Why I Like Buffy the Vampire Slayerâ€™s Body Better Than Jennifer's
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Religion often goes to the horror movies, taking with it a raft of cultural baggage.
In 1968, Rosemary's Baby incorporated the devil, anxieties over feminism and the controversy over birth control. A few years later, The Exorcist served up an unsettling combination of religious conservatism, the perceived dangers of single-parent families and the power of adolescent sexuality. Jennifer's Body is the latest offering in this genre.
There are plenty of horror fanboys, and a lot of fangirls, who have been eagerly waiting to take a peek at Jennifer's Body. The combination of Megan Fox showing skin and Diablo Cody's signature dialogue (made famous in Juno and United States of Tara) offers a feast for two usually incompatible groups: adolescent boys, and fans who like to see a bit of clever irony upset the conventions of the horror film. Cody's tale delivers, serving up both cheese and cheesecake in large portions.
Fox plays Jennifer Check, head of the cheerleading squad, who is deeply and sincerely lusted after by every raging hormone in her high school. In a nod to the evangelical paranoia of the 1980s, a "satanic rock band" (who, in this 21st century update, is an emo band called "Low Shoulder") attempts to use Jennifer as their virginal sacrifice.
It turns out that bad things happen when you try to sacrifice a non-virgin to the devil. Jennifer becomes an avatar of Satan and begins killing, and eating, every boy she can seduce. And, it turns out, Jennifer can seduce a lot of boys.
Horror films, even the schlocky ones, draw on lots of cultural and religious anxieties. Panic over teenage sexuality (both female and male), and its alleged dangers, is certainly not a new theme in American culture.
In 1734, Puritan divine Jonathan Edwards complained (with a thinly veiled metaphor) that the teens of his parish spent too much time in "company keeping." After World War II, American car culture increased elder anxieties about adolescent sexual experimentation. By the 1980s, films like Hardbodies and Porky's suggested that high school and spring break offered unlimited sexual exploration. By the 1990s, a new generation of parents learned from American Pie that not even dessert was safe from the adolescent libido.
Horror films in the "slasher" genre have long played with the connection between fear, eroticism and youth. Cultural critics have, in fact, often complained that horror director John Carpenter (writer/director of the ur-slasher hit Halloween) actually created a profoundly conservative formula in which randy teens get it on and are promptly murdered in some egregious fashion. This criticism has become so common that Carpenter once jokingly apologized for single-handedly bringing an end to the sexual revolution.
What critics have missed is that Eros and Thanatos are pals from way back, and the connection between them is not necessarily a message of moral judgment. Add some powerful religious symbolism, stir, and you have strong drink indeed.
Cody, a serious fan of the genre, understands this connection -- which rings true in her take on it, in a script that crackles and pops with her signature dialogue. She tries to do even more, as she makes clear when she recently described the film as a "Trojan horse" meant to sneak a feminist message into the cineplex, subverting the paradigm of horror films in which women are merely the shrieking victims of male violence.
I admire Cody's effort, but am not sure she has subverted older paradigms as much as made them shiny and new with her irresistible narrative style.
Indeed, the film could be read as a fairly simplistic rendering of women as the source of evil; tales that were born among ancient Mediterranean patriarchies but which have had a long and troubled history in the United States, as well.