Jennifer’s Body (revisited)

Seeing LISA FRANKENSTEIN pushed me to do something I’ve been meaning to do for years – rewatch JENNIFER’S BODY (2009). Uncharacteristically, I came right home from the theater and put it on. It made a good double feature.

In a way it doesn’t seem like that long ago, but in other ways it seems like ancient history. It was Diablo Cody’s second movie, coming two years after JUNO, which won her the best original screenplay Oscar. Director Karyn Kusama was on her third movie, trying to make a comeback after AEON FLUX (2005), her one studio project after the indie smash GIRLFIGHT (2000). Since then she’s done THE INVITATION (2015) and DESTROYER (2018) and lots of acclaimed television.

In my original review I joked about doofuses thinking horror was a male-only genre. Here was a movie very focused on female friendships, but they kinda marketed it as a thing for dudes to jerk off to. I also noted that it was unusual to see a horror movie directed by a woman, which was true at that time. In researching it now I couldn’t find another one that came out that year. To contrast, in 2023 we had APPENDAGE, COCAINE BEAR, FIVE NIGHTS AT FREDDY’S, THERE’S SOMETHING WRONG WITH THE CHILDREN, TOTALLY KILLER, and UNSEEN. The year before we had BODIES BODIES BODIES, DEADSTREAM, FRESH, GLORIOUS, HATCHING, PIGGY, SISSY, SLASH/BACK, UMMA, and WATCHER. So things are changing.

The way I remember it, I thought JENNIFER’S BODY was pretty good at the time and found myself defending it from snark and thoughtless negative reviews. Of course I wrote my own review, so I can go to the documentation. I did talk about it getting a raw deal, but I was more lukewarm on it than in my memory: “Not that it’s all that great. I don’t think it really works as a whole, but it has enough good stuff that it deserved a better shot.”

I’m happy to say that on my second viewing (with 15 years of change, growth and hindsight) it played much better. As much as I liked LISA FRANKENSTEIN, I prefer the earlier film’s more serious tone. It has lots of quips, and the explanation for the supernatural conceit is absurd, but the dangers and emotions are sincere. When Needy is up scrubbing Jennifer’s black puke off the kitchen floor, bawling, it’s played as real. The horror of her closest friend turning into a monster is not a joke.

Amanda Seyfried (FIRST REFORMED) stars as Anita “Needy” Lesnicki. I totally forgot that at the beginning she’s in an institute for the criminally insane, where she’s notorious for kicking people (including an innocent doctor who she knocks across the cafeteria and then spits in the face of). But she wasn’t always “this cracked.”

Two months earlier in her small town of Devil’s Kettle (named after a nearby waterfall that flows into a bottomless pit), she’s a self-proclaimed dork who’s life-long best friends with popular Jennifer Check (Megan Fox, ROGUE). But she treats her kind of more like an idol and object of worship than a pal. She’s accused of being “totally lesbi-gay” for staring admiringly during her cheerleader routines. They nickname each other after feminine hygiene products, wear matching heart-shaped lockets that say “BFF,” and Needy can sense Jennifer’s presence before she sees or hears her.

Jennifer is kind of mean and pushy. She even literally pushes Needy against a wall for no reason. But Needy doesn’t mind and always does what Jennifer wants, against the passive protests of her shy drummer boyfriend Chip (Johnny Simmons, THE SPIRIT, and the main character in the original short film version of WHIPLASH), who gets left behind when they go see the “indie band from the city” Low Shoulder at a tavern called Melody Lane.

Jennifer tries to pick up the band’s lead singer Nikolai (Adam Brody, AMERICAN FICTION), who drugs her and drags her into the band’s van after the tavern burns down during their show, killing almost everyone (with some pretty good pyro stunts). Turns out Low Shoulder are evil, and need a virgin to sacrifice at the waterfall hole under a waxy moon in a ritual to sell their souls to become rock stars. (See also: OH, GOD! YOU DEVIL.) But they’re mistaken, she is not a virgin, so the ritualistic killing causes her to come back as a succubus.

I like to think the spell does not bring them success, but they happen to get it anyway when they claim to have rescued people from the fire and their single “Through the Trees” becomes the town’s “unofficial anthem of unity and healing.” “I just hope we can convey one tenth of their courage and spirit in our upcoming album,” says Nikolai

I also love that this band that’s in league with the devil isn’t some heavy metal outfit. Their songs were really recorded by a group then known as No Country, who cited U2, Peter Gabriel, the Cure and Duran Duran as influences, and once had a song used in a radio commercial for Michelob Golden Light. Those are the type of guys you really gotta look out for when it comes to this warlock shit.

Neither we or Needy know about the ritual until later. We watch helplessly as Jennifer gets in the van. Then Jennifer shows up at Needy’s house in the middle of the night covered in blood, says nothing, eats uncooked chicken out of the fridge and pukes up a huge puddle of black goo that forms into needles like she bit off part of Venom. Then the next day at school she acts like nothing happened.

In a healthier relationship, Jennifer would confide in her official BFF. She doesn’t do that until late in the movie, when she tries to get her sympathy. Privately she has urges to eat boys, and figures out that if she goes too long without it she gets sick and looks “regular.” I don’t think back then I picked up the implication that Jennifer’s curse is a reverse menstruation process – she has to drink blood once a month.

Needy sees some weird shit, but all she really knows is that Jennifer is being weirdly cavalier about the fire and now the murders. The two grow distant, and Needy tries to go on with her life as much as she can. A scene of Needy and Chip sweetly, awkwardly losing their virginity together is intercut with Jennifer luring nice alternative boy Colin Gray (Kyle Gallner, RED, RED STATE) to break his bones and eat his guts while he’s frightened and hopeless. Poor Needy has her experience ruined by visions of Jennifer and her victims, and Chip interprets her frightened gasps to mean he’s doing a good job. They’re well-meaning young people not quite able to understand what each other are going through, but at least they’re trying.

Though it’s not an enormous body count, the horror business is legit – none of the victims seem “deserving,” some of the deaths really hurt, there’s some good gore and transformation effects courtesy of Howard Berger and Greg Nicotero. (Almost all practical, if you care.) I particularly like when she tears out Colin’s belly and it’s seen in silhouette behind a sheet but still manages to look (and sound) extremely graphic.

It’s also a good looking movie with lots of production value, less stylized than LISA FRANKENSTEIN, but everything on screen looks very specific to this world. Devil’s Kettle has a foreboding atmosphere to it as this small town surrounded by swaths of mysterious nature. Of course, there’s also that matter of movies being shot on film back then. I love that grain. There’s color, but it’s never too bright – the days are usually overcast, the rooms are usually lit by lamps or window light. Director of photography M. David Mullen also shot TWIN FALLS IDAHO, SHADOWBOXER and THE LOVE WITCH.

I’m sure it’s primarily remembered for the wit of Cody’s screenplay, and there are some good jokes in here. I love that Melody Lane is known for a “really awesome 9/11 tribute shooter. It’s red white and blue but you have to drink it fast or it turns brownish.” And that Mr. Wroblewski (J.K. Simmons, THE ACCOUNTANT) tells the class to “put aside your teenage concerns about… who’s a cool dude, or who’s a ho. We can’t let that damn fire win.” Melody Lane becomes its own tragedy to be awkwardly memorialized/crassly exploited.

I love that Nikolai continues to get the name of the town wrong even in quasi-heartfelt speeches about the tragedy. Relatedly, there’s a montage of grieving throughout the town set to the hit song by the band we know caused the whole thing in the first place. It even turns into a singalong at a candlelight vigil. Later, the song haunts Needy on her car radio, and the title is used as the theme for the Spring Formal (announced on huge in Papyrus font).

As in JUNO, Cody clearly loves inventing teen slang and smart-assy wordplay. This time I laughed at Jennifer telling Needy to “move on dot org,” then I saw that in my original review I pointed that out as not being funny. I guess when it’s a current reference it sucks, when it’s a time capsule it’s pretty good. I appreciate Cody’s sense of humor. It’s true that if you were Jennifer Check and then you became a demon you would accuse your best friend of being “a player hater” and “undermining everything I do” for trying to stop you from eating people.

I acknowledged in 2009 that Fox was “actually pretty good in this,” but that was a cowardly understatement. Who else could’ve possibly filled the role as well? She’s strutting through that high school like a flood light surrounded by LED pen lights, and she knows it. She knows the power she has over Needy, and over boys, and she knows she can be a total bitch and still be charming. This time it also really strikes me how great Seyfried is, with a much more natural style of acting, being entranced by Jennifer, having a genuinely sweet relationship with Chip, and also conveying with her eyes that yeah, she sees how crazy this is, and she’s still trying to process what the fuck to do about it. Until she figures it out, and is covered in mud and blood and going toe-to-toe with her monstrous bestie.

As smart-assy as the movie is, it doesn’t make light of its leads and what they’re going through. I think Needy is a very universal character, not falling into any stereotypical categories, but still having personality. She’s the less glamorous friend, but witty and nice, needs to learn to stand up for herself, which she’s sort of pushed into simply by having more of a moral compass than Jennifer. In most teen movies she’d have to spend some time trying to attract a boy, but Needy already has a nice boyfriend at the beginning, who she’s happy with, and only leaves for horror-related safety issues. Even then, he cares about her too much to fully fall for Jennifer.

Without having to deal with any romance, Cody and Kusama have time to dig into the melodrama of the girls’ friendship – the power imbalance, the growing away from each other, the sexual tension. In my original review I mentioned that “I didn’t understand if Needy really had lesbian feelings for Jennifer or if it was just a childhood curiosity,” but now I really like that lack of clarity. It’s probly pretty common for friends that close to feel some kind of attraction to each other without it being their primary sexual identity. But Jennifer uses it to manipulate Needy just like she would with a boy.

Needy rightfully concludes that Jennifer was never a good friend, but it’s a heartbreaking thing to admit. In the climax, when they’re floating in the air and Needy tears off Jennifer’s BFF locket in slow motion and it causes them to drop, it feels monumental.

It’s still a really good ending, in fact more effective now since I don’t know what the fuck my problem was with the end credits illustrating the aftermath. I mean it would’ve been great left totally to your imagination but it doesn’t hurt anything how they did it. (The fourth from last paragraph of that old review reads as total gibberish to me now. I’m glad whatever I thought my advice was to Cody was ignored.)

I was more right than many about JENNIFER’S BODY, but I’m glad to confirm I wasn’t fully right. This is a good one. Its improved reputation is well deserved.

This entry was posted on Thursday, February 22nd, 2024 at 5:12 pm and is filed under Reviews, Comedy/Laffs, Horror. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

12 Responses to “Jennifer’s Body (revisited)”

  1. I didn’t see this one until within the last year. I really wanted to like it, but I thought it was just okay. I’m surprised to hear it came after JUNO because it felt really amateurish to me. Maybe she wrote it before? I’m not a big fan of Cody’s stylized dialogue, but I don’t hate it. It’s hit and miss for me. I don’t know if it’s a fault in the script or the direction, but I thought it was kind of boring in the horror department. The first scene where Jennifer comes to Needy’s house was really scary and good, but after that every scary scene was the same – stalking and ripping apart some dude.

    I do think that Seyfried and Fox did a good acting job. In particular Seyfried. I liked the ending, both their fight with each other and Needy in the hospital and getting her revenge. I would like a movie about that stuff. Maybe if I hadn’t been hearing it was a misunderstood classic for so many years I would’ve liked it better.

  2. I caught this on cable and while it isn’t the unheralded disaster some made it out to be… it’s got a lot of problems. Most of which have top do with the script. It’s real freshman screenwriting class. I have a friend that taught one of those classes who told me that due to the curve, you just have to forgive all instances of the student intending to write something like — say — Swingers, and ending up submitting a script that’s exactly like Swingers, because they’re all like that. In this case, the student wanted to write something like Ginger Snaps.

    It’s interesting, I read an interview with Kusama where she stated that she too had a lot of script problems. The aforementioned similarities to other movies, the constant stream of obscure references that neither she, nor the cast completely understood, the fact that satirizing a real accident where innocent people horribly burned to death didn’t quite toe the line between edgy and poor taste as much as jump over it, etc. However, I guess the production did not want to risk the ire of the shit-hot, Oscar-winning, newly crowned American sweetheart screenwriter, and refused any and all rewrites.

    While I can sympathize with Kusama (the script is pretty bad), I don’t totally accept her throwing it under the bus. As director, her job is to (as they say) make it work. And she can’t find a tone with a GPS. It’s a broad comedy for three scenes, then a straight horror movie for two, then a coming-of-age drama for a few, then back to broad comedy, etc. And while a lot of these scenes work by themselves, they just bounce off each other and it never amounts to much. It’s like she said “shit, I’ll never make this into one good feature, but maybe I can get three or four good shorts out of it”

  3. A friend of mine knew the family of the girl whose real life rape and murder served as the basis for this terrible movie. They moved out of the town where she was murdered, but they still live in California, or at least lived there some time ago.

    I actually tried to watch it for a few minutes myself, but it was not only too disgusting, but, honestly, just too stupid and too ineptly and badly made to continue. It still disgusts me that those parasites took her tragedy and made this horrible, moronic piece of filth to profit off her death.

    The girl’s family tried to sue the band that inspired the murderers back then. They spoke of the band’s lyrics, how their songs encouraged the listeners to do things like “sacrifice the virgin, stab her, cut the throat of the bitch” and that fuelled the killers. I wasn’t sure about that law suit, but obviously her poor parents were just so anguished back then that they needed someone whom they could personally blame and take to justice, as the killers themselves were obviously being prosecuted by the state. As much as I’m not sure about that law suit against the band, they certainly should have sued the makers of this trash instead. Maybe that’s why those parasites waited so many years after the murder with this wretched movie, to make sure that her family would just want to move past the tragedy, rather than sue them.

  4. I watched this for the first time two years ago and really enjoyed it. There are so few movies about female friendship and even fewer horror films. From what I’ve been told, it does capture some toxicity that comes with certain power imbalances between women.

    It does crack me up how they try to She’s All That Amanda Seyfried, who is (not to sound too much like a creep) one of the most strikingly beautiful women working in Hollywood.

    And the 9/11 satire absolutely worked for me. I don’t remember exactly if it was okay to mock the self-importance of the public reaction to 9/11 when the film came out, but I’m pretty sure it was still kind of taboo. So that was a real ballsy move. Good on them.

  5. Milva, I had to look up what you were talking about. If it’s the one I found an article about, there is just no reason to believe the movie has anything to do with that murder. Stories and urban legends about heavy metal bands doing satanic sacrifices have existed since at least the ’80s – in fact, I once did a review series called “Slasher Search Rocks” that was all movies along those lines, all made a good decade or more before the real life tragedy you’re claiming this is based on. JENNIFER’S BODY is a supernatural story that plays off of that rock ‘n roll satanism trope, but otherwise nothing about it seems remotely similar. For example, as I discussed in the review, they are not a heavy metal band. These guys are definitely not into Slayer.

  6. Yeah, forgive me if I’m not remembering correctly, but I thought the satanist/sacrifice stuff was just generally referencing the ’80s ‘satan panic’ trend in heavy metal.

    That said, I do agree with Kusama that satirizing the Warwick nightclub fire kind of left a real acrid taste in my mouth

  7. PS: I would just link to the interview, but due to the search engine’s newfound love of burying anything over a year old, I’m having problems finding it. But for clarifications sake, it isn’t just a rant against the script, MANY factors end up under the bus (as Vern mentions above: the fact she thought she was making a movie for teenage girls only to find it marketed to teenage boys, some “out of the box” ideas they had for said marketing — including, but not limited to — Fox doing a chat on a porn site. Not Maxim, mind you. But a hardcore porn site)

  8. I’m in the same boat as Maggie on this one. Watched this movie for the first time last October after years of hearing it was terrible, then more recently years of hearing it was an unsung classic. Yeah, I wouldn’t go that far. Interesting but flawed movie that stands out as one of the few lady-centric horror movies, and one of the few movies in general that explores a toxic female friendship, but the sum is less than the parts. And someone else mentioned Ginger Snaps, which I just so happened to rewatch for the first time in 10+ years a few days before I watched Jennifer’s Body for the first time. It’s not fair to compare, because I think at this point for most horror fans agree Ginger Snaps is a stone-cold classic, but seeing Jennifer’s Body in such close proximity made its flaws even more noticeable.

  9. When it came out in 2009, Jennifer’s Body was one of a couple movies and TV shows around then whose marketing and press hyped up a girl-on-girl kiss to titillate teenage boys, whether or not it was all that consequential in the actual story. I’m thinking of Elektra, The OC, and a dozen or so TV shows that had a “lesbian kiss” episode (there’s an entire wikipedia article for this trope). Usually it’s got nothing to do with a character exploring something they like or want or need, to say nothing of genuine emotional connection. But J’s B is different.

    Years later, the people who lead the charge in reclaiming and re-examining this movie have been, overwhelmingly, Gay cis and trans women who love horror. I suspect that’s because it folds a pretty authentic glimpse at quintessential gay girl pining into genuine emotional stakes. And Vern, I think your comment about the “lack of clarity” in how deep their attraction actually runs kinda nails it. It adds a really interesting, emotional, painful new dimension to the whole third act (almost a plot twist/”shit just got real” moment) when you realize just how complicated, layered, and maybe even *confused* Needy’s feelings about Jennifer really have been. And that’s a pretty gnarly thing for the monster wearing your best friend’s skin to start toying around with.

  10. That brings up an obvious question I didn’t think to ask: is she just a monster disguised as Jennifer? I thought of her as Jennifer turning into the monster, but maybe that’s incorrect.

  11. Vern, I think it’s Jennifer turning into a monster.

  12. Strongest memory of this is that I recall a non-zero number of lesbian friends who were disappointed that it wasn’t more along the lines of The Crow or a werewolf movie, with Jennifer trying to get revenge on Low Shoulder or cure herself and Needy trying to prevent her from hurting innocent people. Not sure if I’d go so far as to say it was a bait-switch, because I recall the ad campaign was pretty clear on Jennifer being the monster, but I suppose it would’ve been easy to get your hopes up in a time when there weren’t many lesbian movies. And, from hearing the premise, you’d think Low Shoulder would be a bigger deal in the story than just wandering off to get their comeuppance during the credits.

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