My Better Half Has Bitten Me | Revisiting Jennifer’s Body

That Karyn Kusama and Diablo Cody’s Jennifer’s Body (2009) is now a re-excavated post-#MeToo classic has become a bit of a trope, albeit one rooted in undeniable truths. Buzzfeed’s picked up on it two years ago, so that just about seals the mainstreamification of that take, and I’m glad it all panned out that way, don’t get me wrong.

But neither should that smoothen out its punkier bona fides. This is a film whose title and overall thematic contours are drawn from a song by Hole, after all… one that’s culled from its early-90s sophomore album Live Through This (1994), itself a solid-gold piece of early post-grunge whose inherent quality transcends any reputational iffiness that the legacy of Courtney Love carries with it. 

In many ways, I think it also course-corrects the riskily schmaltzy elements of Diablo Cody’s breakthrough, Juno (2007), by passing them through the B-movie horror lens. Yes, the film’s marketing department contributed to its initially dismal box office and critical performance by relying too much on the cheaply exploitative Megan Fox-isms; playing to the peanut gallery of horny teenage boys by presenting her demonically posessed man-eater character as something akin to Natasha Henstridge’s murderous alien seductress in 1995’s Species.

Apart from the now-documented sexism and idiocy that underpinned this entire marketing debacle, it must also be said that they missed a trick in other ways. There is certainly a schlocky exploitation element to Jennifer’s Body, but it’s informed by the same strain of subversive, tongue-in-cheek humour and cheekiness that characterises a lot of the vintage horror cinema that Cody and Kusama doubtlessly draw energy from. That its overlaid with Cody’s now-trademark crackling dialogue provides an added layer of cool, self-aware appeal, but its dark, disemboweling overtones ensure that it doesn’t slip into Juno’s sometimes grating over-cuteness. 

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Sated and well-fed: Megan Fox in Jennifer’s Body (2009)

After demonic-Jennifer claims her first on-screen victim, the unfortunate teenage boy’s father responds to the police’s promises that they will do their utmost to catch the perpetrator (whom they automatically and tellingly assume to be male) with a hilarious counter-missive: “I’ll get him myself! I will! You hear me, you bastard? I’ll cut off your nutsack and nail it to my door! Like one of those lion doorknockers rich folks got! That’ll be your balls!” 

But Jennifer’s Body will also continue to survive by dint of its sneakily truthful exploration of female friendship, and problematic ‘sisterhood’ as expressed during the turbulent high school years.

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Don’t you know that I’m toxic? Amanda Seyfried and Megan Fox in Jennifer’s Body (2009)

It’s rightly hailed as a feminist film, but it sugar-coats nothing, in a way that ties into its erstwhile spiritual predecessor: John Fawcett’s Ginger Snaps (2000), in which this time literal sisters are forced apart when one of them succumbs to lycanthropy – a metaphor that once again plays out as the supernatural pushing already-latent hormonal angst into overdrive. (Film Geek Six Degrees of Separation Time: Ginger Snaps’ Emily Perkins has a cameo as a memorably disinterested abortion clinic clerk in Juno). 

Even prior to her demonic posession, Jennifer is a domineering, gaslighting presence for Amanda Seyfried’s aptly-monikered Needy – and it is Needy’s arc that we end up rooting for in the end, after she sheds her co-dependence on Jennifer to truly claim her full agency.

But the undeniable toxicity of their relationship does not in any way dampen the violation Jennifer suffers at the hands of the Satan-courting band Low Shoulder, who attempt to use her assumed virginity to seal a demonic pact that will secure their future success. That they get their just desserts by Needy’s hand in the end is not down to the mousy protagonist pathetically avenging ther domineering ex-friend. She does it for all womankind, not just for Jennifer’s sake. 

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A heroine we barely deserve: Amanda Seyfriend as Needy in Jennifer’s Body (2009)

Now it wouldn’t be entirely right to cast Jennifer’s Body as some sort of all-out gritty underground cult gem: while a lot of us agree that it was misunderstood and maltreated both from within and without upon release, it remains a sleek piece of mainstream horror top-billed by then white-hot Megan Fox and Amanda Seyfried (both, let’s be frank, squeezed a bit too tightly into teenage roles that we’ll have to squint a bit to believe).

But even then, the very fact that it was produced by 20th Century Fox and given the spit-polished star treatment is likely what it led to it being shish-kebabbed on arrival, as this inevitably leads to it being catapulted into a rarified atmosphere of corporate bullshit whose baseline expectations have zero to do with memorable storytelling. Kusama and Cody did NOT play ball with this one. And thank the demonic deities for that. 

*** 

I rewatched Jennifer’s Body after a day of packing more of our flat into boxes and suitcases for an imminent move to another apartment, in the peak of summer no less. This is both a physical and emotional struggle in many ways, so a degree of rawness at the end of the day is to be expected.

It certainly made me more vulnerable  to the  layers of nostalgia that this 2009 film is now riddled with: the references to MySpace, Low Shoulder tapping into the emo craze (see also: the Fall Out Boy poster on Jennifer’s bedroom wall), Needy’s schlubby boyfriend Chip using “everyone [at that bar] has a mustache” as a pejorative. 

A lot has changed in 11 years. 

 

Eternal Frankenstein read-a-thon #3 | Siobhan Carroll

In the coming weeks, I will be reviewing the new Word Horde anthology Eternal Frankenstein, edited by Ross E. Lockhart. As was the case with my read-a-thon of Swords v Cthulhu, I will be tackling the anthology story by story, and my reviewing method will be peppered with the cultural associations that each of these stories inspire. These will be presented with no excuse, apology or editorial justification.

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Thermidor by Siobhan Carroll

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein has inspired dreams and nightmares about weird science and body modification, but let’s not forget that at the core of this much-referenced Gothic text is a tortured meditation on what it means to be human… and what it means to be its opposite.

If a creature is made from scratch with very little reference points to guide it, what does it think and feel? This is the tragedy of the Creature — a shambling creation in more ways than one, improvising his way through a makeshift life with only sporadic successes along the way.

But the Creature’s problematic physical make-up is nothing when compared to the chilly and nervous reaction of Victor Frankenstein to his creation. It shocked me to listen to Kenneth Branagh describe Victor as intrinsically a “good man”, while he talked about the thought process behind his own take on Shelley’s novel in a Charlie Rose interview, because while Frankenstein may be many things, I struggle to imagine him fitting into even the most liberal of ‘good man’ molds.

In fact, one of the main strands of the novel, to me, is Victor’s chronic inability to take responsibility for what he did — to allow himself to feel enough empathy to accept the Creature’s pain as a legitimate enough sign of his humanity.

So apart from its oft-propagated Gothic trappings and monster-movie-ready fodder, Frankenstein is a story about dehumanization, from both ends of the scale: the abjection of the creature exists as a result of Victor’s callousness, or denial of all of the things that should bind the two together in mutual understanding and love.

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All this being said, Siobhan Carroll isn’t shy to indulge in a variety of cosmetic thrills that Frankenstein brings up, and neither does she resist making some delicious intertextual and historical connections to dream up her merciless little tale.

But by connecting Victor Frankenstein to the Marquis de Sade — using the name ‘Justine’ common to both Shelley’s text and Sade’s oeuvre — Carroll betrays a sensitivity to how dehumanization is what infects Victor’s project from the word go.

Like Sade’s own early novel Justine: The Misfortunes of Virtue — which takes place just at the brink of this key moment in history — Carroll’s story is saturated in the spirit of Revolutionary France, as seen over the shoulder of Justine — a character whom we could more or less equate to a Bride of Frankenstein figure. To wit: she procures still-breathing bodies for her master, who in this case is not a nervous weakling but a scientist who views torture as a necessary part of the experimental procedure.

Being a product of the very processes she helps enable Justine is in a perfect position to show how chilling lack of empathy can really be. And the story’s most intriguing passages concern her faded, ghostly rememberance of empathy past, when she sees but doesn’t feel previous pain and fails to put two and two together upon witnessing the suffering of others.

This is also a subaltern story in many ways, with Justine catching on to the Victor’s — aka the patriarchy’s — privileged and exploitative ways. But because she’s hard to sympathise with for obvious reasons, Justine’s ideological struggle makes for complex reading.

Like Shelley’s novel, Carroll’s story is about humanity at its outer limits, and throwing Sade into the mix feels like a logical extension of that literary experiment.

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