If there's a lesson to be learned from the summer of 2009, it's that apparently only the bad horror movies can make money. It's long been argued that the horror genre is "critic proof"--i.e., it doesn't matter what critics say about them, audiences will turn out in droves anyway (a theory which has led to studios regularly declining to screen their horror pictures for critics in advance). But it's starting to look as though it's more serious than that, that perhaps horror is "critic resistant"; apparently, if fans see that a new scary movie is getting good reviews, they stay far, far away from it. In May, Sam Raimi made a triumphant return to genre filmmaking with the ridiculously entertaining Drag Me To Hell; critic were enraptured (92% on Rotten Tomatoes), but it stalled at the box office. Bookending the summer, we now have the peculiar bombing of Jennifer's Body, a rare horror movie with genuine style and wit (thanks to Diablo Cody's clever screenplay and Karyn Kusama's nimble direction). But The Final Destination was a big summer smash, and the remakes of My Bloody Valentine and Friday the 13th did huge numbers earlier this year. WTF, horror fans? Are you purposely fleeing films that might not suck?
Which is not to imply that Jennifer's Body is a great movie--far from it. But it's got some brains rattling around in its pretty little head, and its tight, compact screenplay punches right along, a model of efficient genre storytelling. Screenwriter Diablo Cody (Oscar winner for Juno) has become a love-her-or-hate-her writer, and I'm not quite sure why; she certainly has a distinct, specific voice and style, sure, but so do Tarantino and Mamet and Kevin Smith, and they don't get half the hate she does (I'd float a theory about sexism playing into it, but that's for another time and place).
Cody spins the yarn of Jennifer (Megan Fox) and her best friend since childhood, the improbably-named Needy Lesnicky (Amanda Seyfried). Jennifer is the high school hottie, captain of the cheerleading squad, object of desire for all, while Needy hides behind frumpy sweaters and big glasses. One night, Jennifer drags Needy along to hear a band at a dive bar; the joint goes up in flames, the band's skuzzy lead singer (an appropriately slimy Adam Brody) drags Jennifer off in the band's van (Needy later guesses the year and model to be an "'89 Rapist"), and then things start to get weird. When teenage boys start getting dispatched in grisly fashion, Needy finds out the truth: that her best friend is, in fact, a flesh-eating demon.
The script is constructed in an intriguing, elliptical fashion, opening up with Needy in the nut house, explaining in voice-over, "I wasn't always this cracked." Cody's screenplay comes off frequently as an affectionate homage to DePalma's Carrie (down to its third-act prom scene), while possessing the knowing, caustic wit of Williamson's Scream scripts. Regardless of its flaws--and there are many--it's full of funny characters and quotable dialogue ("Can I borrow your English homework? I forgot to read Hamlet. Is he gonna fuck his mom?").
Kusama's direction (she helmed Girl Fight and the unfortunate Aeon Flux), is stylish and frequently inventive, and there are some welcome faces in supporting roles (J.K. Simmons and Amy Sedaris are both terrific). Megan Fox looked too old for high school in Transformers two years ago, but here, given her first real opportunity to, y'know, play a character and say complete sentences, she's pretty good; it's not a terribly complicated role, but her rat-tat-tat delivery and good humor are fairly winning. Seyfried does the heavy lifting, acting-wise, and she's fierce and fabulous.
Some of the thrills are pretty cheap, and many of the jokes land with a thud (especially towards the end). And as hot as the momentary detour into Sapphic storytelling may be, one must admit that it not only comes out of nowhere but doesn't lead to much of anything (yes, I'm afraid that the girl-on-girl kiss might be--gasp--gratuitous). And they sure as hell can't seem to decide how they want this thing to end; there's about three possible closing scenes, so they apparently just stacked them on top of each other and called it a day.
Those are the complaints. But Jennifer's Body is still a wicked, sexy good time, and deserves better than the cold shoulder it's getting from a moviegoing public that has lapped up far worse films with relish.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.