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

Transformers (2007)

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Two cataclysmic events in my life have lead me to this desperate hour, where I’m considering watching the entirety of the live action Transformers franchise for the very first time. First, I found myself intrigued by the convoluted mythology and grave, self-obsessed tone of the trailer for the upcoming fifth entry, The Last Knight, which is being reported as the final directorial contribution to the series from explosion fetishist Michael Bay. Secondly, I recently fell in love with Bay’s 1998 disaster pic Armageddon as the beautifully constructed, spiritually corrupt Conservative fantasy piece that it truly is. These freaky, reality-shattering occurrences have lead me astray, tempted me into a den of sin. I knew it was wrong to watch Transformers, a transgression I’ve avoided for an entire decade until now, but I did so anyway. I was rightly punished for crossing that line.

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matches Armageddon‘s massive runtime and occasionally approaches its attention to heightened visual craft, but it is in no way in the same league as that morally deficient masterwork. At one point a single-scene character shouts, I kid you not, “This is a hundred times better than Armageddon, I swear to God!” They are the worst of liars. The reason that one-liner is worth mentioning is that Transformers is in many ways not an action fantasy piece, but instead the absolute worst designation any film can achieve: a failed comedy. After kicking things off with a little jingoistic Army worship, the film gleefully launches into its true bread & butter: a torrent of shitty, often offensively unfunny “jokes.” Bernie Mac plays a sleazy car salesman who repeatedly yells “Mammy!” in the broadest delivery possible. Characters are made fun of merely for speaking Spanish or Hindi as their first language. Half of the bloated runtime is dedicated to the hilarious idea that the film’s protagonist is interested in fucking Megan Fox, a pursuit the leering camera very apparently identifies with. Once the titular transforming robots show up, they join right in with both the racial caricature and the Megan Fox Is A Total Babe lines of humor. They even add a little scatilogical flavor to the painfully unfunny comedy by pissing on one of the antagonistic G-men who slow down the plot. I’d like to claim that the jokes in Transformers would only appeal to ten year old boys who don’t know any better, but the film pulled in $700 million at the box office, so I guess the joke is ultimately on me for not laughing along.

As someone who regularly enjoys and promotes the sillier, campier end of genre cinema, it goes against everything I believe to say this, but I think Transformers would have been a much better film if it actually took its own ridiculous premise seriously. As a film built around a series of Hasboro toys (shape-shifting robots from a war-ridden planet that hide among us as common automobiles), the film is already wildly goofy enough in its basic DNA that there’s no need to lighten the material with constant, insensitive bro humor. By turning every single narrative beat in the first two hours of the film into a stale joke (Heh, heh. I like it when the black robot says, “This looks like a cool place to kick it.” Heh, heh.) and opting to center its story on the human characters who encounter the robots instead of the titular alien beings everyone paid a ticket to see in the first place, it’s as if Transformers is constantly apologizing for its own existence. Assuming the audience couldn’t possibly want to actually watch the talking robots film advertised on its poster, Transformers dedicates about two thirds of its runtime to watching Shia LaBeouf feebly try to charm the (short) pants off Megan Fox. LaBeouf is convincing as a high school con man here (just as he’s convincing as an adult con man drifter in American Honey), but for some reason we’re asked to identify with his sleazy, insincere ways and laugh at his slimy, immature humor. Megan Fox is . . . less convincing as a small town high school student, but it’s not really her fault that she was cast merely to look supermodel beautiful so Michael Bay could drool at her consistently exposed midriff. Did I mention that she’s hot and a gear head? It doesn’t matter, because she’s not a talking robot alien, which is what most people paid to see.

Full disclosure: I did attempt to watch this Transformers franchise-starter when it was first released about a decade ago, but I couldn’t make it all the way through. The first 50min of the film bored me to tears and when the robots started talking I just found it too goofy and had to abandon ship. I now see how wrong I was. The first hour of Transformers is indeed still a boring humor vacuum, but the talking robots honestly aren’t all that bad. A straightforward sci-fi action film about two Cybertronic races (the Autobots and the Deceptions) fighting for possession of an intergalactic MacGuffin known simply as The Cube and debating in grave, heavy-handed speeches about whether humanity is worth saving (“Humans don’t deserve to live,” “They deserve to choose for themselves!”) doesn’t exactly sound like anything new or unique. In fact, after the Marvel takeover that’s unfolded in the years since this film’s release, it sounds like par for the course for the modern, bloated blockbuster. However, when Transformers leaves LaBeouf & Fox’s “hilarious” nonstarter romance behind for its concluding half hour of nonstop robot battles, it starts to feel like a passable slice of Hollywood entertainment. Careless destruction of property & faceless casualties pile up while Bay matches his robo explosions with a soaring, almost religious orchestral score. I’ve heard the robots’ ever-shifting, impossible transformations in these films described as a form of Cubist art before, which is a little lofty of a critical claim, but actually starts to make sense once the battle gets out of hand. Then, when it’s all over, LaBeouf & Fox make out on the hood of a robot car (which, it’s with noting, is a sentient being), reminding the audience that the film wasn’t always entertaining. In fact, most of it focused on these two dweebs for no discernible reason.

I’d be a liar if I said I didn’t enjoy any of Transformers before that concluding robo-battle. The film’s 80s-obsessed music cues were often pretty funny, especially in comparison to the jokes in the dialogue. The actress who played Shia LaBeouf’s mother, Julie White, was a total charmer in her all-too-brief performance, especially when she joins in in oggling Megan Fox’s hot bod. I even got a laugh out of two (!) Shia LaBeouf one-liners: one where he describes the Autobots as “robots, but like super advanced robots,” and another where he answers his parents’ question, “Why are you so dirty and sweaty?” with “I’m a child.” My biggest laugh in the film, though, was when a cop abruptly tells LaBeouf to shut up, since it’s exactly what I had been thinking for at least the first hour of the runtime. If all the humans of Transformers had just shut up and let the robots do the talking/battling, the film might have actually been entertaining, or at least less painfully embarrassing (it’s especially difficult not to feel bad for Jon Tuturo & Tyrese Gibson here). It’s in the climactic battle when Michael Bay really lets loose. Hundreds of human lives are squashed within minutes without a stray, momentary thought given to their loss. A steering wheel comes to life and eats a Stuck Up Rich Brat’s face. Everything explodes and is ground to dust in a lovingly shot cacophony. It’s too bad that the two hours preceding that cathartic release is embarrassed of its own nature as a Transformers film and buries its talking robots under an insurmountable mountain of ill-considered “comedy.” I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I hope future entries in the franchise take their robo-alien folklore a lot more seriously.

-Brandon Ledet

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows (2016)

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fourstar

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I’ve been a loud defender of the Michael Bay production of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles since it first oozed into theaters two years ago. I went as far as to call the film “The Best Bad Movie of 2014” & “the last five years of bad taste in a nutshell”. High praise, I know. My point was that it’s the exact kind of campy cheese that in its own trashy way reveals & documents more about the blockbuster filmmaking landscape than a more prestigious property possibly could. It’s most useful in this world was as a perfect encapsulation of our worst cinematic tendencies, a cultural relic for future generations of schlock-hungry fools.

That trashy time capsule’s follow-up, a sequel titled Out of the Shadows, is just as enjoyable as the first Ninja Turtles film, but for an entirely different reason. Instead of pushing the brooding grit of the post-Dark Knight era of needless reboots to its most ludicrous extreme like its hilariously hideous predecessor, Out of the Shadows calls back to the light, fun, cartoonish energy that made the original Ninja Turtles trilogy such a nostalgia-inducing pleasure in the 1990s. I guess you could argue that banking on 90s nostalgia is a snapshot on where blockbusters are seated in 2016, but that’s not what makes Out of the Shadows special. Here’s what does make it special: a manhole-shooting garbage truck modeled after the franchise’s infamous pizza van toy; a pro wrestler that plays a tank-operating rhinoceros; a perfectly hideous realization of the villainous mech suit-operating brain Krang; etc. Given enough time, this is a film both silly & visually memorable (read: deeply ugly) enough to generate its own future nostalgia entirely separate from that of a previous generation’s (not that it was above playing the 90s cartoon’s theme song over the end credits). Kids are going to grow up loving this movie and its reputation will outlast the short-term concerns of however well it does or doesn’t do at the box office this summer. In that way, it’s a successful work of art.

I wasn’t quite so sure about Out of the Shadows during its early plot machinations. Early scenes of Megan Fox’s April O’Neil working “undercover” as a nerd (a hot nerd, as the leering camera insistently reminds you) and the titular turtles airlessly navigating a CGI cityscape are a cruel, dull bore. My enthusiasm picked up fairly quickly, however, thanks to the aforementioned pizza van/garbage truck. You see, this isn’t just a recreation pizza-shooting toy from my own youth; it’s one that adds the ludicrous appendages of mechanical arms that operate cartoonishly oversized nunchucks. Why? Why not. The film’s plot gets kicked into action by a highspeed prison break (complete with producer Michael Bay’s calling card excess of explosions) that frees the wicked Shredder from the temporary shackles he’s locked in at the end of the last film. A teleportation device places Shredder in the mechanical hands of the evil alien brain Krang, who opens up a world of purple ooze (you can’t get much more 90s than ooze, right?), interdimensional portals, alien warships, and all kinds of other high-concept wankery. The goal of these conflicts is, of course, to provide simple obstacles for the turtles to overcome, but I have great respect for the over-the-top, Saturday morning cartoon choices the film makes to set those targets up. It’s certainly a refreshing change from the too-dark-for-its-own-good villainy brought to the screen by William Fichtner in the first film, as amusing as that was to watch.

While we’re talking Krang, I’ll just go ahead & say he’s very close to being the greatest villain I’ve seen onscreen all year (the slight advantage goes to the much more naturalistic presence of Black Phillip there). An unholy combination of Yoda, Audrey II, and the oversexed gator from All Dogs Go to Heaven, Krang’s vocal performance is perfectly pitched in its over-the-top scenery chewing. He’s not alone. Tyler Perry’s signature yuck-em-up hokeyness is put to brilliant use as a low level villain mad scientist that’s less Dr. Frankenstein & more Neil deGrasse Tyson meets The Nutty Professor. Will Arnett returns to his role as the scaredy cat cad of the previous film, but is allowed far more breathing room to ramp up the pomposity. One of my favorite gags in Out of the Shadows is a scene where Arnett’s bagging his own breath in ziplocks to sell to schmucks impressed by his newfound celebrity as the turtles’ wing man. Pro wrestler Sheamus is perfectly cast here in his own corny way & probably could live out the rest of his life playing bit parts in kids’ movies without breaking a sweat. Tony Schaloub is still a hideous CGI sewer rat father figure. Megan Fox is still a hopelessly bland non-presence, but I began to find amusement in the way she constantly posed & mugged for the camera for absolutely no reason at all. Oh yeah, and Dennis “The Dummy” Duffy from 30 Rock drops by just because. These aren’t performances that are going to win any awards, but they are perfectly suited for kids’ media goofery. Actually, Laura Linney’s performance as a besides-herself police chief might be worthy of an award in a more serious film, but she’s always perfect so there’s no real surprise there.

I don’t want to oversell the shift in tones here. This is still the bloated, grotesque CGI spectacle people understandably pinched their noses at two years ago. As much as I enjoyed every bizarrely lovable second of Krang content in Out of the Shadows, he’s still a disgusting, digital depiction of a sentient brain literally mashed inside a giant, clunky robot. It’s gross. But, hey, kids love gross shit. The film makes a conscious effort to move away from the Dark Knight grit of its predecessor to take delight in such cheap, silly pleasures as watching a two ton warthog eat a trash barrel’s worth of spaghetti while his hairy CGI nipples jiggle. I got the same feeling watching Out of the Shadows as I did with last year’s excellent Goosebumps adaptation: kids are going to grow up loving it & that’s all that really matters. I’ll even go as far as to say that the film finds genuine pathos in unexpected places, namely the teen turtles’ anxiety over the way society treats them not as the good guys, but as hideous, mutant monsters (a feeling all teens share at some point, right?). I especially like the way the turtles describe themselves as “four brothers from New York who hate bullies & love this city.” It gives them a real Steve Rogers or Judy Hopps vibe I can genuinely get behind. That’s not what makes this film such a deliciously fun exercise in trash cinema delirium (that’d be Krang), but it was yet another admirable aspect of a remarkably silly, deeply ugly children’s film I had no business enjoying nearly as much as I did.

-Brandon Ledet