Thursday, April 15, 2010

Hit to the Body

Audiences going in to Jennifer's Body (2009, directed by Karyn Kusama) expecting a quirky comedy horror lark on the evidence of screenwriter Diablo Cody's Juno can probably be forgiven for balking at the jolt delivered by this film's second murder sequence. This isn't what they were buying tickets to see. They got an actual horror movie. Likewise, teen age horror fans can be forgiven for balking at the film, baited by the promise of a topless Megan Fox (which doesn't happen) and a fun horror movie that delivers boobs and blood. What they got is a female-centric movie about women and the relationships they form. Again, not what they were buying tickets to see. It's a movie that's neither fish nor fowl. But it's pretty good at what it's trying to do.

The story involves two friends: Anita, whose nickname is "Needy," and Jennifer. They're an unlikely pair, with Needy being kind of a nerd while Jennifer is a wet dream of a cheerleader. But, as the movie rightly notes, playground friendships can be deep. One night, Needy is dragged away from her boyfriend to go see an indy band at a roadhouse with Jennifer. The band is looking for a break and they've decided on a pact with the devil. They need a virgin to sacrifice and they've chosen Jennifer. Unfortunately, Jennifer isn't a virgin, and even though the band gets the success they crave, Jennifer becomes a demon in the bargain, one hungry for human flesh. So she begins preying on her male classmates, with a special eye for the ones Needy is friends with.

Structurally, this is a distaff slasher movie, but there's a striking difference between this and a standard slasher movie: none of Jennifer's victims "deserves" it. The moral judgement is absent. The guys she kills aren't rapists or stoners or even womanizers. They're just normal kids. The movie compounds this by giving them quirks that show them to have normal interior lives. This is pretty good writing (and nevermind the Diablo Cody-speak that some people can't get past). There's a point to this: it's a repudiation of the moral universe of the slasher movie. By inverting the gender dynamics of the victims, it takes away the planks of that morality, because, when you come down to it, the victims in most slasher movies don't deserve what they get, either. This film is careful not to turn its monster into a hero, too. All of this has the perverse effect of amplifying the horror quotient in a way that a gorier boobs and blood opus might miss. Plus, it defuses the horror film's usual veneer of misogyny. This is important, because, as I said, this is a movie about women and their relationships. True, it's abstracted through the lens of the horror movie, but Jennifer's Body is still about two best friends who become estranged. The "BFF" (a grouping of letters explicitly referenced in the movie) is a kind of relationship that boys generally don't enter.

Amanda Seyfried's character, Needy, is an interesting variation on the slasher film's 'final girl' archetype. She's totally the type: socially awkward, nerdy. In another movie, it would be plain to see that she's the final girl the minute she walks on screen. But this movie twists things a bit. Needy, unlike Jennifer's man-eater and unlike every other final girl ever written, has what seems like a normal adult sexual relationship with her boyfriend. She doesn't pine for someone unobtainable to a girl of her social stratus. If there's a misstep with her character, it's the fact that no amount of frumpy clothing can hide the fact that Amanda Seyfried is gorgeous, though that too may be an intentional commentary on the usual frumpy girl who turns out to be beautiful behind her glasses.

Jennifer herself is a pathetic monster and by the end, the audience has some sympathy for her. This is accomplished mainly in the scene where she's sacrificed to the Devil. Give Megan Fox some credit here, she performs this scene perfectly: no longer the bombshell, she's a victim and a teenage girl who is in way over her head. She joins a long list of sympathetic monsters with whom audiences relate.

What really seals the deal for me regarding this picture's bona fides is the second murder scene, in which Jennifer lures Colin, one of Needy's gothy friends--a nice kid in spite of all the black clothing--to the killing floor. This is cross-cut with a sex scene that goes horribly bad in which Needy senses the awful things that Jennifer does even as her boyfriend enters her. It's a bravura scene that pushes the film out of the realm of the comic. It's a feel-bad scene and there's nothing funny in it. It goes for the throat.

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