Jennifer’s Body (2009)
She’s evil … and not just high school evil.
Former squeaky-clean nerdy girl Anita ‘Needy’ Lesnicki (Amanda Seyfried) narrates her tale of woe from a padded cell, as all good first-person horror storytellers should. How did the former star student wind up in such dire circumstances? It has a little to do with demonic possession, a little to do with a shitty but ambitious indie rock outfit, a little to do with her self-absorbed best friend, Jennifer Check (Megan Fox), and a lot to do with Jennifer’s body.
Written by Juno (2007) and Tully (2018) screenwriter Diablo Cody at the height of her first flush of fame, the 2009 teen horror flick Jennifer’s Body does a fantastic job of wrapping some sharp and trenchant insights into the human condition inside a brisk and bloody tale of terror. In this case, the main area of inquiry is toxic female friendship, particularly the way that asymmetrical friendships can linger way past their use-by dates.
And boy, is Needy and Jennifer’s friendship lopsided. We’re more or less left to guess how they first bonded as little kids, but by the time we meet them in high school, Jennifer is a queen bee cheerleader with the world in general — and the local male population in particular — wrapped around her little finger, while mousy, bookish Needy trails in her wake, cleaving to a relationship based more on habit than health.
Things take a turn for the supernatural when Jennifer drags Needy along to see the low rent Low Shoulder, a touring indie band whose lead singer Nikolai (Adam Brody) Jennifer has designs on. The group has designs on Jennifer, too — not for groupie sex, but to be a human sacrifice to the powers of darkness, ensuring the mediocre musos attain temporal success.
The twist is that Jennifer survives — virgin sacrifices only work with virgins, it turns out — and winds up demonically possessed and hungry for human flesh. As the promiscuous Jennifer sets about chewing her way through the XY half of the high school population, Needy grapples with what must be done to stop her rampage.
Jennifer’s Body mostly works. When it was first released in 2009, Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson’s Scream was already 13 years in the rear view mirror, but the long tail and countless imitators of that and most ’90s horror flicks meant that it was still ripe for both smart (i.e., non-Scary Movie) satire and feminist commentary. Lest we forget, Craven and Williamson and the vast majority of their copycats are male, while writer Diablo Cody and director Karyn Kusama, Girlfight (2000), are not. Given the genre’s propensity to have male killers carve their way through a bevy of nubile female victims on the reg, it’s refreshing to see that trope gender-flipped, with the increasingly rapacious Jennifer offing a laundry list of assorted dudes.
What’s interesting is that the demonic version of Jennifer isn’t too far removed from her wholly human incarnation — she’s more ruthless, more murderous, more overtly in command of her sexuality, but all these are matters of degree — there’s no inversion of personality traits, no giveaway behaviors that mark her as diabolic. Demon Jennifer is just regular Jennifer but more so: the question is, is she being driven to acts of horror, or simply given license to commit them?
Still, it takes such atrocities to clue in our hero Needy that Jennifer is a bit of a bitch and to put her on the path to both confrontation and liberation, although it does take her a little too long to twig what’s going on. The key is that it takes this kind of extremity for Needy to realize that Jennifer has always been a manipulative bitch — she’s just finally become unbearable now that there’s a body count.
Unfortunately, Jennifer’s Body often defaults to simply mimicking what it should be mocking, and for long stretches, there’s little to differentiate it from the rank and file post-Scream efforts it’s trying to comment on. It doesn’t help that Cody’s stock in trade as a writer is the kind of glib, slang-heavy banter that ages faster than a discount avocado — an issue that also plagues the likes of Scream (1996) scribe Williamson and fallen feminist genre King Joss Whedon. For about a minute and a half the dialogue here felt completely on the money — now, almost a decade away, there’s a self-conscious tweeness that mars the film.
Still, there’s a lot to enjoy here. Amanda Seyfried and Megan Fox give it their all and actually have pretty great chemistry, making their friendship, as poisonous as it is, ring true. Seyfried’s acting chops are in no doubt, but Fox acquits herself rather well, delivering the best performance of her career (yes, yes, a low bar to clear). There are also a bunch of welcome cameos from people such as J.K. Simmons, Whiplash (2014), who portrays a one-armed teacher named Mr. Wroblewski, and Chris Pratt before he tamed raptors and flew around in the Milano.
For gore fans, there are enough imaginative kills and blood gags to keep horror hounds satiated, and at 102 minutes it doesn’t overstay its welcome. It’s easy to imagine a more arch and pitiless version of Jennifer’s Body — one that really skewers its intended targets. As it stands, the version we’ve got is ahead of the post-Scream slasher pack, but not as much as it obviously could have been.
3 / 5 – Good
Reviewed by Travis Johnson