It’s funny, the word choice in the title of Jennifer’s Body, the gory horror-comedy from, improbably enough, the writer and producers of Juno, 2007’s teen pregnancy comedy. Just what is it about Jennifer’s body—aside from the fact that it happens to belong to babe du jour Megan Fox—that merits its inclusion in the title? If you look past the film’s pop occult affectations, its friendly but persistent take-downs of youth culture, and the tongue-in-cheek tone that seems required of all horror films these days (excepting, for whatever reason, Rube Goldberg murder films like the Saw series), what you have is a movie that is two parts conventional horror picture, one part essay on the objectification of women in movies and life.
Jennifer Check (Fox) is a curvaceous, smoky-eyed cheer captain and man-eater (first figuratively, then literally) in a small Midwestern high school. One night, she and her best friend, Anita “Needy” Lesnicky (Amanda Seyfried) go to a local bar to see a slumming indie band perform, and Jennifer winds up being abducted by the band, who have mistaken her for a virgin (“There’s one in every town,” the lead singer, played by Adam Brody, tells his bandmates. “They show it off but they don’t give it up.”). They intend to take her to the woods to use her in ritual sacrifice to Satan in order to further their career; they kill her, but Jennifer doesn’t die. She returns from the woods bloody and puking, endowed with supernatural powers that make killing and eating the town’s young boys not just a pleasure but a physical requirement. We see it all unfold through Needy’s eyes as she worries for and then tries to stop her friend.
The friendship between Jennifer and Needy is never remotely plausible, nor is it meant to be. Needy is sweet, plain and bookish, and lives on the fringes of high school society (only in a Hollywood version of reality could Seyfried, a doe-eyed beauty, be the plain girl; it works only because of the cartoonish sex appeal of Fox), and we’re asked to believe that their bond is based in a childhood friendship which feels dysfunctional even in its few hazy flashbacks. But never could these two people be high school friends—the rules of the high school jungle generally forbid it. It’s all beside the point, as Jennifer is not a character as much as an idea—the objectified woman carried to an extreme that’s often funny, sometimes frightening, and even, occasionally, insightful. Her body really is the focus here.
Megan Fox is perfectly cast not in spite of but because of her dramatic limitations. Here on furlough from Michael Bay’s continuing masturbatory fantasies, Fox’s Jennifer is all body, no personality. What little texture she has is directly related to her awesome, nubile perfection—the loose, pouty mouth, the glowing skin, and the show-stoppingly proportionate figure (I will resist calling her body “titular”)—and her awareness of it. She is vain, self-obsessed, desperate, cruel, insensitive, and ultimately monstrously insecure (giving her best friend the nickname “Needy” might be the screenplay’s crowning ironic and tactical achievement). This flatness is not a failure of the screenplay, but its design. The film belongs to Needy, not Jennifer, if for no other reason than spending two hours with Jennifer would be a trying experience.
Part of the fun of horror movies is figuring out the subtexts are beneath the rote genre conventions. George Romero’s zombies are not just zombies, after all, and Ishiro Honda wasn’t merely entertaining his audience when he gave them Godzilla, a giant, city-destroying monster that came from the U.S.’s general direction less than a decade after we’d dropped the bomb on Japan. Horror movies, even bad ones, tend to be shot through with primal anxiety. What, then, of Jennifer’s need to consume young boys? When she has gone too long without feeding, her hair grows limp, rings appear beneath her eyes, and the make-up department fails to apply foundation, lipstick or mascara. In short, she begins to look like everyone else, stripped of her relevance and meaning. The only way to restore her sex appeal—and, indeed, her sense of self-worth and her ability to strut down the hallway in slow-motion—is to feed again.
This ghoulish predicament is not entirely dissimilar from Fox’s own dilemma as a fixture of the Transformers franchise, whose audience is surely comprised mostly of high school boys who come to the film to see her. If viewers of Jennifer’s Body, presumably as accustomed to verisimilitude as everyone else, balk at the one-dimensional emptiness of Jennifer’s character, then the film has more or less done its job. Her lack of dimension could be considered the film’s main statement.
Director Karyn Kusama approaches the material effectively but with minimal flair, balancing constrictive framing during the suspenseful sequences with a series of symmetrical, calm, often quite beautiful shots during lulls in the action (a shot of Jennifer swimming across a pond at sunrise, for example, is striking and eerie). Kusama is no stranger to strong female characters, having directed 2000’s Girlfight and 2005’s Aeon Flux, and here she clearly understands that the strength of the material is in the cast and the screenplay. She stays out of their way. After all, what she has to work with is a movie that is gleefully, crowd-pleasingly gory, with plenty of tongue-in-cheek humor and one of the most desired female leads on the planet. If the movie also happens to ponder what it means to be such a woman–on the screen, in high school or anywhere else–all the better.