Thoughts on “Jennifer’s Body”

Last week I talked about “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” because it was linked to “Jennifer’s Body” in this article, and I wanted to talk about both. The summary of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” is probably that it had a useful and potentially interesting concept but that it’s poor reception came about because the execution was poor. This post will see if we can say the same for “Jennifer’s Body”, with me addressing a few specific things about it from the article.

The big difference here is that while either the subversion where the typical damsel in distress is instead the hero or the question of how being chosen by destiny could impact someone who starts from a state where they aren’t at all suited to doing that are interesting — if not unique — concepts that you could do a lot with, I’m not sure what concept “Jennifer’s Body” is trying for here. From the article it could be something like this:

“From the outset, I always felt like this is a horror movie about toxic friendships between girls. And on a larger scale, it’s about how these alliances between girls get distorted and corrupted by the patriarchy,” Kusama said. “We were just completely aligned by those kinds of ideas.”

“I wrote it for girls,” Cody said, bluntly. “If a guy wrote a movie with the line ‘hell is a teenage girl,’ I would reject that. But I’m allowed to say it because I was one. I think the fact that we were a female creative team gave us permission to make observations about some of the more toxic aspects of female friendship.”

But that’s not the same sort of concept, because all it’s saying is the very generic idea that female friendship can be toxic and … it doesn’t even seem to come across in the movie. While it may seem like I’m on a “Pretty Little Liars” kick, referencing it in everything I write, that show does more to show the positives and negatives of female friendship, with the negatives and toxicity aligned mostly with Allison and how she treated her posse. There isn’t really that much of that sort of thing in “Jennifer’s Body”. If they wanted that to be the case, they really needed to make most of Jennifer’s evil really be direct shots at Needy, or else make Jennifer far more anxious to recruit Needy into her evil than she was. You’d have a better shot at saying that it’s really about Needy having to kill her friend after the possession than about the friendship being toxic … and even that doesn’t really fit.

More importantly, imagine a pitch session for the two movies. Buffy: “Imagine a movie where the typical blonde damsel in distress is really the kick-ass hero”. Again, it’s been done, but we know what the movie will be about, even if we don’t know the details. Now imagine “Jennifer’s Body”: “It’s a horror movie about toxic friendships between girls”. Wouldn’t your immediate reaction be “Okay, but what’s it about“? As a concept, if that’s what they’re going for, they were really going to need to do more than that, and one of the failings for me, at least, is that it isn’t clear what the movie is actually supposed to be about.

Part of the issue for me, at least, is that it focuses on Needy when in my opinion it should have focused more on Jennifer. The movie makes Needy the narrator, but then drops that element for the most part early on and only returns to it at the very end … which makes it clear why that was added because it’s needed for that part at the very end. I’ve already commented on how problematic it is to introduce a non-standard element and then drop it. But the issue is that the lore in the film makes it sound like Jennifer was essentially killed and her body completely possessed by a succubus, but her delight at her healing and sometimes at the killing belies that, unless the succubus had never experienced those things before, which we have no idea about because the focus character is Needy and she couldn’t know any of that. But that reveals the lost opportunity here. If it focused on Jennifer, then you could use the — again, not unique — idea that she gains the demonic abilities and they slowly corrupt her. They make her at least want to kill people to maintain her powers, but killing people also feels so good, along with the healing and seeming immorality, so she starts doing it more and more. She could start by trying to share it with Needy but then more and more targeting her as she becomes more and more corrupt, showing a more toxic friendship growing out of it. This would also tie in better to the end because it would give Needy a character point that a sequel or TV series could build on: Needy gains the powers after killing Jennifer and has to struggle with the same temptations that Jennifer did, but as a better and stronger person can resist it, showing that only when she stands on her own can she resist it, and that if Jennifer had treated her as a friend she might have been able to as well. I’m sure that the two women quoted above could have made their “toxic friendships” point work in this concept, and then at least the movie would have had one.

As it is, looking at a movie or TV series continuation I’m not sure what it would be without parachuting a new concept into it. At the end of the movie, Needy discovers that she has demonic powers now and escapes the asylum/jail to get revenge on the people who sacrificed Jennifer to gain power, and does so in a very vicious way. Is Needy expected to go out and keep doing this to other supernaturally evil people? Is she trying to resist the influence of the powers? We have no idea because the movie, again, doesn’t establish anything about the powers or about Needy’s relation to them when she breaks out. Recall that the Buffy TV series pretty much starts from the end of the movie, by exploring the reasonable consequences of that thing happening: Buffy is branded a troublemaker and has to move away, and ends up somewhere where she needs to fight vampires again. Unless they’re going to pull an “Incredible Hulk” move — wandering until she can control the demons inside her, which would have followed nicely on from my concept — it’s hard to see what they would follow on from the movie with.

So, at a minimum, the concept should have been clearer. I also need to address the accusation that the movie was exploitative with the kissing scene between Jennifer and Needy. Before getting into it, let me briefly talk about what it would mean for a scene to be exploitative in this way. To me, it seems that the main thing is that it be gratuitous, which means that it comes up mostly out of nowhere (isn’t properly developed) and also doesn’t actually reveal anything interesting or get used elsewhere in the movie. It isn’t set up beforehand, doesn’t change anything about the movie, and isn’t referred to again. And by that criteria … yeah, the scene is gratuitous and since it’s overly sexy it really does seem to be exploitative (which was probably not intentional). First, the scene isn’t just a kiss. Instead, it’s making out for a while until the scene switches. But, second, it doesn’t actually seem to hit the character point it was supposed to:

To Kusama and Cody, one of the most misunderstood moments in the film was the scene in which Needy and Jennifer make out. Cody included the kiss in her script because she wanted it to be clear that Needy is, on some level, in love with Jennifer. She acknowledged that audiences might be more sophisticated now and able to pick up on the queer subtext “without me dropping an anvil on them.”

Well, the problem is that the scene is so strongly a make out scene that love doesn’t have to be involved at all. It could be just sexual (especially given what Jennifer does in other places). But even worse is the fact that not only does it not really demonstrate that all that well, it doesn’t need to demonstrate it because the movie already did it better earlier. In one of the earliest scenes, Needy is standing beside Jennifer watching the band, Jennifer takes her hand, Needy looks thrilled, then she notices Jennifer drooling over the lead singer, she looks crushed, and drops Jennifer’s hand. This completely establishes that she’s somewhat in love with Jennifer and because the movie stops to show this and directly focuses on it it’s not even subtle or subtext. So all the scene could have done was establish something that the movie had already established. And, finally, it isn’t really important to the movie as a whole. Needy doesn’t really struggle with her feelings for Jennifer, even while killing her. Jennifer doesn’t really taunt her with it (the one taunt that might hint at a gay point is when she’s trying to kill her and comments that while she’d always killed boys before “[she] goes both ways”). So that point isn’t crucial to the plot either. So the kiss mostly comes out of nowhere, reveals something that we already knew, and references a point that doesn’t have much importance to the plot. Again, it’s unintentional, but it does have all the hallmarks of poorly written sexually exploitative scenes.

And like Buffy, the movie is poorly executed. It often bounces between very dark elements and goofy humour in the same scene. Mood Whiplash isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it can be hard to get a reasonable tone if you keep doing that. And like the make out scene, often things go on too long, especially jokes. The biggest example is when Jennifer was stabbed with a metal pipe and after pulling it out and noticing that it’s bleeding asks Needy if she has a tampon, and when Needy says “No” she replies “Just thought I’d ask”. At this point, we all get the joke and it’s at least mildly funny (your mileage may vary, of course). But then she follows that up with “Thought you might be pluggin'” which … really doesn’t work. It’s more of an insult than simple banter but it’s too mild to work as an insult, and even Needy doesn’t react as if it’s a grave insult. So what does it add? Why would Jennifer think that? If it was to be an insult, it should have been phrased more like one, and if it was just supposed to be a funny line, it was adding a line that isn’t any funnier than what we’d already seen and didn’t fit that well with the rest of the line. And things like this where the movie seems to go at least one step to far are pretty common in the movie. The sex scene while Jennifer is killing someone else also counts as a tonal shift, but that one is at least intentional, if not well done.

And don’t get me started on them showing a rather large occult section when Needy is researching the demon but having her lampshade it being small when her boyfriend asks her about it. Not only is the section probably bigger than the astronomy sections that I’ve seen in small town libraries, this is not something that needed to be lampshaded, as most people would probably go with it (or take it as a sign that the area was chosen because it had had supernatural events before). Meanwhile, they can’t explain whether Jennifer is still running her body or if she’s gone and the demon is the only thing there.

So it deserves its rating, I think, and I think starting from that movie it’s hard for me to see how a TV series could carry on without retconning something (or revealing something early on). And as part of my normal assessment, I don’t think I’ll be watching it again.

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