In the past few years, we’ve witnessed a new kind of cinematic birth take place. More and more niche – and seemingly mass-hated films – are being reevaluated years after release. More often than not, they’re revealed to have more cult status than previously thought. From 2018’s Twilight Twitter resurgence to the open admissions of love for Mamma Mia brought on by the sequel, many are finding that reflecting can be advantageous for some of cinema’s biggest flops and underdogs. Whether it be a think-piece that sparked conversation, an insightful interview with a crew member or a viral social media post – some movies deemed universally bad are finally finding their audiences, and through context are being appreciated in new ways.
In 2009, director Karyn Kusama released a horror-comedy about a high school “mean girl” named Jennifer who, after being possessed by a demon, rips her way through the boys in her town using succubus-like methods. She lures men in with her sexuality, only to kill them before delivering fully on her promises. Jennifer is a bitchy, popular type with a polar opposite friend called Needy (subtlety isn’t what Kusama was going for), who sub-textually, and arguably objectively, has a thing for her.
Kusama has recently stated that the marketing for the film contradicted her intentions and what she had envisioned it to be. The poster is perhaps most noteworthy. There’s a couple of variants, but the most used are ones where Megan Fox’s Jennifer is positioned front and center. In one, she’s walking towards camera in her skimpy cheerleading short skirt, with nothing but grey canvas behind her. Another features Fox in even less clothing, parked on a high school desk with a book clutched close to the chest. Any synopsis, trailer, or general look at the project from the outside points to the same things. Generic hot girl horror where sex is the main event. It’s there to be laughed at (not with) and to be consumed by men. But when I watched Jennifer’s Body all those years ago, I knew almost instantly it wasn’t that.
The film is certainly sexual and comedic. In the first minutes, a juvenile lesbian joke is made while Needy watches Jennifer fulfill her cheerleading duties. Throughout the film, Kusama dives headfirst into making her project a genre film. As Jennifer progresses into a morally devoid serial killer, her banter with Amanda Seyfried’s Needy stays sharp. The humor is rude, obscene, and sexually charged. So, with all of this in mind, why are we making such a case for it today? Well, in 2009 a horror flick that flaunts its title character’s good-looks as well as painting them as a tragic magnet for male-inflicted violence probably wasn’t going to land like it would in today’s climate. But that’s a guess, we’ll never know because it was marketed as a simpleton when it’s really a rather refined fellow. Don’t get me wrong, it’s so far from high-brow, but it knows and loves that. Thankfully, it’s possible to be appreciative of Jennifer’s Body‘s campness, while not letting it be reductive.
While fanatics in small numbers ate it up, it seems the film totally missed what it was aiming for. Writer Diablo Cody penned it with women specifically in mind. In the script, she took shots of toxic female friendships and the budding sexual tension that can be found in them. Cody and Kusama wanted girls of the same age as the characters to watch and revel in their self-granted permission to say things like “Hell is a teenage girl.” It’s no wonder the film was both a commercial and critical failure, the studio advertised a product that didn’t quite exist, and if it did, it existed with a self-awareness that steered away from expectations. See, the film isn’t short of clichés – it even indulges in a girl-on-girl kiss (one of the best) that to a bystander might seem like it was crafted piece by piece to turn teenage boys on. But it wasn’t. While the film’s existence as a whole can be used to critique misogynistic ways of thinking, it never tuts at the idea of sexuality, only how it can be misused. It’s a racy film, in a distinctively feminine way, which plants its seeds in minor body language.
“In those conversations, I was like, ‘Oh, OK, we are seeing either we made a movie that they see completely differently, or what’s in front of them is something they don’t want to see,’” – Karyn Kusama
Watching the film now, it has the stamp of female filmmakers all over it. The kiss is sexy, to the point one might feel almost guilty for enjoying it a little too much. It’s feminine and soft, the bedroom is warmly lit, and it’s gratuitous for all the right reasons in hindsight. More so, the slight sparks between the on-screen friends are met with some depth towards the end of the film, due to the fact these small romantic moments are sprinkled throughout the film. Among all the jokes and gore, you can see that their friendship is the heart of things, a fact that never seemed to translate to general audiences – maybe because the idea of their relationship seemed to contradict the seemingly inherent shallow nature of the film.
Jennifer’s Body is a funny and gloriously dark time, but also has gendered violence infused in its marrow. When the third act closes, the reality of all this pain, initially caused by a group of men who abuse then sacrifice Jennifer, is realized. Jennifer’s possession and literal consumption of men is merely role reversal of the metaphorical consumption of her body. It’s hilarious and depressing that the studio was so far from being self-aware about this and decided to use nothing but Megan Fox’s sex appeal to promote the film, especially considering the fucking massive hint of the movie actually having the word body in it. Like, duh? Perhaps I’m reading too much into it. Maybe Jennifer losing control over her body because of the possession wasn’t an allegory for how attractive women can lose agency over their bodies due to how they are sold, ogled at and valued. Because otherwise, the marketing would be very ironic – and not in a cute way.
You could say the studio isn’t to blame, after all, it seems it was only a small number of people who reflected on the film this way after seeing it. Maybe the writing didn’t guide us enough, maybe Jennifer’s Body as a project undermines any depth it may have wanted to achieve. But this is all in the eyes of the beholder. To spell it out would have rendered the point pointless, and different readings are part of the fun. It has become a film within a film for many, but will probably remain a vapid and one-note feature for others.
When Needy puts an end to Jennifer’s reign of terror by sneaking into her bedroom to murder her, Jennifer’s possession seems to flicker then end. In her final moments, Jennifer’s eyes are just hers again, and as blood pools around the friendship charm hanging around her neck, she looks straight at Needy as she dies.
Jennifer is dead, after being used up within an inch of her life by the forces that invaded her. And Needy is locked away in a ward where she has evidently become violent with an all-consuming rage and has become hell-bent on avenging the loss of her best friend – it’s surprisingly sad. When I watched it as a teen I found it incredibly emotional. I was blindsided because it was a film I expected nothing of that sort from, but something inexplicable (it’s really inexplicable because their friendship was majorly bad) made me hurt for Needy. I was without a doubt the target audience the filmmakers had in mind. I sat and cried over Through the Trees from the soundtrack, with the melodrama of a 15-year-old who had just discovered Marina and the Diamonds and believed the lyrics “spoke to her”. Everyone else around me seemed to place no value on Jennifer’s Body. So for years, I made excuses. I would say I didn’t know why I liked it so much. I would tell people that the ending got to me “for some reason”. I’m still not totally sure why it made me so sad, but I have guessed. First on the list is that the connection Diablo Cody and Karyn Kusama were seeking actually happened. And that I felt the film as what it actually is – a ridiculous, hot horror that had the guts to ask us to care, if even just a little, at the end of it all.
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