Thursday, November 7, 2019

Jennifer’s Body’: A Re-Appraisal of Pre-#MeToo Horror, 10 Years On

A decade ago this autumn, Diablo Cody followed up her Oscar-winning screenplay for Juno with Jennifer’s Body. Aside from the high school setting, few critics—or filmgoers—saw any real similarities between her prior optimistic take on a pregnant teen and this horror flick about a monstrous teen. 

This major change of pace was too jarring for many. For most of the past decade, it was left for dead, the way that the title character walked away from her victims, and its poor reception altered the career trajectories of Cody and the movie’s star, Megan Fox.

The last couple of Halloweens, though, viewers catching the movie on TV or DVD could have asked whether all the stinging criticism was so justified. To a degree that was unappreciated at the time, Jennifer’s Body seemingly adhered to its genre while subtly undercutting its conventions. 

Two years after the birth of the #MeToo movement, it’s easy to see that critics were carping about matters unrelated to what was onscreen. Rather than the gore and sleaze they thought they saw, they ignored the film’s more pointed dissection of trauma counseling, female relationships, and especially the enduring trauma of male violation of women.

In recent years, Cody and director Karyn Kusama have noted in interviews that, even before the film’s release, they sensed that it might underperform at the box office, for various reasons:

*The desire to take Cody down a peg. The screenwriter was riding high, not only for her quick success with Juno but with Candy Girl, her memoir about working as a stripper. A critical reaction was bound to set in against a young writer deemed to be flying too high.

*Outrage over Fox’s negative comments about another director. Fox seemed to be biting the hand that fed her when she criticized her director on Transformers, Michael Bay. Likening him to Hitler appeared way over the top at that point, but a 2018 article from The Daily Beast documented not only how the director filmed her in several sexually demeaning scenes but used crew members to trash her for her criticism, ensuring that she would have a reputation for being difficult—anathema in Hollywood.

*Marketing to the wrong audience. Teenage guys were not likely to embrace a movie with a blunt first line like, “Hell is a teenage girl.” Yet that was exactly the demographic that Boom! Studio targeted. It was as if it never read the screenplay, which revolved around how the affectionate but complicated relationship between popular cheerleader Jennifer Check (Fox) and her smarter, nerdy friend Needy Lesnicki (Amanda Seyfried) comes unglued after Jennifer becomes the victim of a vicious attack following an indie band’s concert. The marketing staff also never thought that teen boys would be far more likely to want to see Fox having sex with men than devouring them. The marketing department didn’t help their cause (or the film’s) by suggesting to Kusama that Fox do live chats with amateur porn web sites.
Perhaps the male-dominated marketing staff couldn’t get around the central inversion of the movie: Jennifer might be the monster of this horror flick, but the villain is male. After a show at Melody Lane, the town hot spot, Nikolai Wolf, lead singer of indie rock band Low Shoulder, has more than the usual groupie business in mind: 

“Do you know how hard it is to make it as an indie band these days?” Nikolia wails to Jennifer, after she disregards Needy’s warning not to seek safety in the band’s van after a fire breaks out at their show. “There are so many of us, and we're all so cute and it's like if you don't get on Letterman or some retarded soundtrack, you're screwed, okay? Satan is our only hope. We're working with the beast now. And we've got to make a really big impression on him. And to do that, we're going to have to butcher you. And bleed you.”

The sacrifice does not work as planned because, contrary to the band’s belief and “the beast’s” wish, Jennifer is not a virgin (as she had assured them, in the mistaken belief that it would save her from harm). Instead, she is turned into a succubus—possessed by a demon, and dependent for the continuation of her sex appeal on devouring male victims.

It would seem obvious that the sacrifice that Low Shoulder has in mind is sexual assault, that Jennifer’s trauma is the lasting damage inflicted on such victims, and, as Cody put it later, Jennifer’s killing spree is “about the feeling of wanting to turn the tables.” 

Much of the tension derives not so much from where and how Jennifer might strike next, but from the undercurrents of codependency and resentment in the Jennifer-Needy relationship (Jennifer’s jealousy of Needy’s close relationship with her mother and boyfriend, Needy’s unconscious infatuation with Jennifer) that affect the unfolding tragedy. 

Little if any of this, however, seemed to register at the time. “Because of the way the film was marketed, people wanted to see the movie as a cheap, trashy, exploitative vehicle for the hot girl from Transformers,” Cody noted, in an interview with Louis Peitzman of Buzz Feed News last December. “That’s how people insisted on seeing the film, even though I think when you watch it, it’s pretty obvious that there’s something else going on.”

Teenage girls have to negotiate the minefield of male norms of sexuality. The complication in this film is that Jennifer is not a total innocent—not only not a virgin, but also ready to use her sexuality to cadge drinks at the Melody Lane though she is underage. 

But the fateful encounter with Low Shoulder represents a barrier even she can’t handle. Her urge to feed on males after the attack—based on biology, according to horror cinema conventions—really feels more like revenge, as seen in her reply to Needy’s cry that she’s been killing human beings: “They weren’t human beings—they were boys!”

Jennifer’s Body is filled with much of the same tart teen humor so applauded in Juno. (Example: Needy corrects her friend: No, Jesus did not “invent the calendar.”) But like Get Out and The Stepford Wives, it uses its genre for satirical social commentary. 

Far earlier than the national discussion that has been taking place in the last two years, it depicted how adapting to the male gaze can lead unwary females into dangerous places, and how male violence can go viral—damaging not just its immediate female victim but also families, friends and entire communities. 

And this everlasting horror can be perpetrated not only by an overweight, bullying Hollywood producer but also by a handsome musician you’d kill to see—without ever grasping he’s about to do that to you, literally.

No comments: