Written by: Daniel McDonald
Over the holiday break I noticed two things, the lack of horror product in cinemas (there used to always be one horror/thriller project released as sort of anti-programming) and also the amount of overlooked and underrated films that are available on Pay TV (I have Netflix and YouTube).
While I am looking forward to 2017 releases to be covered (SPLIT and BYE BYE MAN both look interesting) I’ve decided to re- visit some older productions with a “fresh set of eyes” (hence the 20/20 at the end of my A. V. F. T. T. P. banner).
First up is a film I was extremely excited to see on its initial release, partly because of the originality of its story, but mainly because of the pedigree of the creative team, both in front of and especially behind the camera. Directed by NYU Film school grad Karen Kusama (whose debut feature GIRL FIGHT was an award winning crowd pleaser that showed enormous potential). Her follow up track record has been a literal roller coaster of experiences; the TRULY wonderful completely overlooked horror/thriller THE INVITATION, the disastrous over produced, under written comic book adaptation AEON FLUX, and an upcoming horror anthology XX with all female directed segments to be released in 2017.
Today I’m talking about her project JENNIFER’S BODY, a 2009 horror/comedy, which was the sophomore screenwriting project of female phenom Diablo Cody, on the heels of her Oscar winning script for the critical and financial comedy hit, JUNO, which also received nominations for Best Picture, Director and Actress.
With these two formidable feminist creative powerhouses in control of an amazingly eclectic cast featuring co- leading ladies Amanda Seyfried as nebbish sidekick/heroine Anita -Needy, and Megan Fox as the titular high cchool Cheerleader/Flesh eating Demon, plus J. K. Simmons, Amy Sedaris, Johnny Simmons, Kyle Gallner, Chris Pratt and Adam Brody – an excitingly talented supporting company… my expectations were admittedly quite high.
The fact that it was being promoted as an R-rated sexy, gory genre/gender reversal, where the high school boys are the “maidens in distress”, with a whip smart funny/scary script that didn’t PG-13 its way out of anything – the Anti-TWILIGHT if you will (that alone “had me at hello”). I had read and researched everything I could about it, and was positively vibrating with excitement as I took my seat.
After some wonderful horror film trailers, the Kusama/Cody combo began to weave its magical “Nightmare – Fairy tale” spell on me. To say the film is original, yet honorable to both genres (which I’ve seen fail much more often than succeed) would be an understatement.
There are several longstanding cinematic issues that I’ve had problems with in the past few years that this film shines a bright, clarifying light on. I never understood the major issues that critics and audiences have with Fox, but more interestingly Seyfried’s abilities. With Fox, it’s clearly a combination of very “limiting” projects and almost unbelievable beauty and sexuality. In this film she shows a considerable talent for slyly underplayed, ironic comedy. The evil sub-textural vibe is there as well, and I must admit, as a gay man, she was quite effectively seductive with both men and women. To say “that’s just her being her” is waaay too simplistic. How do any of us know this actress well enough to decide what is her reality versus her acting skills?
Amanda Seyfried has given (in my humble opinion) several solid comedic and dramatic performances. From MEAN GIRLS to MAMMA MIA to LES MISERABLES and many, many more, she has been no less than good, and sometimes quite wonderful. In this film she carries the narrative, gives this black, black comedy some heart, logic and empathy.
Following a “to be explained” opening sequence where we meet a dangerously violent young woman, housed in a Sanitarium (not for long) and discover she is our tour guide for an unusually humorous/darkly melodramatic story. The tale of a small town (Devil’s Kettle Minnesota) where ALPHA cheerleader Jennifer and her nebbishly sweet whipping girl friend/slave Anita (Needy-for obvious reasons) exist dealing with day to day boredom The depiction establishing. High school 2009, is witty, colorful, cruel, sadly accurate, occasionally so “on target” it makes one feel genuine pity for the younger generation.
Cody’s dialogue is defining, very creatively funny and perhaps a bit too clever for its own good (at times- but really worth paying attention to). The always “never less than wonderful” J.K. Simmons portrays an overly invested, emotional, sympathetic child of Woodstock teacher (his scenes as well as Amy Sedaris as Needy’s burned out Mom are priceless). Kusama’s direction depends on a much more than usual amount of close ups, and a kinetically busy camera that gives the entire film a sense of not trusting the attention span of its audience. Perhaps true for some, not at all for me.
I don’t understand why, because Kusama’s casting strength and really fine multi-layered character work (especially with the young men, Kyle Gallner as a sympathetic “Goth buffet”, Adam Brody as the evil lead singer of LOW SHOULDER – the band that puts the evil plan into motion, Sal Cortez as an emotional closeted Quarterback that becomes a country breakfast, Chris Pratt in a charming glorified cameo, but particularly Johnny Simmons as Chip, Needy’s boyfriend. This young actor takes a basically throw away role, and through talent, charisma, very unusual line readings and physical attractiveness turns himself into an audience favorite.
When a low rung band that Jennifer worships (odd choice of words? No.) comes to town and plays a gig at a local bar, an unusual fire breaks out, killing several citizens (nice fire FX). In the confusion Jennifer agrees to leave with the band (Brody does a really smooth job of being the seductive front-man with a whole lotta bad under the surface). Back at home Needy is surprised to receive a visit from Jennifer, who is badly traumatized and covered in blood. She can’t seem to remember anything that happened after leaving with the band. Jennifer tries to eat (gorge) on some roast chicken, but can’t digest it and ends up throwing up a vast amount of viscous black substance that almost seems alive.
At school Jennifer runs into the team Quarterback (Sal Cortez) and playing off his “sympathy” for his dead companion, leads him into the woods, seduces him (in a really creepy moment, he notices all the animals in the surrounding forest have gathered to stare at him. When he wonders “why” she says “they’re waiting” shoves the big guy against a tree, rips open his shirt and turns into a flesh eating beast who attacks him. His screams are heard at the school, and upon investigation his disemboweled body is found with a deer nibbling on it (great makeup, not nearly enough horror action). The next day at school, students and teachers (a very funny J.K. Simmons) are all trying to deal with the fire tragedy, Needy notices Jennifer’s superior (at times hysterically inappropriate) attitude, and calls her out on it and the fact that she’s beginning to look a bit depleted. In the hall they meet sensitive, Goth-boy loner Colin, after seeing that Needy connects with him, the ultra-competitive Jennifer seduces him, making a date for later that night.
While Chip and Needy explore their “first time”, a scene that has some very touching and very funny moments (Seyfried and Simmons have dynamite chemistry), Colin anxiously arrives at a dark and deserted area for his rendezvous with Jennifer. Kusama uses music (not score, but actual tunes, the title Jennifer’s Body comes from a song by Courtney Love’s band, Hole) extremely well throughout the film especially so in the back and forth in this segment between the first time tryst, and the excitement of a random hook up.
As Colin arrives and slowly realizes something that at first seemed not quite right is disintegrating into something horrible, Gallner really shines, adding layers of emotion to the passion and fear that the script calls for. This attack is by far the most graphic (still somewhat tame for the R rating) and as the Fox demon slaughters Colin, Kusama cuts to Needy who has been established to have a lifelong mental link with Jennifer (not dwelled upon so it doesn’t come off as the contrivance it might have) again the juxtaposition of Colin’s death with Chip thinking the noises of distress coming from Needy are because of his first time skills and “size” sums up what many critics had a major problem with. They felt that the comedy and horror aspects of the script negated the strength of the film, whereas I thought the balance was complimentary, challenging – yes, but a film concept as original as Cody’s was certainly designed to do just that, make the audience experience fresher than traditional comedies or horror films.
The feminist aspect of both writer and director also allowed the mixture of genres the proper perspective needed to eliminate any sense of discomfort or non-believability that less visionary artists may have come up against.
We have now arrived at the “all cards on the table” segment of the film where through flashback we see exactly the HORRIBLE deceptions, one played on Jennifer by the band the night of the fire and in turn Jennifer’s equally damaging lie that caused her to become not a successful sacrifice for fame and glory that the band hoped for, but an instrument of hell on earth. Needy reveals she’s been researching the details of demonology in the school library’s occult section. Earlier Chip asks “Wait, our library has an Occult section?” to which Needy replies “Yeah, but it’s really small.”- I laughed… Cody nails teenspeak…
This leads to “the BIG KISS” between the female leads that the producer Jason Reitman and the promotional team at Fox made a huge point of interest in pre-selling the film. This angered both Kusama and Cody, as the exploitative nature of the situation went against their entire concept for the film’s point of view. Interestingly the scene was shot in a very provocative manner, I’m surprised between the horror element, the young female empowerment (I am TAYLOR, hear me roar) and the fact that, unlike some of the horror element’s PG-13 feel, the sequence that was most anticipated – delivers, plain and simple.
This sets up an “ohhh boy, here it comes” face off on prom night (more than once did Cody and Kusama nod to Lawrence D. Cohen and – my personal favorite – Brian DePalma’s masterpiece CARRIE), perhaps they should have nodded a bit more.
After Jennifer threatens to “eat” Chip (Cody’s humorous tone and Kusama’s lack of actual onscreen violence make that phrase not nearly as chilling as it could have been) Needy breaks up with Chip to save his life, breaking his heart (why Johnny Simmons isn’t working more mystifies me) and heads off to Prom to keep an eye on Jennifer and who her Big Mac on LEGS is going to be. Chip heads to the Prom anyway and is intercepted by a very hungry, getting weaker by the moment Jennifer. She seduces him, lies about Needy’s reputation and takes Johnny to a dilapidated pool house on campus. Now this is where one portion of the audience is saying “why the hell does this bright, shiny Academy have a broken down, almost Jurassic looking Pool house on its campus?” The other portion (my portion) thinks “why bother with questions like that, it’s a waaay cool visual location, and after all it is a film about Megan Fox eating boys.”
Perhaps that’s the mother load question, “how do I watch this film to receive maximum viewing pleasure?” I simply took the film as it came, navigating the tonal shifts by not trying to place this story into MY reality, but accepting this world as a place where this story COULD happen. I feel the creative team laid the groundwork enabling me to do that. I’m guessing others didn’t feel the same.
Back to the Pool house. Jennifer is caught nibbling on Chip, by an ass-kicking Needy. Some fairly simple, but well executed Practical FX, humorous (SURPRISE!) banter and an unexpectedly emotional moment that demonstrates this film carried a bit o’ horror, more than a few genuine laughs, an original storyline that held my attention and acting/directing skills that developed a connection with characters that are usually throwaway at best, or annoyingly PLEASE throw them away at ground zero. To go further, as the film does for 15 minutes, would spoil an ending that satisfied me, but left others scratching their heads. I’m not sure why, perhaps a project this unusual, confusing, atypical, subversive, hip, simultaneously daring and traditional – that’s not what I may feel, I’m throwing things at the wall to see if any of them stick for you.
So, something for everyone, yes? Then why (taking into account that the film only earned double its 16 million dollar budget) did this fall release stall on opening weekend and never recover? Kusama wisely chose to surrender to the obvious power of Cody’s vision, adding crisp technical aspects; cinematography by M. David Mullen (whose choice of close ups, lots of them, actually helped capture the multi- layered performances, without becoming too intrusive). Interestingly more than one report stated that Mullen carried some of the directing duties uncredited. Also sharp, (perhaps a bit too safe) editing by Plummy Tucker. Practical FX, augmented by fairly well done CGI – KNB EFX to help Kusama ‘s film have less creative gear – shifting than the every color of the Rainbow Diablo Cody (perhaps feeling her post- Oscar subversively creative oats a bit more than she should have) script. Solid makeup from Joe Giles and Brian Gehrig (I actually wish there had been more of it).
I feel the film did what very few horror/comedies have done, take a story that is, in itself a challenging, provocative, risky mixing of genres that has worked (FREAKS OF NATURE) and definitely has not (FAR too many to list) and created a new kind of HEATHERS meets DEAD KIDS meets THE BREAKFAST CLUB hybrid. The talent on either side of the camera (once again) is unusually formidable, so the combination of originality, style, humor, and talent has created a “salty” (as Jennifer would say) piece of entertainment. I completely agree with A. O. Scott of The New York Times “…it deserves and probably will win a devoted cult following…”
20 / 20 – update 4/5