Understand this: I love Jennifer’s Body (2009) and I can’t honestly think of a better film to celebrate Women in Horror Month. Written by Diablo Cody (Juno, The United States of Tara) and directed by Karyn Kusama (XX, Girlfight, The Invitation), it’s a brilliant, savage horror-comedy, and even though it appreciates some cult credibility today, it has never really been marketed to its natural, intended audience: women and girls. Forget for a second the succubus angle, Megan Fox eating boys alive while in a state of semi-undress. Yes, there’s passion and sex and fury and Fox’s airbrushed makeup pout juxtaposed with Fox’s practical effects jaws of death, but this isn’t your basic morality play slasher with a side of titillation. This is a movie, first and foremost, about teenage girls and their friendships, and while mordantly funny about the stupidity of hormones, it’s also sweet at times, and always without judgment. Sure, it’s often crude and vicious, but so are teenage girls. Really the only way this film could be more for girls is if you had to send all the boys to the gym to watch something else when it’s on.
The story itself is pretty simple. Cheerleader babe Jennifer (Fox) has been best friends with brainier heroine Anita, or “Needy,” (Amanda Seyfried) since they were little kids. “Sandbox love never dies,” a flat affect Needy narrates from a solitary confinement cell at the beginning of the movie, but from the other end of Jennifer’s tragic fate. Needy’s narration takes us back to the beginning, as Jennifer coaxes Needy into canceling plans with her boyfriend Chip (Johnny Simmons) so she can go with Jennifer to a rock show in their rural town’s sole, sad excuse for a club, Melody Lane. Jennifer has a crush on lead singer Nikolai (Adam Brody). The band, Low Shoulder, have their own nefarious reasons for playing such an out of the way, small time venue. They want to find a virgin in the audience and sacrifice her to Satan in exchange for Maroon 5-level fame and fortune. They think they have a winner when they meet Jennifer, and Needy, overhearing them speculate whether Jennifer is a virgin, hotly defends her friend’s virtue – despite, of course, knowing Jennifer isn’t a virgin, which turns out to make a big difference in what happens next. During their big number, Melody Lane burns down in a not-so-freak accident. In the confusion, Low Shoulder abduct Jennifer as Needy stands by, powerless to convince her friend not to go with the cool band in their cool van. That night, Jennifer shows up at Needy’s house incoherent and vomiting black sludge, nearly attacking Needy before disappearing back into the night. Over the next several months, as the small town of Devil’s Kettle slowly recovers from the grisly inferno at Melody Lane, Jennifer’s beauty waxes and wanes in time with spectacularly gory murders of local high school boys, and Needy discovers her friend was turned into a succubus by the band’s botched ritual murder. And she’s a succubus with her white-slit eyes fixed on Needy’s boyfriend.
Jennifer’s Body reminds me of a lot of things I’ve forgotten about high school and adolescence, like how one of my teachers mused one day in class – it was German class, so I can’t remember why — “People who say this is the best time of your lives, they have to have forgotten what it was like. They have to have.” I had never heard an adult say such a thing before, and it’s not like he was a fresh-faced TA. This guy had multiple degrees and substantial facial hair. I suspect he underestimated how difficult life outside high school could be for people who can’t afford multiple degrees, but he was right that the flames that forge you in early adulthood are much more easily romanticized than endured. For most, it does get better. For my part, I had terrible attendance records, was bullied, was molested, often felt ugly and unlovable, struggled with my sexuality, cried between classes, and even with all that, I know I was still considered one of the cool people, floating harmlessly among different cliques. Jennifer’s Body reminds me how all of that is simultaneously possible, with the hormone-charged urgency of every test, crush, expectation, and rejection, and it’s a little daunting to think my experiences – also Jennifer and Needy’s experiences, despite their cell phone use — were so analog compared to the unrelenting connectivity kids live through now.
The intensity of Jennifer and Needy’s friendship rings true in an online or offline world though. This is the volume teenage girls tend to live at. “You’re totally lesbigay,” one girl taunts Needy as she and Jennifer exchange waves at an assembly. Needy scoffs. Chip complains that Needy always does what Jennifer wants and that they don’t truly have anything in common. Needy scoffs again. But Chip’s right. The main thing Needy and Jennifer have in common is loving Jennifer and being jealous of each other. You see that as Jennifer unconsciously takes Needy’s hand while watching Low Shoulder play, and you also see it as Needy suddenly releases Jennifer’s hand, seemingly disturbed that Jennifer is at the moment entranced by the lead singer of Low Shoulder. Teenage friendship isn’t being “lesbigay,” but it is a kind of being in love, and it’s not uncommon for girl friends to talk for hours on the phone, share everything, know each other’s secrets, practice kissing boys by kissing each other. While boyfriends may interrupt their relationship from time to time, boyfriends also may only last a little while, and Jennifer and Needy’s commitment is much closer to forever. And Chip’s right again that Needy does do everything Jennifer says. She puts Jennifer first. After Jennifer has been abducted by Low Shoulder, Needy goes home, traumatized and defeated, and the first thing she does is call Chip, but because she’s terrified about Jennifer. Chip reminds her that people just burned to death. When Jennifer does show up and sprays Needy’s kitchen floor with black goo, instead of running to Chip or calling her mother on swing shift or going straight to the police, Needy spends the night scrubbing the floor of Jennifer’s presence. What is she really doing? Protecting Jennifer. And though she will try to confide in Chip as her suspicions grow that something is really wrong, she will also continue to protect her friend until Jennifer herself comes clean about that night at Melody Lane.
Because Jennifer is the needy one in this relationship. Jennifer doesn’t put Needy first; Jennifer puts Jennifer first. But Needy is essential to Jennifer’s more fragile ego. It’s easy to look at Jennifer’s predation of both Colin, the emo poet kid who has a low-key mutual attraction with Needy, and Chip, and see her being competitive with Needy, taking the boys that are most important to Needy simply because that’s the Mean Girl thing to do. That’s part of it. Needy is smart, beautiful,* and unconditionally loved by Chip. Those are things anyone, much less someone as superficial as Jennifer, might covet. But it’s clear that Jennifer is as jealous about Needy as much as she’s jealous of Needy. She doesn’t want anyone more important than herself in Needy’s life. She wants Needy to cancel her plans with Chip. She wants Needy to ignore other calls. She becomes aggressive and abusive, being sarcastic or shoving Needy just a little too hard for a joke, if Needy doesn’t defer to her demands or accept her lies, and this is consistent whether she’s a demon or not.
It’s worth noting Jennifer goes to Needy first after she’s killed and resurrected as a succubus. Jennifer clearly is tempted to prey on Needy, and there’s so much more sexual tension between Jennifer and Needy in that scene than in any of Jennifer’s scenes with her male victims. But Jennifer resists and goes to munch on another wandering, traumatized survivor of the fire instead. Several dead boys later, Jennifer surprises Needy in her room, asking to sleep over, and she finally explains what the band did to her. It will be the last time she’s ever seen as vulnerable, and it matters that she never threatens Needy during it, even though she’s revealing herself as a monster, and even though she’s ultimately rejected. Like her first appearance as a succubus, this is a powerfully sexually charged scene, even to the point that Needy and Jennifer make out briefly, but it’s not exploitative in context. It might be Jennifer’s succubus nature driving this moment, but I don’t think so. I think Jennifer needed her friend and wanted to keep her wrapped in the intense intimacy of 13-year-olds telling secrets, but things have changed too much. In a normal world, girl friends eventually outgrow their intense sharing relationships as they become adults. Needy and Jennifer don’t get that chance; to Needy, Jennifer really was killed by the band, and what came back wasn’t her friend, not really. I mean, apart from everything else, friends don’t eat friends’ boyfriends.
I like that there is a weird, inexplicable psychic connection between Jennifer and Needy that doesn’t have anything to do with Jennifer being a succubus. It is almost as though Jennifer and Needy have a preexisting vampiric relationship, and notably, it tends to manifest when Needy is being intimate with her boyfriend. Chip gets sweet on Needy as she’s getting dressed for Melody Lane, to Jennifer’s specifications and over his objections, and Needy immediately pulls away from him, sensing Jennifer’s arrival. Later, while Needy and Chip are having sex, Needy sees blood spreading on the ceiling in a vision of Jennifer murdering Colin, impossibly echoing Jennifer telling Colin she needs him “hopeless.” Chip, poor dope, takes Needy’s anguished sobs as groans of pleasure, as she suffers her friend eviscerating the cute Goth boy. Later, Needy will similarly sense Jennifer closing in on Chip. None of this plays as Needy having some rad precognitive power or a real supernatural tether to Jennifer; it’s presented as just part of being BFFs.
You don’t need to have been a teenage girl to appreciate Jennifer’s Body, and certainly, not every teenage girl has a relationship like Jennifer and Needy’s, though I know all teenage girls at times possess the emotional core to power galaxies of Jennifer’s Bodys. So do teenage boys. There’s a lot else I admire about it, too. I love how deftly Kusama and Cody’s script thread the needle of being wickedly funny and genuinely poignant and scary, all just within beats of each other. The scene where the band murders Jennifer is a perfect example of this, as abrupt and unflinching as watching Leatherface spear a blond on a meathook, yet with the band’s Buffy-esque snark offsetting Jennifer’s hopeless comprehension that she’s about to die. I love the genuine sweetness of Needy and Chip’s relationship. Chip was a really great guy, and when I mentioned him complaining about Jennifer above, that doesn’t do him justice, as he’s a textbook understanding boyfriend. There’s a ton of winking cameos in this, too, including Lance Henriksen giving Needy a lift to what she will make sure is Low Shoulder’s last gig. And that’s something else I love, that even though Needy is forced to forsake and fight Jennifer, she keeps faith with her friend, too, seeking revenge on the ones that killed her. To break out of a mental institution and hunt down an indie band that sacrificed you in exchange for worldly success: now that’s a BFF.
* It’s possible we’re not supposed to notice Needy’s comparable beauty to Jennifer’s because she’s wearing glasses, but in the grand tradition of so-called brainy girls in cinema throughout the ages, any intended unattractiveness in Needy is purely a matter of styling and subjective taste. But then, about the time she starts fighting Jennifer for real, she stops wearing glasses.
Of course, Angela’s best friends in high school were always dudes, but that’s a different movie.