The feminist horror film Jennifer’s Body is now a cult classic, but “frat boy” marketing may have been to blame for its initial struggles.
Like most cult horror films, Jennifer’s Body took time to find its audience. Its initial release in 2009 was regarded as a misfire, grossing only a modest profit amid heavily mixed reviews. Critics were divided by what they perceived as an uneven tone, and dismissed it as a failed effort at low-bar fun. Time, however, has told a much different story. Though its narrative structure remains awkward, fans discovered its savage feminist undertones. It underwent a serious critical revision in the wake of the #MeToo movement, and today is regarded as a cult classic. The New York Times even included it in a 2018 article citing the best horror movies directed by women.
Much of the early damage was studio-inflicted. A poor marketing plan badly misunderstood the film’s pro-feminist stature, presenting as straight what was supposed to be taken with a grain of salt. The critical skepticism came from seeing something much different than promised, and considering that Jennifer’s Body was both written and directed by women, it’s not hard to spot misogynist leanings in the move. Indeed, misogyny lay at the heart of the film’s marketing plan, and its eventual redemption as a feminist horror classic is particularly fitting in the face of its storyline.
Jennifer’s Body concerns itself with two high school friends — the titular cheerleader played by Megan Fox and her “plain” friend Needy played by Amanda Seyfried. After a night out with a rock band trying to sell their soul for stardom, Jennifer transforms into a cannibalistic succubus and begins snacking on eager-beaver boys lured in by thinly disguised come-ons. Needy is forced to find a way of stopping her.
The film’s current reputation stems largely from the dynamic between the two women, and the way a larger patriarchal power structure sets them at each other. Their conflict is created by and benefitting men, which the film emphasizes with clever twists on horror tropes such as the Final Girl. Jennifer’s transformation occurs as a de facto sexual assault – Needy refers to the band’s van as “an ’89 Rapist” at one point – with the male characters utterly unable to mount a defense. Jennifer herself seems blithely indifferent to the band’s attack on her — sketchy character motivation is a recurring issue in the film — leaving it to Needy both to clean up her friend’s mess and avenge the both of them upon the men who caused it all.
The film doesn’t pull punches with its violence, and Jennifer’s assault, in particular, is quite brutal. That, and the other gory moments, ran head-first into what marketing and promotional material had promised as something entirely different. Fox had been hyped as a sex symbol ever since 2007’s Transformers – whose director, Michael Bay, sexualized her almost to the point of self-satire – and lead-up to Jennifer’s Body wasn’t shy about taking advantage of it. That included the poster, featuring Fox in a skimpy teenager’s skirt and top with the words “HELL YES!” written on a blackboard behind her. The trailer similarly featured Fox in a series of revealing outfits, as well an inferred kiss with Seyfried and the phrase “I go both ways” presented as a punchline.
That, combined with the film’s R-rating and a September release date – a traditional dumping ground for bad movies when school starts and box office figures drop – forced the film into an uphill battle from the start. The presumption of lighter content promised by the marketing ran headlong into both the overt gore and the dark feminist messaging, creating confusion in its wake. Director Karyn Kusama blamed the film’s box office failure on its PR plan in a 2018 interview with IndieWire, and considering all of the other factors – including women both in the director’s chair and at the writing desk with screenwriter Diablo Cody – the charges of “frat boy marketing” are hard to deny.
The film had the last laugh, of course, with a revived reputation and a focus on women protagonists rarely seen in horror movies. The toxicity between Needy and Jennifer is complex and truthful, but required the kind of lead-up that 20th Century Fox just wasn’t prepared to commit to. Like the men in the movie, the joke’s on them; the very qualities they overlooked were the ones that helped it outlast their dismissal and find its intended audience.
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