Editor's Note: This was originally published for FANGORIA on September 17, 2009, and we're proud to share it as part of The Gingold Files.
A scriptwriter who laced her hit suburban youth comedy with shout-outs to both Dario Argento and Herschell Gordon Lewis would seem to be someone whose first horror screenplay is something to scream about. Whatever one thought of Juno (personally, this reviewer loved it), the idea of Diablo Cody turning her worldview to the fright genre seemed to promise a teen chiller more knowing and sharp-edged than the norm.
Disappointingly, such is not the case with Jennifer’s Body, which is also not as sexy as one would expect from a movie in which hottie-of-the-moment Megan Fox plays a figurative turned literal maneater. With women at the helm (Girlfight’s Karyn Kusama directed Cody’s script), it’s not surprising that the film avoids simplistic exploitation of Fox’s obvious charms. But neither does it allow her to turn on the full force of her seductive powers; her high-school antiheroine Jennifer Check mostly projects a sense of aloofness and superiority as she flirts and taunts her way through Devil’s Kettle, a small town named for the combination waterfall/whirlpool in the nearby woods. It is here that a rock band with delusions of greatness via sacrifice to the devil attempt to kill Jennifer, but the act only results in her becoming inhabited by an evil presence…but I’m getting ahead of myself.
Jennifer’s best friend is blonde, bespectacled Anita (Amanda Seyfried), whose nickname “Needy” says it all when it comes to their relationship. They’ve been pals since little-girlhood, though flashbacks to those days reveal that even then, Jennifer lorded it over Needy, and not much has changed years later. On one fateful night, Jennifer convinces Needy to accompany her to a local club where the up-and-coming group Low Shoulder will be playing, and where she hopes to seduce its cute lead singer Nikolai (Adam Brody). Overhearing him discussing his preference for virgins, Jennifer somehow manages to convince him of her purity—right before a fire breaks out that destroys the place and claims numerous lives. Our two heroines manage to escape, but Jennifer quickly disappears with Low Shoulder, only to reappear in Needy’s house later in the night, beaten and bloody and spewing black yuck all over the floor.
Cody’s appropriation of the Great White concert tragedy of several years ago, and focus on how the community reacts to it, make it clear she’s addressing themes of mortality bigger than those involving Jennifer’s subsequent proclivity toward killing and eating the guts of her male classmates. These elements don’t quite click, though, and sit uneasily alongside the sequences where Jennifer seduces and bloodily cannibalizes her victims. As the young male corpses pile up in Devil’s Kettle, only Needy realizes the truth about who’s responsible—and the situation becomes even more personal when Jennifer inevitably targets Needy’s boyfriend Chip (Johnny Simmons). Yet while it’s fun on a certain level to watch Fox enact a literal bitch from hell, and Seyfried affects a touching vulnerability, the bottom line is that Jennifer’s Body is never actually scary.
The movie is somewhat more successful on a comedic level, generating dark humor from its exaggeration of mean-girl tropes, and some of Cody’s trademark snarky one-liners do stick the landing. But her pop-culture references range from well-timed to seriously misplaced (particularly during Low Shoulder’s attempted ritual), her observations about teenaged society aren’t as keen here as they were in Juno and there’s less emotional investment. The attempts to build sympathy for Jennifer, in both early moments suggesting her self-imposed emotional isolation and her subsequent possessed plight, never gel because the character remains remote throughout. One might suppose that genre newbies Cody and Kusama would bring fresh twists to the genre, but Jennifer’s Body is one of those unfortunate movies whose every key component has already been done better somewhere else. Ginger Snaps nailed the bond between teenaged girls and its shattering via supernatural transformation; the satire of how the high-school community deals with grief was far sharper in Heathers; and for a funnier view of wannabe satanic sacrificers and the virgins they require, check out Mike Mendez’s The Convent.
If this review seems to be accentuating the negative, it’s because this combination of filmmakers and concept held such enormous promise, it makes the end result seem like more of a letdown. Jennifer’s Body does maintain a basic level of entertainment—accompanied by the nagging feeling that it could have been much more, that it should have broken out to greater heights of horror and humor. What this project perhaps needed was a director who’d grab onto it as a jumping-off point for intense stylization—someone akin to, say, Dario Argento—or one who could have at least taken advantage of the opportunities it presented to burrow into grubby disreputability—like, perhaps, Herschell Gordon Lewis, only on a significantly higher budget. Instead, the material is played largely at face value, which only serves to reveal that Jennifer’s Body needed more meat on its bones.