As in biology, sex and death are the two elemental components of the horror film. Nowadays, critics' warnings of gratuitous nudity and violence in scary movies seem, quite frankly, gratuitous. Psycho's iconic shower scene long ago evolved into the literal bloodbath found in films like Hostel II. As far as the exploitation goes, it's hard to deny that the losers under the scythes are largely -- and plainly -- women.
Enter Diablo Cody, feminist screenwriter of Juno and avowed horror aficionado. Her second film, Jennifer's Body, directed by Girlfight creator Karyn Kusama, is out to reclaim the genre and "subvert [its] tropes" in an effort to speak to the growing audience of female horror fans. Could Jennifer's Body offer a feminist twist on a genre that seems hostile to women on its face? Their project could have -- and should have -- worked.
Instead, Jennifer's Body feels composed of scraps from Buffy the Vampire Slayer's cutting room floor. The movie is less entertaining, less frightening, and less empowering than even its forgettable and formulaic box office rival Sorority Row. Unlike Jennifer's Body, Sorority Row, directed by relative newcomer Stewart Hendler, has no explicit social agenda. Hendler just wants to create a classic slasher flick that goes a bit beyond the "boobs and blood kind of thing." And ultimately, Sorority Row treats women better because it packs in the very conventions that Jennifer's Body tries to challenge.
To be sure, Sorority Row (catty co-eds, prank gone awry, robed pursuer with a tire iron) embraces some of the worst of the tropes of the horror genre. Consider its punishment of female sexuality. Before having a bottle jammed down her throat in her lecherous shrink's bedchamber, early victim Chugs (Margo Harshman) looks at herself in the mirror and deadpans, "Cheers, slut" with tongue apparently in cheek. The whole scene is tasteless and absurd, but by honoring the convention in such an over-the-top fashion, it feels more like a wink to the audience than anything else. It's a decades-old pantomime rendered impotent by familiarity.
Meanwhile, Jennifer's Body (Betty-and-Veronica bosom buddies, botched occult ritual, snowflake queen turned succubus) approaches female sexuality in a more circuitous fashion. Though her punishment isn't handled in such a crass manner as Chugs', bombshell Jennifer (Transformers' Megan Fox) is victimized doubly -- she's singled out for sacrifice by male indie rockers who lust for fame because she is presumed to be a virgin, and then is eternally damned to demonhood because she is not.
Jennifer glibly treats the experience as little more than a footnote, focusing instead on the awesome powers she's attained. Now, I'm sure Cody was trying to represent trauma subtly and communicate Jennifer's anger by having her act out revenge fantasies on her male victims. But given that Fox's acting range extends from slight pout to come-hither glance, the nuances of Cody's intended message are lost. Both Chugs and Jennifer have cavalier attitudes about sex, but Chugs' approach is toward her own choices whereas Jennifer's is toward her punishment.
In fact, it appears that Fox, whose sex appeal is arguably universal, was cast because she personifies the stereotypical red-blooded male fantasy so frequently served up in horror films. Fox is not there for women to identify with; she's present mainly for cleavage close-ups -- indeed, breasts are Jennifer's "trademark" in the movie -- even though Fox has taken a stance against undressing on screen. As if compensating for the lack of nudity, the movie's camera crew works hard to allow the audience as many objectifying gazes as possible.
This is especially true during the much-discussed make-out scene between Jennifer and best-friend-forever "Needy" (Mean Girls alumna Amanda Seyfried). The moment could have been less than sensational and even maybe sweet. Instead, the kiss -- which wasn't in the original screenplay -- feels tacked on, since there are only hollow attempts to explain the attraction between the two girls beyond the fact that they're old friends and Jennifer is sexy. With its extended close-up, the scene ends up looking like choreographed girl-on-girl action and promoting the idea that all slumber parties degenerate into naked pillow fights in the absence of boys. Sorority Row is the reverse: There's nudity galore, but it's largely incidental. The creepy zooms are kept to a minimum, and skin primarily appears as flashes in the background -- bodies without commentary.
Jennifer's Body further fails where it had the best chance to succeed. One of horror's worst sins against women is that its female characters are often woefully underdeveloped. Other characters accuse Jennifer of abusing laxatives and imply that she's "lesbigay," suggesting she's meant to be read as a tightly wound bundle of insecurity who acts out to get the attention she so desperately needs from her best friend. But ultimately, Fox does little to convince us that there is depth beyond Jennifer's destructive urges: she's Hot, Flat, and Empty, in Diablo Cody pop-culture parlance.
Needy, on the other hand, does mature over the course of the film, but it is hard to care because she rarely shows that she has any real fight in her. Most of her heroics take place offscreen, and the one sequence where she actually battles evil plays out like a catfight over a boy -- which, essentially, it is. The women of Sorority Row are mostly shallow, petty caricatures, but they at least show a bit of fortitude when challenged. And while the relationships between the female characters aren't exactly complex, they are comprehensible. In the end, they band together to strike back against their misogynistic stalker and wax poetic about the virtues of feminine solidarity.
In their efforts to create a feminist horror film, Cody and Kusama made a movie that is truthfully neither one of these things. What they missed is that their objective could be accomplished without redefining genre conventions -- horror already has plenty of space for feminism.
After all, one of the major takeaways of horror films is that strong women can stand up to those who would rather control them through fear. The formula of the "Final Girl," as Carol Clover termed it in her oft-cited Men, Women, and Chain Saws, allows "the rezoning of the feminine into territories traditionally occupied by the masculine." In the Final Girl formula, the woman prevails against her antagonist and saves herself -- which neither lead of Jennifer's Body does -- promoting the idea that "triumphant self-rescue is no longer strictly gendered." It's no coincidence that most of horror's memorable heroes are actually heroines.
So, how do you make a smart, truly feminist horror movie? It's been done before -- as recently as this summer -- and I swear it doesn't have to be that difficult. Tweak the standard "Final Girl" equation, which already has a feminist message: Develop your female characters, cut back on the smut shots, and don’t torture the living daylight out of girls. If you must be ultra-violent, at least be equal opportunity about your gore. And please, make it scary. Because if you don't, I'll be paying for the hackneyed, sub-mediocre slasher flick two theaters down instead.