The Horrors of Adolescent Female Bodies & Bonding in Jennifer’s Body (2009)

At first glance, the 2009 horror film Jennifer’s Body doesn’t fully display the feminist credentials that would be expected from a film of its pedigree.  After the critical and commercial success of Juno, Academy Award Winner for Best Screenplay, it may have been a surprising career move for in-demand screenwriter Diablo Cody to follow up her modest independent debut with a 20th Century Fox-distributed horror film starring famed sex symbol and Michael Bay muse Megan Fox.  Karyn Kusama could also have been accused of slumming it as the film’s director, given the prestige of her own debut film Girlfight, a Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner.  As collaborators on the picture, however, Cody and Kusama were able to covertly deliver a subversive feminist horror film in Jennifer’s Body, despite the oversight of the male-dominated business of major studio filmmaking that backed the project.  Jennifer’s Body has the look and feel of countless other slickly-produced major studio horrors from the mid to late 2000s.  Its mixed reviews and underwhelming box office returns posit it as a misfire for 20th Century Fox, one with no more vital feminist or cultural subtext than any other 2009 horror mediocrities, like Saw VI or the Friday the 13th remake.  Jennifer’s Body’s expensive production values, studio-driven marketing, and employment of Megan Fox in its titular role distract from the feminist subtext of the story it tells, but it’s still a work driven by two behind-the-camera female artists who are directly exploring subjects specific to the modern female experience.  Specifically, Jennifer’s Body utilizes the destructive power of pubescent female bodies and the intensity of adolescent female friendships as direct sources for its horror, something that may not be immediately apparent on the surface.

One of the ways Jennifer’s Body subverts audience expectations of a major studio horror film starring the often-objectified Megan Fox is by incorporating the actor’s objectification into its text.  As suggested in the title, the film is specifically about her body, not her soul or unique personality, which was pointed out by A.O. Scott in his review for the New York Times.  This focus on Megan Fox’s physique was attractive to 20th Century Fox’s marketing machine, who completely misunderstood the intention of Cody and Kusama’s work.  Shockingly, the studio suggested that Fox promote Jennifer’s Body by participating in online chat rooms through popular pornographic websites to appeal directly to the men who might be pruriently compelled to see her onscree.  The idea was shot down before it was ever suggested to Fox in sincerity, but it does exemplify the types of marketing schemes she was asked to participate in after becoming an object of desire in Michael Bay’s Transformers series.  Jennifer’s Body does not ignore the celebrity baggage that comes with casting Fox in its titular role, but rather incorporates it into its basic composition.  In the film, a bumbling nerd played by Amanda Seyfried ogles Jennifer’s body just as much as the heterosexual teen boys in their high school class, even though she is Jennifer’s best friend and not just a casual admirer.  The friendship between the two central characters, Jennifer (Fox) and the playfully-named “Needy” (Seyfried), is depicted to be just as horrifyingly intense as the film’s explicit acts of supernatural violence, but there is also clearly a sexual attraction component built into their dynamic.  Jennifer is universally desired by her peers the way Fox was presented as an object of desire in the real-world media at large (including among this film’s own marketing team) and that intense allure instigates most of the film’s horrific dangers.

Being widely sexually desired is only the start of the terror lurking in Jennifer’s body.  Like with many coming of age horror films set in teenage environments, the film relies heavily on the real-world body horrors associated with puberty and the developing body.  Unlike the film Ginger Snaps, which uses the traditionally masculine metaphor of werewolf transformations to represent its own female puberty body horror crisis, Jennifer’s Body notably adopts the myth of the succubus, which is historically coded as feminine.  Both films apply the tropes of curse and possession not only to the horrors of werewolves and succubi, but to the specifically female condition and the burgeoning sexuality of their protagonists. Ginger’s monstrous form just happens to be a werewolf, which less specifically coded to be female than the succubus.  In most folklore, the succubus is a female demon that drives men insane and into poor health through coerced and repetitive sexual intercourse, essentially functioning as a deadly seductress.  Jennifer’s transformation into a succubus is presented in Jennifer’s Body as involuntary, much like the body horror ritual of puberty. After pursuing a traveling rock band as a hopeful groupie, Jennifer is forced into the role of a live sacrifice for the band’s Satanic ritual, which is botched when they discover she is not a virgin.  A lesser film might have focused more heavily on the grotesqueness of the band’s attitudes towards female sexuality in this moment and spent much more time gleefully depicting their comeuppance, but Jennifer’s Body is mainly concerned with the fallout of Jennifer’s subsequent monster transformation than any kind of traditional revenge narrative.  Becoming a succubus is a side effect of the band’s failed ritual and the symptoms of this transformation show largely in the ways puberty normally manifests in teenage, cisgender female bodies.  The typically ebullient Jennifer is drained of energy, thin-haired, oily-skinned, and just generally not her meticulously perfect Megan Fox self after her transformation into a succubus.  As a metaphor for pubescent transformation, her newfound life as a succubus has robbed her of the power she once enjoyed as the most attractive girl in her high school class.  She does find new, dangerous power in the demonic sexual energy the transformation affords her, however.  Picking on the “nice guy” social outcasts who treat her like an unobtainable sex symbol from afar, Jennifer discovers that she can regain her power and her gorgeous looks by seducing and literally feeding off male victims, which magically restores her vitality and sex appeal. Jennifer may have “preyed” on men prior to her transformation, but her curse creates an extreme situation where her behavior is more horrific and she becomes even more physically attractive (both to the audience and to her subsequent victims).  As with many horror films, Jennifer’s Body leans heavily on the transgression of teenage sexuality as an instigator and justification for its onscreen violence.  The film subverts this trope significantly by having this newfound, dangerous sexuality tragically forced upon its titular killer by the men around her as opposed to something she chose for fun or to satisfy curiosity.  Her newfound sexual potency is no more of a choice or a boon than the horrors of puberty and the male gaze, whether it makes her more powerful or not.

Since pubescent body horror is often explored through monster movie metaphors in high school-set horror films, Jennifer’s Body is much more unique as a feminist horror work in the way it explores the terrifying intensity of adolescent female friendships.  As the protagonist, Needy describes her relationship with Jennifer as long-term “sand box love,” meaning they have been best friends since they were young enough to play in sand boxes together.  The introduction of pubescent hormones and sexual relationships with boys drives the usual wedges between them you’d expect from a coming of age teen girl narrative, but Cody and Kusama focus more on the intensity of Needy and Jennifer’s relationship itself than what would typically be explored in a male artist’s version of the same narrative.  Jennifer and Needy are overly sensitive to each other’s actions and opinions.  Skepticism and disgust over each other’s chosen sexual partners drives most of their verbal conflicts, but mainly because they are unhealthily possessive of each other’s bodies.  They emotionally bully and abuse each other in subtle, long-term ways that feel more appropriate of a decades-old bad marriage than a friendship between teenagers.  This only gets worse once Jennifer’s murderous impulses as a succubus seem to specifically target male partners Needy has expressed romantic interest in, either verbally or through body language.  This tendency is more than just a petty tactic to display the dominance Jennifer’s traditional beauty affords her over Needy; it’s also designed to provoke a detectable reaction out of her, the way an emotional abuser looks for satisfaction in visible proof that they hold power over their victim.  In turn, Needy attempts to claim power over Jennifer’s body by offering to “cure” her of the succubus “curse,” at least in the original screenplay.  In a deleted scene, Needy appeals to Jennifer’s sense of morality by pointing out that her newfound powers come with an unfair cost: a sizable body count.  Jennifer retorts that she’s not killing people, just boys, whom she does not value as anything but playthings and sources of power.  Although casual sex is substituted with murder in this scenario, the exchange is clearly coded as Needy trying to exert control over Jennifer’s choices in how she relates to sexual partners and uses her own body, which is essentially none of Needy’s business. Jennifer and Needy are unhealthily obsessed with one another, which is an aspect of adolescent female friendships that isn’t often explored in any mass media, much less major studio horror films.

The most glaring wrinkle in the subtle, nuanced ways Jennifer’s Body explores the horrific intensity of female adolescent friendships is in how the film depicts queer desire.  Needy’s awe of Jennifer is apparent as soon as the first scene of the film and she often leers at her friend’s physical beauty from the same distant admirer vantage point as the heterosexual boys in their high school class.  It’s only natural, then, that her queer romantic desire of Jennifer would be explicitly addressed onscreen at some point in the film.  It’s not at all an extraneous or tongue-in-cheek intrusion on the story.  Cody and Kusama play much of the central characters’ relationship as sincere melodrama, which Kusama describes on a recent episode of Switchblade Sisters as “the nightmare of obsessive relationships between girls [that] can make or break you,” a genuine conflict that’s meant to be taken even more seriously than the film’s often humorous demonic kills.  That’s why it’s so bizarre that the same-sex kiss shared between Needy and Jennifer feels so passionless and seeped in the male gaze.  Shot with the over-the-top production values of a music video, their single kiss as a pairing is treated as a moment worthy of pornographic leering from the audience instead of a genuine dramatic beat within the context of the story.  It’s as if the salacious businessmen of the film’s marketing team had stepped into the director’s chair for a single shot, drowning out Cody and Kusama’s voices with a heap of studio notes on how best to sell the romantic exchange as a sexual commodity.  What’s even more alarming is the way Needy and Jennifer’s kiss is immediately followed by a moment of what’s often described as “gay panic.”  It’s possible to read Needy’s freaked-out reaction to her out of nowhere sexual encounter with Jennifer as an extension of her general horror with the changes brought on by her best friend’s body (and its corresponding body count), but by recoiling in fear from the brief exchange she pushes the film into participating in a harmful homophobic trope that persists in media at large.  The real shame of that stumbling block is that the queer desire shared between Needy and Jennifer is a legitimate facet of the script that does deserve onscreen exploration.  In the film Heavenly Creatures, the two young female protagonists’ budding sexual obsession with one another, which is notably not played for titillation, is also a means of exploring class issues and socio-economic envy.  By contrast, the homoerotic scene in Jennifer’s Body is played for pure audience arousal, with none of the thematic weight it easily could have carried.  It’s embarrassingly mishandled in a way that exemplifies the studio tinkering that muddled the film’s feminist themes in a myriad of ways, from conception to post-production marketing.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that Jennifer’s Body manages to subvert the expectation of major studio horror filmmaking with meaningful feminist themes.  Not only does a collaboration between Diablo Cody and Karyn Kusama already suggest the likelihood of that accomplishment, but the film also telegraphs its intent by borrowing its name from a Hole song and opening with the line, “Hell is a teenage girl.”  Still, it’s a miracle that a film this heavily subjected to major studio influence could extend its feminist worldview beyond the surface level power of a female monster violently destroying the men who ogle her.  The expected tropes of coming of age body horror, punishment for transgressive sexuality, and revenge for unwanted sexual advances are all incorporated into Cody’s screenplay, but the film still carves out its own thematic space in the horror landscape by focusing on the intense female friendship between its two leads.  As many boys as Jennifer kills in her quest to restore her energy and make her hair shiny again, none are ever as significant to the dramatic plot as her relationship with Needy, a long-term obsession that extends beyond romance into an entirely different, terrifying realm.  The bond between adolescent female friends drives just as much of the tension in Jennifer’s Body as the kills and the horrors of puberty.  That dynamic is not the flashiest or most immediately apparent aspect of Jennifer’s Body; it’s often overwhelmed by the demonic kills and leering at Megan Fox’s physique that would typically be expected of most major studio horrors in the film’s position.  It’s what makes the film unique as a feminist text, however, and its positioning as the heart of the film was entirely intentional on the part of Cody and Kusama. They knew what they were doing, even if the studio behind them did not.

-CC Chapman

XX (2017)

Traditional horror anthologies are difficult to critique as an artform since they often leave a lot of room for error in experimentation. Recent films like Trick ‘r Treat & Southbound have modernized the horror anthology format into a familiar everything-is-connected structure that used to be a go-to for indie dramas in the mid 00s. This allows characters & storylines to cross paths & blend borders so that each short story segment coagulates into one all-encompassing gestalt. A more traditional horror anthology format would keep each of these segments rigidly separated, connected only through a wraparound buffer. Isolating each segment usually means that the film’s overall value as a collection is often ignored in favor of critiquing each individual story on their own terms. I don’t, for instance, knock Creepshow as a whole just because I despise the segment where Stephen King plays a hick farmer or dismiss Twilight Zone: The Movie because of John Landis or Stephen Spielberg’s duds of contributions. Instead, I tend to forget to even recall those segments and focus entirely on the short form experiments that did work for me: the Howard Hughes archetype who’s terrorized by roaches, that ludicrous Joe Dante segment with the cartoon demons, etc. Horror anthologies, like sketch or improv comedy, allow directors to take big chances in small doses. When these short form experiments pay off, they can be seared in your brain forever. When they fall flat, it’s easy to forget they even exist, which leaves little impact on the overall quality of the anthologies that contain them.

XX is the rare kind of horror anthology where each individual experiment pays off. Four concise, slickly directed, but stylistically varied horror shorts each take a chance on a premise rich enough to justify an 80 minute feature’s leg room, but is instead boiled down to a digestible, bite-sized morsel. The stories are connected only by a delicately beautiful stop-motion wraparound (seemingly inspired by the stop motion animation classic Alice) and the gender of their directors, but together form a solid unit of efficient, effective horror filmmaking where every moving part manages to pull its own weight. The four female filmmakers involved in the project (five if you include the wraparound’s animator Sofia Carrillo) worked independently of each other, unaware of the ways their own contributions might visually or thematically overlap. This goes against recent pushes to homogenize anthology segments into a single everything-is-connected unit (a style at least partly pioneered by one of XX‘s contributors, Southbound producer/co-director Roxanne Benjamin), but feels very much in line with horror anthology classics, not to mention the horror comics like Tales from the Crypt & Tales from the Darkside that inspired them. As a contribution to the horror anthology as a medium & a tradition, XX is a winning success in two significant ways: each individual segment stands on its own as a worthwhile sketch of a larger idea & the collection as a whole functions only to provide breathing room for those short-form experiments. On top of all that, XX also boasts the added bonus of employing five women in directorial roles, something that’s sadly rare in any cinematic tradition, not just horror anthologies.

Although their connections are entirely incidental, three of the four stories told in XX touch on motherhood and the anxiety of raising children in their respective segments. Karyn Kusama’s “Her Only Living Son” makes a parent’s fear of their own child a literal threat. Kusama shows her chops as the most accomplished director of the batch (last year’s The Invitation is a must-see) by expertly building tension between a single mother in hiding and her increasingly beastly teenage son. The opening segment, “The Box” is a lot less literal with this anxiety, ruminating on the ways raising children can suck the life out you in a spiritual, philosophical sense reminiscent of a classic Twilight Zone episode or the music video for Radiohead’s “Just. Annie Clark (of St. Vincent, guitar-shredding fame) directs the always-welcome Melanie Lynskey in the segment “The Birthday Party,” which lightens the mood of the motherhood anxiety by ending on its own music video style comedic punchline involving a death at a child’s birthday/costume party. The only outlier of the bunch is “Don’t Fall,” a motherless creature feature set on a camping trip that goes horrifically wrong when a young group of cityfolk desecrate sacred ground in the wild. It’d be understandable to argue that having one outlier in an otherwise thematically​ cohesive collection somewhat dampens XX‘s overall value as an anthology. I just see it as a natural part of horror anthology tradition, where uneven, off-kilter variance in themes & mode of expression is a highlight & an asset, not a drawback. One (competently made) outlier like “Don’t Fall” is just as much of a necessary feature for XX to feel like an old-school horror anthology as its rigid, animated wraparound buffers or its individualized title cards. It’s perfect in the way it invites imperfection into what shouldn’t be a tightly controlled environment in the first place.

I can’t objectively say exactly why XX struck such a chord with me while it’s left a lot of critics lukewarm or even bitterly cold. Some of my personal resonation might be linked to the way certain titles or themes echo the accomplishments of movies I already dearly love without retreading any of the same ground. “The Box” & “The Birthday Party” in particular share names with two of my all-time favorite features (directed by Richard Kelly & William Friedkin, respectively) and Karyn Kusama’s contribution functions as a semi-sequel to another one of my personal favorites (in print and onscreen) so well that even speaking its name might be a kind of spoiler. This sense of tradition obviously also extends into the way XX follows the rigidly segmented format of horror anthology past, recalling some all-time greats like Mario Bava’s Black Sabbath and (a recent discovery for me) Necronomicon: Book of the Dead. My appreciation of this feature-length collection might be even more simple than that, though. From the way food is dreamily framed in “The Box” to the way sound design is playfully jarring in “The Birthday Party” to the way the whole world crumbles around us in “Her Only Living Son” to the basic creature feature surface pleasures of “Don’t Fall,” there’s something worth latching onto in each segment of XX, some feature that can never outwear its welcome or play itself too thin thanks to the temporal limitations of its format. I find great, long-lasting pleasure in that, especially in the way each experiment becomes more sketched out as I mull them over in my mind long after the credits roll. It’s a damn good horror anthology in that way.

-Brandon Ledet

The Invitation (2016)

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fourstar

“There’s something strange going on here and no one is saying anything.”

I may have mentioned once or a thousand times that one of my favorite plot structures is what I’ve dubbed “The Party Out of Bounds”: a story where guests at an initially civil social event stick it out once the party goes awry, held either by force or by free will, despite the very apparent fact that they should just call it a night. There have been a few great examples of Party Out of Bounds films from this year, ranging from the seething personal drama of A Bigger Splash to the go-for-broke absurdist horrors of High-Rise, but the straight-to-Netflix mystery thriller The Invitation feels like it might be the most pure & to-the-point distillation of what makes the formula work I’ve seen all of 2016. Director Karyn Kusama (Jennifer’s Body, Girlfight) & company stage their cruel, eerie mystery at a red wine & old friends dinner party that gets increasingly more disturbing by the minute as the alcohol takes hold & the conversations get morose. The major variation on the traditional Party Out of Bounds story structure in The Invitation is that only one party guest seems to notice the sinister vibes at play as his fellow partiers pass off his terror & concern as mere paranoia. This lends the film a very focused mode of psychological horror sometimes absent from films of its ilk, which makes it a unique watch even if I can boil down its basic premise & gimmick down to a well-worn trope (one that I just happen to be a sucker for).

A man travels with his new girlfriend to an ex’s home for a dinner party with friends he hasn’t seen in two years. As an outsider, his new girlfriend feels the need to overcompensate & break the silence among other party guests, but he remains stoic & pensively surveys a home where he used to live. In his own silent way, our protagonist wrestles with two distinct conflicts: a past trauma that occurred in the home that dissolved his former romance & his past lover’s new life in what appears from the outside to be some kind of sex cult. There’s a hippie niceness to his hosts’ “everything is beautiful” mode of oversexed, dazed gushing that’s eerie in contrast with the darkness their home recalls, made worse by vague platitudes like, “Pain is optional,” and “I am different. I am free. All that useless pain, it’s gone.” The protagonist senses a life-threatening danger disguised as “hospitality”, but stays to see the party through anyway, allowing for dual slow reveals of exactly what past trauma occurred in his host’s home as well as the full scope of the cult-like crowd, known simply as The Invitation, his ex has seemingly become involved with. As the partiers continuously open bottle after bottle of wine & the past gradually seeps in to inform the underlying menace of the present, our audience surrogate struggles to open his fellow guests’ eyes to what he perceives as imminent doom. So much of the satisfaction in these What’s Really Going On Here? plots depends on the strength of the films’ conclusions. The Invitation makes good on the dread of the sex & violence teased & promised throughout, but when & how the hammer falls is up for question for the entire runtime in what feels like a deliberate, sinister ritual carried out by some not-what-they-seem hippies & witnessed only by one observant party guest.

The isolation of the main character’s skepticism makes The Invitation feel just as much like a psychological horror as it does a reverse home invasion thriller (where the victim is invited as a guest to the threatening stranger’s home). With the production value just as cheap as the fictional party’s wine looks expensive, The Invitation has a way of feeling like everything’s happening inside of its protagonist’s head as he works through painful memories in a storied space, as if he’s navigating a nightmare or a session of hypnotherapy. Thankfully, the film goes to a much more interesting & terrifying place than an it-was-all-just-a-dream reveal, but the psychological torment of the film’s nobody-believes-me terror adds a layer of meaning & emotional impact that would be absent without that single-character specificity. Outside a few character actors like Toby Huss & John Carroll Lynch, even the film’s performances can come across a little cheap & artificial, but still function to enhance the way that artificiality informs the film’s psychological torment & nightmare vibes. Details like a focus on the grotesqueries of guests drinking & chewing, the strange talisman of a birthday cake, and the color-coded divisions between the past & present are just as suffocating & confining as the film’s locked doors & barred windows, as they trap  in the mind of a guest at a Party Out of Bounds who just. will. not. leave. The Invitation might not be as formally well-crafted as similar confined space thrillers frpm this year like Green Room & 10 Cloverfield Lane, but its seemingly congenial setting & psychological horror leanings make it a much stranger, more singular experience than those films can sometimes be, however cheaply made.

-Brandon Ledet