For most of his life, Evan Dossey generally avoided horror films. The genre made him profoundly uncomfortable. This meant he had enormous gaps in his cinematic knowledge. Over the years, he has asked family and friends which essential horror movies he needs to see and spent the better part of October agonizing over them, tossing and turning over them … and writing about them. Once again, he’s sharing the month with those folks — letting them offer their own thoughts about the tales that terrify (or perhaps just titillate) them. This is our No Sleep October.
Something described as “being ahead of its time” conjures up inventions that were underappreciated or forgotten. A horse carriage powered by a battery, Damascus steel, or anything Tesla might have put his hands on (before his name was sullied by an exploitative manchild) all feel like near misses — “if only’s” that needed a few more things to line up.
At least perhaps. It seems these sorts of things are seldom revisited, no matter their innovation, because the world has moved on from them. They are retro-futuristic, forever doomed to have such unrealized potential yet simultaneously be outdated. Nobody needs a Fiske Reading Machine in a world of audio and electronic books.
But then there are the truly revolutionary ideas so paradigm-shifting, they need to wait for the world to catch up to them and realize it will never be the same: theories of relativity, evolution, or heliocentrism; difference engines and computers; even coffee.
In film, we call them cult classics.
It’s not that Jennifer’s Body is unassuming. It says precisely what it needs to say and when it needs to be said. A maelstrom of ill-conceived marketing, patriarchal criticism and our social ineptitude of intimacy and exploration makes Jennifer’s Body a sort of Nietzschean madman, scoffing at the audience while it serves up a stunningly sharp critique that would find itself not just at home in recent feminist and queer discourse but a vanguard of it.
‘I have come too early,’ he said then; ‘my time is not yet. This tremendous event is still on its way, still wandering; it has not yet reached the ears of men. Lightning and thunder require time; the light of the stars requires time; deeds, though done, still require time to be seen and heard.’Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, Book III, Aphorism 125
With the breakthrough success of Megan Fox (the titular Jennifer) in Transformers, Jennifer’s Body was marketed to young men from the trailer to the grave, much to the chagrin of screenwriter Diablo Cody, then best known for her Oscar-winning work on 2007’s Juno. Roger Ebert, a contemporary outlier at the time in his 3-star review of the film, still fell to calling it “Twilight for boys.”
The zeitgeist at the time was simply ripe to undersell the actual, powerful ideas of the film, which leads critics today to call it a forgotten feminist classic in a world profoundly affected by the MeToo Movement. Critics were told this was a schticky, horror-comedy film with a brand-new sex symbol, and audience members (arguably of all genders) were told not to think about it too hard.
It’s really no surprise when a critic squeaks out the line “No one is going to like this movie for its brain.”
But much like the baked-in, cultural assumptions elsewhere, there are actually plenty of brains if people choose to listen to them. It’s only a question of the frequency to which you’re tuned. Carmen Maria Machado staunchly and adeptly defends the film on multiple fronts in her essay “Both Ways.” She writes that, to this day, friends who find out Jennifer’s Body is a favorite horror movie will scrunch up their noses at it when they should be taking a very close look instead.
We could start with the vapidness of Low Shoulder, a male rock band seemingly steeped in Satanic rituals that is nevertheless, upon receiving the gift of success for attempting to sacrifice a virgin, able only to perpetually play a sickeningly sweet and sappy Switchfoot-esque “Through the Trees” with such frequency that we’re ready to scream at the radio along with Anita “Needy” Lesnicki (Amanda Seyfried). Low Shoulder’s storyline touches on pop-music marketing, the bogus sincerity of celebrity charity and what Machado calls “the saccharine stupidity of post-tragedy rhetoric” in a post-9/11 world. And as revenge is exacted upon the band, it also touches on the comeuppance deserved for making assumptions about the bodies of others and exploiting them for gain.
Or we could view it through the terribleness that is puberty and growing up. Jennifer’s demonic possession is as much about becoming attuned to our bodies as it is about needing flesh to survive. Seeing our bodies change can make us feel like Jennifer watching the power surge within hers. “I am a god,” she declares, as she burns her tongue with a lighter and watches it heal immediately.
But one doesn’t have to be a god to enjoy their flesh vessels. We can simply start to find out what works for us. Needy is portrayed as the bookish, less-popular friend, starting to find her way through her interests and relationships on her own, separate from her friend. She is sexually active herself and tends to also have authentic interactions with many of the boys who find themselves on the wrong side of Jennifer.
Invariably, this leads to a lens of personal identity as well. Does Jennifer struggle with being seen as a person in her own right when high school focuses on the surface rather than the depth? Is becoming demonically possessed a way to assert independence and a way to protect herself in more ways than just the physical? She also seems jealous of Needy’s relationship with Chip (Johnny Simmons), often working to pull Needy away to her own idea of fun, pulling her close to kiss her and, ultimately, attacking Chip. Early on, Needy is accused of being “totally lesbi-gay” for Jennifer while Needy views her as her nearest and dearest friend for the ages.
As personal growth pushes Needy and Jennifer onto their own paths, their communication continues to break down. Jennifer does not share with Needy what happened to her in the woods and what her powers have become because of it. While Jennifer does show up to Needy’s home on that fateful night, she plays it off immediately and ignores the details of it the next day. It’s a marker of a friend unsure of how to proceed, separated and lost — wanting some sort of connection but not sure how to get to it. Is it comfort? Attraction? Fear of losing intimacy? Machado asks “What [does] it mean to experience parallel sexualities with your best friend as you punch through the last vestiges of childhood?”
But Jennifer’s Body can encompass so much more than that, too. Writers like Machado and others press on about how accusations that the film engages in queerbaiting flattens its effect, that its humor is sharp, dark and provocative in a thoughtful way, and that navigating the fluidity of human existence is as messy as leaving a pile of entrails in a forest. These defenses are brilliant, but the film also manages the changing intimacies between people and their goals. It’s not just two friends navigating the paths of growing up, sexuality, jealousy, and values. It’s a film about two friends with “sandbox love,” which is supposed to be undying, as they realize that perhaps this love can die.
Whatever it is, the opening line of the film hits it: “Hell is a teenage girl.” Probably because being a teenage girl in this world is hell.