraction – how can anyone not be attracted to Fox, I mean Jennifer – which was already worth the price of admission (it might have ruined the narrative, but it would have been worth double if they actually did).

No matter how much the night’s insufferable moderator, who clearly was overwhelmingly fond of hearing herself speak (similar to the guy moderator for Color out of Space, who at the same time couldn’t be bothered to get the obnoxious young actors under control, leaving the audience desperately waiting to hear that film’s director Richard Stanley be granted at least a few moments of airspace to say anything about his film – yeesh, what’s up with these Beyond Fest moderators?), even with the far more relevant to the evening Fox and Kusama up there with her during the post-screening Q&A, presented Jennifer’s Body as some grand celebration of ‘feminists and queers’, it really isn’t (unless she’s referring to that moment of hot lust between Seyfried and Fox? Or Kyle Gallner’s emo/goth character Collin who seems vaguely queer, even though he reveals his true colors by ending up asking out Jennifer – and getting eaten? Nah).

What was far more subversive – something I was not at all expecting and was tickled to see — was its irreverent playing with the opportunism and shallowness of the national grief culture formed around the events of 9/11. From the quote above, which overtly (and brilliantly) likens 9/11 consumer patriotism to… well… bullshit, to the upstanding do-gooder teacher Mr. Wroblewski (the always reliable J.K. Simmons, in an early role) giving his class a pep talk after the murder of some of the students (football boys, eegads!) with an amusing spin on the ‘not letting the terrorists win’ jargon post-9/11, all coming at us a mere eight years after the events that toppled two towers, I’d say this was a far more likely reason for the seeming distaste surrounding the film, and its middling box office results… and many kudos to Kusama and Diablo for daring to take it there!

As I sat in the audience listening after the enjoyable, well done and clever experience that was Jennifer’s Body… I couldn’t help but be painful aware… even with the stark evidence right there for all to see, growing each day, of the United States corporate/military complex’ opportunistic use of 9/11 as a singular means to not only imperialistically destroy swaths of the Middle East (killing millions of brown women and children in its path) but to fascistically steal away Democratic freedoms at home, leading us down an inevitable path to, first, an ungovernable planet most likely in most of our lifetimes, and, ultimately, the world’s next (and first man-made) global extinction, it was far from a surprise that not a single thought or mention was given by the excited moderator or eager audience to these genuinely daring and challenging (and ‘ahead of their time’) perspectives that Jennifer’s Body touched upon… nor was it unexpected that the air time was filled with celebrations of a much more narcissistic, identity politics-friendly nature that I’d say that not only doesn’t the film entirely support (and that’s not a criticism of the film, by any means)… but of the very kind the establishment wants them to stick to.

As a close film compadre who was also there (and who shall remain nameless, to protect the guilty) so eloquently observed, the young have been effectively socialized over time to turn the focus of their cameras away from what’s out there… towards themselves; as the moderator unwittingly made clear on the night, selfies (metaphorical and otherwise) rule. And the planet suffers.

Jennifer’s Body (Karyn Kusama, 2009)

Douglas Buck. Filmmaker. Full-time cinephile. Part-time electrical engineer. You can also follow Buck on “Buck a Review,” his film column of smart, snappy, at times irreverent reviews.

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