Jennifer’s Body director Karyn Kusama and screenwriter Diablo Cody realized their film was in trouble well before it hit theaters in September 2009.
During the marketing phase of postproduction, the pair discovered the movie — in which mousy Needy Lesnicki (Amanda Seyfried) learns that her best friend Jennifer Check (Megan Fox) has been possessed by a man-eating demon — was not being accurately depicted in the ad campaign. While Kusama and Cody had wanted to make a movie for young women, specifically teen girls like Needy and Jennifer, Jennifer’s Body’s trailers and posters seemed suited only to attracting a young straight male audience.
The focus of the entire ad campaign was on Fox’s sex appeal, the irony of the title completely lost on the publicity team. Kusama told BuzzFeed News that she was horrified by one particularly egregious marketing suggestion, which would have had Fox host an amateur porn site to promote the film.
And when Kusama asked for an explanation behind another ad that was fixated on Jennifer’s hotness, she and Cody received a reply that still lives in infamy for the screenwriter. The email “wasn’t even grammatically correct,” Cody noted. “The response said, ‘Jennifer sexy, she steal your boyfriend.’ As if a caveman had written it. So that’s what we were dealing with.”
Meetings with marketing were a wake-up call for Kusama. “In those conversations, I was like, Oh, OK, we are seeing either we made a movie that they see completely differently, or what’s in front of them is something they don’t want to see,” she said. “And at the time it was painful, but now I’m realizing this is evident of the world at large.”
Even with less disastrous marketing, it’s likely Jennifer’s Body was always going to be a tough sell. This was a horror movie — a still misunderstood genre that was even more stigmatized several years back — that focused on teen girls, whose stories are rarely taken as seriously as those of their male counterparts. It starred, in the title role, Megan Fox, an actor best known for her thankless part in the critically reviled Transformers film series. Kusama’s last film, Æon Flux, was a massive flop. And while the same could not be said of Cody, the incredible success of her debut feature, 2007’s Juno, meant the industry was on high alert for any possible missteps: Hollywood loves to elevate rising talent, but not as much as it loves watching them fall.
But although Jennifer’s Body may have had a slew of biases and preconceptions working against it, the film clearly tapped into something that — just nine years after it debuted to poor reviews and box office numbers — has helped it become a modern-day horror classic. “Jennifer’s Body Would Kill If It Came Out Today,” a Vice headline declared in October. Bloody Disgusting insisted the film deserves cult status, while Refinery29 dubbed the title character a “feminist revenge hero who came too early.” Vox’s Constance Grady summed it up best: “Jennifer’s Body is good now. More precisely, Jennifer’s Body was always good, and everyone is just now starting to get on its level.”
It’s certainly not unprecedented for a movie everyone seemed to hate — the film has a 44% on Rotten Tomatoes — to reemerge as a misunderstood classic years later. But there’s something particularly frustrating about the way Jennifer’s Body is suddenly being called “timely” in the #MeToo era, as though the abuse and exploitation of women in a patriarchal society is merely part of a recent trend. Kusama and Cody were feminists when they made the film, and they created something that spoke to their feelings and concerns then, not in anticipation of a movement for hearing and believing women would.
The story of Jennifer’s Body is not just about why its feminist themes might have been better suited to our current climate, but also about why they were rejected so strongly less than a decade ago, with the film dismissed as mindless exploitation.
“For those of us who have been alive, it’s like — maybe on a zeitgeist-y level it’s timely,” Cody said. “But it’s a tale as old as time.”
On paper, Jennifer’s Body sounds like familiar horror fare, with some notable quirks. In Devil’s Kettle, Minnesota, Jennifer and Needy have been best friends since childhood: Jennifer is a popular cheerleader while Needy is her shy, virginal follower. After devil-worshipping indie rock band Low Shoulder attempts to sacrifice Jennifer, she becomes possessed by a demon who is hungry for human flesh. The new, homicidal Jennifer gains her strength by killing and eating her male classmates — as Needy struggles to keep her best friend’s murderous instincts in check.
The film wasn’t exactly the expected follow-up to Cody’s first movie. Juno, in which Ellen Page starred as the titular teenager who gets pregnant and decides to give her baby up for adoption, is an offbeat but heartfelt coming-of-age movie. But Jennifer’s Body — a wickedly funny retro slasher pastiche — is the movie Cody always wanted to write.
“To write a kind of feminist horror movie with a vintage vibe was a fantasy for me,” she said. “When Juno came out and it was successful and people said you can write whatever you want now, that was my first idea. It was like I suddenly had permission to create something that I’d been fantasizing about on some level for a while.”
And while Jennifer’s Body is a significant departure from Juno, the crisp, sardonic dialogue among the teenagers in Jennifer’s Body bears more than a passing resemblance to Juno’s highly quotable script, which earned Cody an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. Despite all the bloodshed, Jennifer’s Body also showcases the distinctive sense of humor that has become a hallmark of Cody’s films.
The screenwriter didn’t actually set out to write a horror-comedy, but that’s what Jennifer’s Body became.
“I always knew it was going to have darkly comedic elements, but it definitely ended up being campier than I thought,” she said. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat down and attempted to write a straight drama and failed. Young Adult wasn’t supposed to be funny. Tully wasn’t supposed to be funny, and I’m not saying either of those films are a laugh riot, but I have a comedic sensibility that I can’t seem to outrun.”
When Kusama first received the script, she was dubious: How could a movie titled Jennifer’s Body be any good? When she read it, however, she was struck by Cody’s unique voice, and by the way the script balanced humor and horror. That “wild swing between tones” reminded her of other movies she loved: The Howling, An American Werewolf in London, and Heathers. It was also significant that the screenwriter was a woman.
“It was just really wonderful to read something that was living very much in a girl’s world and from a female perspective, but that had that sort of formal innovation going for it,” Kusama said.
Although Kusama wasn’t necessarily looking for a horror film to direct, she shared Cody’s long-standing passion for the genre. Jennifer’s Body was the first opportunity she was given to helm horror; she has since directed 2015’s The Invitation and a segment of 2017’s anthology film XX.
“I’ve always been interested in horror,” Kusama said. “I often feel like horror and genre in general can be a really great container for ideas that are harder to actually make movies about.”
“People trusted me. Maybe they shouldn’t have.”
The concept that horror can be a profound vehicle for social commentary is nothing new, even if it’s frequently overlooked by the mainstream. Genre classics like Night of the Living Dead and Rosemary’s Baby have sharp, clearly defined perspectives about race and gender. And both films were a major influence on writer-director Jordan Peele, whose 2017 film Get Out was one of the purest articulations of the way the exaggerated world of the genre can expose the real-life horrors of American society.
When Kusama met with Cody so that the two could discuss their visions for Jennifer’s Body, and the deeper thematic elements at play, she was thrilled to discover they were on the same page.
“From the outset, I always felt like this is a horror movie about toxic friendships between girls. And on a larger scale, it’s about how these alliances between girls get distorted and corrupted by the patriarchy,” Kusama said. “We were just completely aligned by those kinds of ideas.”
It should have been harder to get Jennifer’s Body made than it was, but it’s a testament to the success of Juno that producers gave Cody and Kusama something close to carte blanche, which Cody says she hasn’t gotten since. They were given the freedom to make the film they wanted to make, despite the fact that nothing about it — aside, perhaps, from the casting of Fox and Seyfried — seemed particularly mainstream.
“People were just in a great mood at the time and were excited to be on board because it was the peak of my career certainly, coming off of a movie that had been a blockbuster, and unexpectedly,” Cody said. “I never thought that a movie about a pregnant teenager starring an unknown Canadian girl was gonna be a global success. So people trusted me. Maybe they shouldn’t have.”
It’s not just Jennifer’s Body’s subversive tone that distinguishes it from your standard demon possession movie. Horror is traditionally geared toward a young male audience, something that Kusama and Cody had little interest in. It was essential to both the director and screenwriter that the film have a specifically female perspective, whether or not that alienated anyone else who might watch it. Because they are both women, they were able to explore more challenging themes about female identity.
“I wrote it for girls,” Cody said, bluntly. “If a guy wrote a movie with the line ‘hell is a teenage girl,’ I would reject that. But I’m allowed to say it because I was one. I think the fact that we were a female creative team gave us permission to make observations about some of the more toxic aspects of female friendship.”
There are heady ideas at play here. In elaborating on Jennifer’s Body’s themes, Kusama explained, “Part of the problem of an imbalanced power structure like a patriarchy is that women participate in it. And so it’s important to have that conversation.”
“They had a marketing plan in place before seeing the movie and then just stuck with that.”
Is it any wonder the studio was baffled? These are not themes that can be easily condensed into a pithy tagline, and the marketing team was jumping through the extra hoop of translating these ideas to a young male audience, because the idea that perhaps Jennifer’s Body just wasn’t for boys never seemed to occur to anyone working on how to sell the movie to audiences. It didn’t help that test screenings confirmed that young men in particular just weren’t buying what Jennifer’s Body was selling.
Thus began the endless frustration of a nightmarish marketing campaign — the aforementioned suggestion that Fox host an amateur porn site, that “Jennifer sexy, she steal your boyfriend” email — with the primary goal of drawing in an audience who had been deliberately excluded by the film’s writer and director. In fact, Kusama said she felt outright hostility toward the young female audience she and Cody had made Jennifer’s Body for.
At the time, both the director and writer were concerned that young women would miss Jennifer’s Body entirely, while young men would be confounded by a movie that had very little to do with its bro-friendly marketing.
“You’re disappointing your audience. That’s an issue,” Cody said. “And also you’re turning off girls, who might have enjoyed the film. … It’s almost like they had a marketing plan in place before seeing the movie and then just stuck with that.”
Kusama agreed. “I kept sort of reminding everybody, ‘Guys, we can’t market this movie to boys,’” she said, “and then have them go to the theater expecting one thing and then seeing Megan Fox not really take off her clothes but rip a guy’s intestines out and eat them.”
As expected, the publicity tactics did not work: Jennifer’s Body grossed $16 million domestically on a $16 million budget. Reviews were not kind, to say the least. At the AV Club, Scott Tobias called it “clever for its own sake, a showy piece of writing that doesn’t have that all-important ballast of sincerity.” The Star’s Peter Howell said the film felt like “something [Diablo Cody] seems to have dashed off in-between talk show appearances and updating her MySpace page with her latest caustic witticisms.”
Perhaps more tellingly, and to the frustration of Kusama and Cody, Howell said it was unlikely Jennifer’s Body would “[attract] attention — or disappointment — outside of bored and horny teen boys.”
“I read the reviews for Jennifer's Body,” Cody said, “but I believe that was the last time I read reviews.”
“People wanted to see the movie as a cheap, trashy, exploitative vehicle for the hot girl from Transformers.”
Good reviews make you complacent, she explained, while bad reviews make you miserable. Kusama had a similar perspective at the time, especially after she’d been so badly burned by the critical response to Æon Flux, a film whose final cut she’s said was a far cry from the movie she made. She didn’t pay as much attention to the reviews for Jennifer’s Body, although she was aware of their tenor.
What both women objected to most was the way they believed the film’s misguided marketing had inadvertently informed the conversation around Jennifer’s Body: A movie they had made for girls was suddenly being dismissed as a movie for “horny teen boys.” They felt as though critics were reviewing the film that those dude-friendly trailers were selling, and not the film they’d actually made.
“Because of the way the film was marketed, people wanted to see the movie as a cheap, trashy, exploitative vehicle for the hot girl from Transformers,” Cody said. “That’s how people insisted on seeing the film, even though I think when you watch it, it’s pretty obvious that there’s something else going on.”
To Kusama and Cody, one of the most misunderstood moments in the film was the scene in which Needy and Jennifer make out. Cody included the kiss in her script because she wanted it to be clear that Needy is, on some level, in love with Jennifer. She acknowledged that audiences might be more sophisticated now and able to pick up on the queer subtext “without me dropping an anvil on them.”
“At the time I just thought, I want people to really understand how badly Needy wants Jennifer,” Cody said. “There is sexual tension between them. It’s not just a friendship.”
Because she was a woman writing the screenplay — and because the film was directed by a woman — Cody felt she had more freedom to include the steamy scene without it being read as exploitative. And yet, many critics, including some women, did criticize the moment on those terms. In her review for Salon, Stephanie Zacharek called it a “gratuitous lesbo makeout session.” A kissing scene like the one in Jennifer’s Body, she continued, is a “cheap attempt to titillate the audience, particularly when it has no real context or reason for being — it doesn’t matter if there’s a man or a woman behind the camera.”
These are the comments that irk Kusama the most, although she didn’t cite Zacharek’s review in particular. “I was just so insulted in a way by such a reductive reading of the film when the fact is, I think the imagery is erotic for myself. I have no intention of creating imagery simply to titillate anyone, male or female. I personally understood that that was a frightening, thrilling, subversive moment between these two girls who I think are largely coded as straight,” she said. “I knew I was making a movie about girls I knew, and I wasn’t making them for anyone’s sort of voyeuristic pleasure. I was actually wanting people to kind of confront the beauty and the ugliness of girls at this age.”
In reading the many negative reviews of Jennifer’s Body, there’s no denying that the bulk of the antipathy falls squarely on the shoulders of Cody and Fox. Both women have long inspired an uncomfortably vitriolic response, whether because of their fast rise to fame or their outspoken views. The reviews were occasionally cruel toward them, but Kusama recalled seeing internet comments that were far worse. Jennifer’s Body aside, there is something about Cody and Fox that seems to make certain people exceedingly angry.
“At the time I was very aware of people’s desire for me to fail, so I felt like a lot of the reviews were informed by that,” Cody said. “It’s less a truthful analysis of your art than it is a schadenfreude meter.”
Cody noted that the treatment she received is a pattern she has seen again and again with female creators, and while things may have gotten somewhat better, the culture is still not particularly kind to those who fit the formula Cody identified as “successful woman plus overtly, unabashedly sexual plus not conventionally hot.”
In the Jennifer’s Body reviews she did read, Kusama picked up on a recurring anti–Diablo Cody sentiment and the misogyny therein; like Cody, she has always been an outspoken feminist, although she has never been in the public eye nearly as much. And neither woman has been as world-famous as Megan Fox, who was, at one point in time, poised to become a major A-list star. After her appearance in the first Transformers, she was hailed as an exciting new sex symbol — but it didn’t take long before the tenor had changed. Backlash is a seemingly unavoidable consequence of being a rising female star in Hollywood — just ask Anne Hathaway or Jennifer Lawrence — and for those who had already decided to hate Fox, her role in Jennifer’s Body was an automatic mark against it.
It didn’t help, of course, that Fox’s most controversial moment came during the press tour for the movie, in which she infamously compared her Transformers director Michael Bay to Hitler. She never appeared in another Transformers film — she was scheduled to costar in the third movie — and the comment haunted her over the years, with most members of the media decidedly not on her side. But, perhaps as another consequence of our current cultural climate, the conversation around Fox has changed over the past year, alongside the critical reappraisal of Jennifer’s Body. The Entertainment Weekly story that appeared in the magazine just two weeks before Jennifer’s Body hit theaters was relentlessly nasty, beginning with its headline, “Crazy [Shit] Megan Fox Has Said.” Compare that to Marlow Stern’s article in the Daily Beast earlier this year, headlined “When Michael Bay Degraded Megan Fox — Then Tried to Sabotage Her Career.” The media once treated Michael Bay as someone who needed to be protected from Megan Fox; in 2018, it’s readily apparent who held the power between them.
“The thing about Megan that I think is hard for people to accept is that she’s actually a really sensitive, intelligent person,” Kusama said. “There’s a burden to a woman where the expectation is to just sort of shut up and be pretty. And that wasn’t actually Megan. That’s not who Megan is. ... That was interesting because that was kind of very Jennifer.”
“The film may have been overshadowed by the unrelenting vampiric nature of the media’s relationship to me.”
That wasn’t the only time during her interview with BuzzFeed News that Kusama aligned Fox with the character she played. In discussing Jennifer, Kusama said, “Had this [demonic possession] not happened to her, other terrible things would have been done to her in the name of her beauty and wanting to possess it and wanting to dismiss her and wanting to belittle her.”
When I pointed out that her description of the character sounded an awful lot like her reflections on Fox, Kusama readily agreed. “The hostility toward Megan,” she said, “seemed really to come from sort of a desire to possess and debase her and an inability to effectively do that.”
For her part, Fox has rarely spoken about Jennifer’s Body in the time since its release. Cody said she hasn’t ever talked to her about it, and wondered if she was ashamed of the movie. But while Fox wasn’t able to participate in an interview with BuzzFeed News, she sent a statement through her representative that speaks to the same issues that Kusama and Cody have addressed.
“The movie was ahead of its time, and while I think there is an argument to be made that it may not have been marketed appropriately, I genuinely don’t believe people were ready for a movie like that at that time in our society and culture,” Fox wrote. “I also think that the film may have been overshadowed by the unrelenting vampiric nature of the media’s relationship to me at that time. I’m glad that we’ve seen a shift in the collective conscious and now people are able to retroactively appreciate it.”
The dominant consensus among Jennifer’s Body fans — including some who were once detractors — is that the film was a victim of timing. The culture has evolved, and along with it, Hollywood and audiences have become more receptive to genre-bending, “difficult women,” and the feminist themes at the heart of Kusama and Cody’s film.
“Times have changed for sure,” Cody said. “At the time I certainly didn’t go, Oh, I think the film is a little bit ahead of its time, because that would be an arrogant dickhead thing to say.”
Now that Jennifer’s Body has been so much more widely embraced, however, she’s realized that perhaps it was. When articles started popping up this year hailing the film as a misunderstood masterpiece, Kusama and Cody emailed each other trying to figure out why everyone was suddenly talking about it. Cody wondered if perhaps they’d hit the 10-year anniversary. Nope: nine.
But there is something unequivocally timely about Jennifer’s Body in 2018: The film’s exploration of trauma and violence, while not unique to the current era, is more resonant than ever. Moments of horror now beg to be read through a contemporary lens that grounds them in a more painful reality. In her Vox article, Constance Grady cites the scene in which Low Shoulder laughs at Jennifer begging for mercy before they stab her to death.
“Watching that moment in 2018 brings up unavoidable echoes of Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony about Brett Kavanaugh’s alleged assault on her when she was a teenager, of the phrase ‘Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter,’” Grady writes. “Jennifer’s pain is funny to these men. For them, it’s a lark. But for her, it’s a moment of trauma that is going to change her forever.”
It’s not just about bad men, either. In Kusama’s own examination of what has made Jennifer’s Body the (very belated) movie of the year, she returned to one of her most pressing themes: “Maybe you just watched Susan Collins vote yes on Kavanaugh and you say, ‘Wait a second, what about that movie that was sort of about girls becoming monstrous in the face of the patriarchy?’”
As more and more people discover Jennifer’s Body, fans might wonder what kind of future there could be for the characters Cody created. She said she has no interest in a sequel — “I’m scared of movies” — but that she still wants to make the Jennifer’s Body TV series she’s been talking about for years. Buffy the Vampire Slayer was once a much-maligned movie, Cody noted, and the TV adaptation went on to become one of the most iconic shows of all time. When she first pitched the Jennifer’s Body series, she was told there was no interest. Perhaps things have changed.
“I could have made more movies like Jennifer’s Body if people had actually fucking gone.”
In the meantime, however, Cody is still coming to terms with how dramatically the critical consensus around her least successful film has shifted. It’s only in the past year that she’s begun to accept just how many people have discovered and come to love Jennifer’s Body since its release. And while she’s grateful for the reappraisal, she also acknowledges that the moment is bittersweet.
“People constantly talk about how underrated it is now, and I’m like, Why didn’t anybody go see it at the time? I’m salty,” Cody said. “I could have made more movies like Jennifer’s Body if people had actually fucking gone or had been positive about it.”
The resentment is not unwarranted, even if there’s no sense in blaming audiences for missing out on Jennifer’s Body when it was released, particularly given how deliberately the marketing led them astray. But while most people may not have been ready to embrace the film in 2009, Cody and Kusama were creating something that felt deeply relevant to them then. It’s hard not to be frustrated by the way Jennifer’s Body’s themes — so obvious and ingrained to the women behind the movie — are only now being broadly recognized.
As zen as Kusama is about the film and the shifting perceptions around it, she can’t help but state the obvious: The culture may have changed, but Jennifer’s Body hasn’t.
“I have long defined filmmaking and directing in particular as just a sort of long-term act of letting go,” she said. “It’s honestly just gratifying that people are sort of reapproaching or reassessing the film. I like to just remind everyone that the movie is still the same — it’s the same movie, it’s the movie we always made, and it was the movie we always wanted to make. And maybe it just came several years too early.” ●