Typically, when we think of cult classic films and TV series that get a second lease on life via VHS, DVD, or streaming, we think of a nerd’s club of mostly boys: Blade Runner, Office Space, Freaks and Geeks, and so on. There are obviously exceptions, and this weekend marks one of the the best ones in the horror space: the 10th anniversary of the criminally misunderstood Jennifer’s Body.
This 2009 film, penned by Diablo Cody and starring Megan Fox, has prompted lots of fond reminiscences from cast and crew recently, as well as several glowing tributes. That’s quite a shift from the film’s debut, when Jennifer’s Body received decidedly mixed reviews and underperformed at the box office. Count me among those who have long appreciated this smartly subversive, multi-layered horror/fairy tale about toxic female friendship.
(Major spoilers for the film below, because it’s been 10 years, people.)
Anita “Needy” Lesnicki (Amanda Seyfried) is a shy, nerdy “nice girl” in the small town of Devil’s Kettle. Her best friend since childhood is inexplicably the gorgeous cheerleader Jennifer Check (Megan Fox). “Mean girl” Jennifer drags Needy to a local bar dive bar one night to see an indie band called Low Shoulder; she has designs on the lead singer, Nikolai (Adam Brody). After a fire destroys the club and many of its patrons, Jennifer (still in shock) numbly agrees to drive off with the band in their van, against Needy’s protests.
When Jennifer shows up at Needy’s house hours later, she is covered in blood and vomits a black fluid over the kitchen floor, before running out into the night.
The next day, Jennifer seems like her usual selfish, callous self. But soon high school boys start showing up ripped to shreds and partially devoured. Jennifer has become a succubus who must consume human flesh to feed the demon within, thanks to a Satanic ritual gone wrong. (Low Shoulder needed to sacrifice a virgin in exchange for fame and fortune, and, well, Jennifer hasn’t been a virgin since junior high.) Needy must face the fact that her best friend is a monster, and it’s up to her to take Jennifer down before she chows down on more boys—like Needy’s own boyfriend, Chip (Johnny Simmons).
So much subtext
So much more is going on in Jennifer’s Body than its basic premise might suggest. Screenwriter Cody deliberately set out to make a horror film that honored the conventions while upending them in interesting ways. She started with the character of Jennifer, who would typically be the doomed “First Girl” in your average slasher film: beautiful, bitchy, promiscuous, and flushed with the power she thinks her sexuality confers.
She is victimized, thanks to the members of Low Shoulder, who brutally stab her to death in the woods while singing “867-5309/Jenny.” The twist is that she doesn’t stay dead, using those same seductive wiles to lure unsuspecting young men to their gruesome deaths—none of whom, it must be said, really deserve that fate.
Needy is also an atypical Final Girl. Scream reminded us all about the importance of virginity if a young woman is to survive a slasher film, but Needy and Chip have a normal, healthy sexual relationship, so that ship has long since sailed.
The script’s humor is subtle and muted, and the teen slang has a nastier edge compared to many other comic horror films. While we get the requisite jump scares and gore galore, the film’s best moments typically occur in the quiet interludes in between: the sweetly awkward sex scene between Chip and Needy, for instance, or the impassioned graveside rant by the grief-stricken mother of one of Jennifer’s victims—not to mention the film’s clever use of the ending credits to deliver one final twist.
What went wrong?
Jennifer’s Body premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in 2009 and hit North American theaters on September 18 that same year. Alas, critical reviews were mixed, and audiences didn’t flock to theaters in nearly the numbers the studio had hoped for. The film grossed about $ 31.5 million worldwide against a $ 16 million budget—not a total box office bomb, but hardly a breakout hit. That led to a great deal of handwringing over what had gone so wrong.
All the elements for success were there, including a major star at the peak of her sex-symbol fame and an Oscar-winning writer penning the script. Was it because Megan Fox couldn’t open a movie? (It’s hands-down Fox’s best performance.) Was it because the film was marketed to teens yet rated “R”? Or was it just a bad box office weekend overall? (The number one film that weekend was Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, with around $ 30 million.)
Certainly, the marketing was tonally at odds with the film from the get-go. Cody has lamented that the studio specifically targeted boys who were fans of Fox because of the first two Transformer films, when she had intended it to appeal just as much to girls. Cody has a valid point, judging by the original trailer:
The film’s poster, featuring a tarted-up Fox in a schoolgirl’s uniform, perched on the teacher’s desk with the words “Hell yes!” scrawled on the chalkboard, didn’t help matters. The trailer and poster made the film look like just another teen slasher B-movie, with the stereotypical high school hot girl as a murderous monster targeting horny teenaged boys, plus a bit of girl-on-girl action for some extra gratuitous titillation. There is none of the sly humor and sharp dialogue that makes Jennifer’s Body such a nerdilicious delight, and there is no indication of just how well the film handles the intense and complicated relationship between Jennifer and Needy.
Even at the start of the film, they border on “frenemies,” calling each other “Monistat” and “Vagisil.” When Needy playfully punches Jennifer’s arm for making a crude sexual joke, Jennifer responds by shoving Needy violently into a wall—a hint of things to come. We also get a sense of why Jennifer hangs out with Needy, who is pretty but not so much that she will ever upstage Jennifer. Needy, of course, idolizes her glamorous friend, but there’s also a hint of worry whenever Jennifer mentions Chip.
Chip is the one thing Needy has that Jennifer doesn’t, and that simmering tension and competitiveness boils to the surface after Jennifer’s transformation. She targets emo-Goth guy Colin (Kyle Gallner) solely because Needy thinks he’s cool, and it’s only a matter of time before she goes after Chip. That’s when we see how empty and insecure Jennifer—the girl behind the monster—really is, demanding Chip tell her she’s better than Needy when they kiss. It adds yet another dimension to the girls’ twisted relationship. As for that infamous same-sex kiss in Needy’s bedroom, the way it plays out in context is far less gratuitous than the trailer makes it seem.
Patience and time
At some point over the last 10 years, people began rediscovering Jennifer’s Body via DVD/Blu-Ray and streaming services. And the narrative surrounding the film slowly started to shift; it’s now being touted as an iconic feminist horror cult classic. (Fox also starred in the 2010 critical and box office failure, Jonah Hex, based on the DC Comics antihero, which did not experience the same redemptive arc—probably because it is a genuinely bad movie.)
I might quibble with those who interpret Jennifer’s Body as a straight-up #MeToo era revenge fantasy about female empowerment. Needy and Jennifer’s friendship is clearly the primary driver and the power dynamics are constantly shifting between them. And apart from the evil band members, male characters are treated sympathetically. But it’s very much a thinking person’s horror film, and I’m pleased that more folks are starting to appreciate just how twisted and clever Jennifer’s Body actually is.