Jennifer’s Body should have made a bigger splash when it came out in 2009. As we approach Halloween, nearly 10 years on, it’s worth considering that its themes of abuse, empowerment and accountability would likely be a winning formula with horror movie critics in the #MeToo era.
The film has a Mean Girls irreverence, mixed with the dark quirkiness of Ginger Snaps, two cult titles it comfortably holds its own against. It was also penned by Diablo Cody, who was fresh off her Oscar win for fan-favourite Juno. And with solid direction from Karyn Kusama and great performances from both main and supporting cast members (Megan Fox and J.K. Simmons especially), it’s frankly baffling that it was cast aside as B-grade genre trash.
The film currently holds a 44 percent freshness rating on Rotten Tomatoes, with an even lower 34 percent audience score. Even the critics who liked it tended to categorize it as a fairly empty bit of entertainment, riffing on the teen horror genre just enough to keep you distracted for 102 minutes.
But it’s a far more compelling and important movie than that.
Fox plays the titular Jennifer, a high school cheerleader and popular girl who goes to see big city indie band Low Shoulder (think a cross between the Killers and Dashboard Confessional) at a local dive bar with her best friend Needy. Something’s off about the band though, led by The O.C.’s Adam Brody, who takes an interest in Jennifer, speculating with his bandmates on whether she’s a virgin. During the show, the bar burns down suspiciously—the musicians seem pretty unsurprised and unbothered, and all make it out without a scratch. With several Devil’s Kettle citizens dead or unaccounted for, Jennifer agrees to get a ride to safety with the band, against Needy’s protests.
Jennifer comes back changed after the show. With the town reeling from the fire, she’s oddly chipper, until she starts to get “hungry.” We learn later what Low Shoulder did, which involved sacrificing a virgin to a demon. Only trouble is, Jennifer wasn’t a virgin, so something went wrong, and she came back with supernatural powers and an appetite for human flesh.
While Roger Ebert was one of the few to offer a positive overall assessment of Jennifer’s Body, he glosses over some of the film’s more important elements, treating it instead as “Twilight for boys,” though more artful than Twilight thanks to Cody’s writing. Ebert’s most glaring omission is any discussion of how Jennifer came to be what she is. “She's some kind of demon or monster, sort of undefined,” he says, “whose mission in life becomes attacking teenage boys.” That’s it. That’s all he has to say on that.
The attack on Jennifer is one of the film’s most powerful and uncomfortable scenes. There’s no sexual assault, but the imagery is clear. Even if it wasn’t, Jennifer meekly asks the members of Low Shoulder if they’re rapists once she notices something isn’t right in their tour van. What follows is the sacrifice of Jennifer by a group of men who are casual and practiced, cracking jokes and singing songs as Jennifer cries and begs for mercy. It’s chilling and should stand out to anyone watching what has otherwise been a darkly funny movie so far. If Ebert’s reading is the norm, no wonder Jennifer’s Body barely registered.
That scene is probably the definitive moment that unlocks everything Cody and Kusama are up to, offering what amounts to a rape/revenge narrative, only the attackers get off scott free. They even profit off of their behaviour by becoming the symbols of the Devil’s Kettle tragedy and the town’s enduring spirit. This is a dark bit of satire that reads very differently in 2018, as people like Louis C.K., Matt Lauer, and Charlie Rose plan their comebacks after years of success on the backs of those they abused.
The film does more than this though, and offers nuance that is hard to come by. Every teen horror trope is present, but twisted just enough to cancel out the rules of the game. It’s full of contradictions—at least they’re contradictions if you’re looking for generic cut-outs (the shy, bookish best friend Needy comes from a broken home and is sexually active, for example).
Maybe most important is Jennifer’s transformation itself. She’s not the chaste, pure, virginal, innocent teen at the start of the film. She’s kind of bossy, has a bit of a mean streak, and comes off as self-centred. And after her possession, she doesn’t take out her anger on her attackers or anyone who realistically stands in for them. She becomes a monster, preying on the innocent and alienating her best friend.
We could chalk that up to teens being awful, but that’s not really satisfying enough—a whole generation of teens has recently proved itself more compassionate and mature than the adults in the room by protesting various social inequities and calling for much-needed gun reform, among other things. The problem was never teenagers.
Jennifer’s Body is similarly saying something quite a bit more profound than “high school is hell” (or “hell is a teenage girl,” in the words of Needy), which is that there are no perfect victims. And that doesn’t matter. A popular mean girl in a backwater town, virginal or not, drunk or not, dressed suggestively or not, shouldn’t be abducted and assaulted.
That might be an obvious message, but it’s far more resonant today, while these kinds of questions are actively being debated. If that seems hyperbolic, consider that teen girls everywhere in America were told earlier this month by their president and elected senators that whatever their male peers do to them in their youth doesn’t really matter. That was the clear message as they literally laughed off serious decades-old allegations against now Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.
That Jennifer’s Body offers a moral with this kind of weight is meaningful, and that it manages this without any overt moralizing is radical.
While that all should have been picked up on even in 2009, it’s become the kind of messaging that’s more readily celebrated in “prestige horror” like It Follows and Get Out.
Even traditional, “low” horror fare is standing out in the mainstream for tackling heady social issues now. The latest Halloween has been praised for its depiction of trauma, and specifically intergenerational trauma, with star Jamie Lee Curtis stressing the film’s relevance in the #MeToo era.
Halloween’s praise is well deserved, but what stands out most about it is how well it wraps these themes into itself without straying even for a moment away from its status as a cheap little genre pic, perfectly in line with its hokey predecessors.
While the whole idea of “prestige horror” tends to overwrite the rich history of “low” horror, it’s worth mentioning that Halloween has achieved a degree of mainstream acceptance that no one dared grant Jennifer’s Body. (Halloween is currently “certified fresh” with an 80 percent Rotten Tomatoes score, for comparison’s sake.)
Of course, there’s another reason Jennifer’s Body may have bombed back then that resonates today too: Megan Fox.
Fox was an A-list actress in 2009, but her star was largely tied to the Transformers series, a blockbuster franchise she’d just been fired from, under pretty gross circumstances, by director Michael Bay.
On the surface, Fox was brought down by her attitude in a notorious interview in which she referred to Bay as Hitler on set. While any glib reference to Nazis and the Holocaust is surely in poor taste, Fox’s words were hardly a high crime by Hollywood standards, particularly when dealing with a director happy to work with the likes of Mark Wahlberg.
Soon after Fox’s comments, three of Bay’s regular crew members penned an open letter praising the director’s work ethic—or, more accurately, attacking Fox. The letter was vile, making fun of Fox’s looks and “silly” tattoos, calling her everything from “dumb-as-a-rock” to “Ms. Sourpants” and “Ms. Princess” to “trailer trash…posing like a pornstar.” They cap the whole thing off with “Megan really is a thankless, classless, graceless, and shall we say unfriendly bitch,” and the wish that Bay will crush her character to death in a future Transformers installment.
Bay published the letter to his website.
This all happened while Fox was promoting Jennifer’s Body. I’d like to hope that a poor-faith campaign to frame an actress as difficult may meet some resistance today. After all, we’ve seen more than a year of revelations, including the blacklisting of women who stood up to alleged serial predator Harvey Weinstein, such as Ashley Judd and Mira Sorvino, who were passed up for roles in The Lord of the Rings at Weinstein’s request, according to director Peter Jackson.
Natalie Portman recently spoke at a Variety event and said: “If a man says a woman is crazy or difficult, ask him, ‘What bad thing did you do to her?’ That’s a code word. He is trying to discredit her reputation.” Fox was framed in such a way, with some additional slut-shaming thrown in for good measure. The conversation has clearly changed since 2009, when virtually no one saw fit to stand up for Fox (save for one concerned PA).
Would a stronger public response to Bay’s behaviour have saved Jennifer’s Body? Who knows?
I like to imagine a better world in which it did. In which Bay took all the shit he deserved for pulling such a gross stunt. In which audiences were rooting for Fox. In which Jennifer’s Body was the triumphant start of a new phase in her career, sans Bay.
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