Like a demon in sheep's clothing, Jennifer's Body comes on like just another entry in an endless cycle of teen-oriented horror pictures. But there is a much more savage - and substantial - beast lurking beneath. Not since Brian De Palma's Carrie has a horror movie so effectively exploited the genre as a metaphor for adolescent angst, female sexuality and the strange, sometimes corrosive bonds between girls who claim to be best friends.
Directed by Karyn Kusama (Girlfight, Aeon Flux) and written by Diablo Cody (this is her follow-up to the Oscar-winning Juno), Jennifer's Body could certainly be described as a feminist horror film. This is the story of Jennifer (Megan Fox, proving she can act after all), the most beautiful and sought-after girl in school, who fawns over the members of an indie rock band (led by The O.C.'s Adam Brody), is sacrificed to Satan for her efforts and returns as a demon who lives off the flesh of adolescent boys.
Jennifer's best friend since childhood, Needy (Mamma Mia's Amanda Seyfried), is somewhat bookish and nerdy, but she's much more adjusted and sane than her prettier, more slutty pal. Needy has a steady boyfriend, the all-around nice guy Chip (Johnny Simmons). She gets good grades in school, and she makes the best of life with her single, largely absent mother (Amy Sedaris, in a brief but effective performance).
Jennifer and Needy wear matching heart-shaped pendants engraved BFF, but that bond becomes sorely tested after Jennifer shows up at Needy's door covered in blood, screeching like a banshee and projectile-vomiting black goo that looks like "roadkill and sewing needles mixed together."
"Sandbox love never dies," a pre-possession Jennifer says about her unlikely friendship with Needy, who is at least three circles beneath her in the high-school social pecking order. But the manner in which their undying friendship is taxed - and the unexpected ways in which it develops - make the worst behavior of Heathers and Mean Girls combined seem like the antics of a 4-H Club campfire singalong.
One of the themes Kusama and Cody explore in Jennifer's Body is the love-hate nature at the center of friendships between girls as they edge into adolescence - the unspoken rivalry and jealousies that become interwoven into their relationships (boys don't have that problem because we basically don't change after the age of 12).
Jennifer's Body is also uncommonly fearless when it delves into the subject of teen sex. When the baby-faced Needy and the even younger-looking Chip get together for a stay-at-home date and start talking about condoms and lubrication, the conversation comes as a shock, because movies have traditionally taught us that only the "bad'' girls have sex when they're 16. The good ones - those who, like Needy, do their homework and are responsible - never slide past first base.
One of the most astonishing sequences in Jennifer's Body is a cross-cutting between Jennifer as she gets ready to devour her latest conquest, a piercings and makeup-sporting Goth (Kyle Gallner), and Chip and Needy as they have awkward, tentative sex. In the midst of the action, Needy begins to have visions of Jennifer's bloody, murderous antics. But the inexperienced Chip interprets her horrified groans and moans as signs of pleasure, and the camera catches his fleeting, smug "I'm such a stud" grin. Later, after they've stopped, Chip asks the still-terrified Needy "Did I hurt you?" Even at their young age, the boy and girl already inhabit different galaxies when it comes to sex.
A lot of Jennifer's Body is peppered with such perceptive and compassionate odes to the agonizing rites of adolescence. But the movie is an unwieldy and ungainly contraption, stuffed with Cody's immensely quotable but self-conscious dialogue, which constantly reminds you of the screenwriter's presence at its edges ("Jennifer is evil. Actual evil. Not high-school evil'').
Jennifer's Body isn't particularly scary: Kusama feints at frightening her audience early on, but her heart just isn't in it, and she eventually loses interest. And the movie's humor is either too stale (Wikipedia gags were funny when we first heard them on The Office two seasons ago) or too dark and scalding for laughter. And some jokes, such as an ill-conceived riff on 9/11, stick out for their offensiveness.
The movie is going to frustrate a lot of critics, because Kusama is constantly shifting tonal gears, and she never tells you what you should be thinking or feeling. The film also seems to contradict itself in the way it views its characters. Is Jennifer a monster or a victim? That ambivalence will puzzle many viewers, but it is ultimately what makes Jennifer's Body so intriguing. There's a lot more going on here than just this week's dead-teens-on-parade show. If the movie had pulled double-duty and delivered the horror goods, it could have been a classic.