Written by the Academy Award winning Diablo Cody
Directed by Karyn Kusama
Megan Fox: Jennifer
Amanda Seyfried: Anita "Needy" Lesnicki
Johnny Simmons: Chip
Chris Pratt: Roman Duda (fulfilling the obligation for all actors to have a horror movie on their resume somewhere)
Well, I wasn't really looking forward to this one; I've never been a fan of Megan Fox. That in and of itself was enough to keep me from checking the film out but the poster looked awful to the point where I wondered why anyone bothered making the film. But, as my fellow HubrisWeen participants are finding out year by year, there really aren't that many horror movies that start with J. Maybe next year I'll get to that Jack the Ripper movie directed by the dude who gifted Road House to the world. For right now, it's time to watch a horror-comedy from a writer that I wouldn't have necessarily associated with one of those genres.
The film starts with a POV camera gliding towards a rural house like a sedated Evil Dead demonic presence; one girl stands outside the bedroom window of another, then drops out of sight when the second girl turns to look. From there, we go to the denoument, I guess. The girl outside the window turns out to be Anita Lesnicki, a young woman in a mental institution when we first get to hear from her on the voiceover. She's known to be violent (kicking a therapist in the face to the general approval of the hundreds of other women in orange sweatsuits in the cafeteria). Anita (known as "Needy" to her friends as well as whoever compiled her file at the asylum) gets tossed into an isolation cell, which is a cue for the "How I Got This Way" feature-length flashback.
Non-Institutionalized Needy lives in a town called Devil's Kettle, named for a waterfall that terminates in a sinkhole so deep that the water never resurfaces anywhere. Head cheerleader at DK High Jennifer Check has been best friends with movie-ugly Needy (she has glasses! Ewww!) since kindergarten or so. Other students apparently think Needy's gay, but that doesn't appear to be the case. Jennifer announces that they're going to see a band from "the city" called Low Shoulder (the film can be carbon-dated to the late 2000s by Jennifer mentioning the band's MySpace page). Jennifer wants a less-hot sidekick at the concert so that she has someone there as a companion, but not one that looks better than her. Jennifer's hoping to have sex with Low Shoulder's lead singer ("Girls like her don't go out with drummers" is probably not the right thing for Needy to say to her boyfriend Chip, who is a drummer in the school's pep band).
Chip has a pretty low opinion of the dive bar where Low Shoulder will be playing ("It's like a bingo hall with taps"); Jennifer thinks he's just jealous (or "Jell-O", in what is either one example among many of intentionally bad Movie TeenSpeak or proof that I'm utterly out of touch with what the kids are saying now with their hip lingo). At the redneck bar, while waiting for a band, we get an introduction to the foreign exchange student, a jock, and the local police trainee Roman Duda, who is perhaps best described as the larval form of Sergeant Tackleberry. If one has seen a horror movie before, one assumes that we're meeting the Expendable Meat for the second act of the film.
The band shows up (Roman assumes they're gay because they have eyeliner; Jennifer thinks they're glamorous because they're not wearing flannel and they know how to play instruments). Jennifer puts on a giggly-naive-schoolgirl act to try and get into lead singer Nikolai's pants; Needy wonders why the band is playing in a cultural wasteland like her hometown ("We like to connect with our fans in shitty areas, too" might be a touch too honest for Needy to hear). Jennifer buys Nikola a "really awesome 9/11 tribute shooter", some kind of thing made of red, white and blue liquors. That's probably a real bar special that Diablo Cody knew about and stuck in the movie thinking the audience would think it was satire.
When Jennifer goes off to get drinks for Nikolai and herself, Needy wanders off to shoot some pinball and overhear the band talking about her friend (Nikolai says that he grew up in a cultural afterthought like Devil's Kettle and knows its people--he says Jennifer's a virgin who likes to show herself off but not put out). Needy quits her pinball game to tell Nikolai off; she says her best friend is still a virgin but that's a hell of a lot better than fucking creeps who drive out to the sticks to impress high schoolers with their band. She's got a point. She's also lying, and lets Jennifer know what Nikolai and the band were talking about.
Low Shoulder turns out to play the kind of radio-friendly indie rock that I bought a CD burner (and then, later, an iPod) to avoid ever hearing in the car or at home. It sounds like everything that faded up in a movie trailer from 2006-2011 or so. Jennifer's actually having fun at the concert with her friend, and Needy's happy because her best friend is happy.
Partway through the first number, the overloaded electrical system sets fire to the curtain on the back of the stage; by the time anyone notices things are hugely out of control (Needy's the only one who notices the lead singer smiling as it happens). Needy knows how to sneak into the bar from the bathroom window, which means she knows a way to get out that isn't on fire or blocked by bodies. Nikolai shows up, toting a beer, and says he thinks his van would be a nice safe place to wait while the bar burns to the ground. Jennifer says that sounds good while Needy can't believe what she's hearing (and if she wasn't panicky and traumatized right now she'd notice how flat and unemotional Nikolai sounds when he's making the suggestion). Nikolai pours half a beer down Jennifer's throat and drags her off to his van, leaving Needy behind (and neither Jennifer nor Nikolai gives the burning tavern a second glance before they leave).
Needy gets home and calls Chip, having a delayed emotional breakdown while describing the scene to him. The doorbell rings while Needy's home alone and a sequence that could have been really suspenseful if the filmmakers decided where the camera was supposed to be ensues; Needy goes down a creaky narrow staircase and opens the door but nobody's there. When she closes the door, someone or something is already inside the house with her. It turns out that every hinge in the Lesnicki household needs oiling and all the floorboards creak. After turning the kitchen faucets off to stop a persistent drip, Needy turns around and Jennifer is behind her, with her clothing splattered with blood and semi-catatonic but grinning. That's probably a good sign, right?
Jennifer tries to eat some chicken from her friend's mom's fridge and vomits up a gallon of black oily sludge in what amounts to a horror movie cover band take on Evil Dead 2. Hey, if you're gonna wear your influences on your sleeve that's a good one to show off. The liquid grows spikes out of it and Jennifer starts giggling; that's probably a worse development than the vomiting. Jennifer gives Needy a really creepy hug and then leaves the house.
The next morning, the high school rumor mill is working overtime to make Jennifer and Needy's escape from the bar something much more badass and action-movie oriented than it actually was. Needy's catatonic in class, but resumes her normal mental state when Jennifer shows up, seemingly none the worse for wear after almost being set on fire, abducted by Low Shoulder, puking up enough monster yuck to fill a toilet tank and otherwise inconvenienced. Jennifer can only summon enough empathy to say "Sucks to be them, I guess" when Needy tries to point out that they knew everyone who died at the concert disaster the previous night, and unfortunately the film didn't quite give us enough time to know whether or not she's supposed to seem more sociopathically indifferent to other people now than she was earlier in the film. That is to say: Are there mental changes in her that go along with the physiological ones she's already demonstrated? And what's up with that whole puking-obsidian-slime-on-the-kitchen-floor deal, anyway?
J. K. Simmons shows up to be awesome as the biology teacher who has absolutely no idea how to connect with his students. He gives a reasonably awful inspirational speech to the class about not letting the fire win (with a pretty great sight gag when he hands the crying football meathead a tissue) and then, alas, his scene ends. In the hall between classes she ties to tell Chip about the visit from Jennifer the previous night. Chip thinks she needs to talk to the school counselor, because she had an amazingly terrible night and isn't too tightly wrapped at the moment. A goth student stops by to tell Needy he's glad she didn't die in the catastrophe, which is an unexpectedly nice thing for anyone to say in a horror movie set in a high school.
Out on the football field, a zooming Sam Raimi-type tracking shot covers about a half a mile before getting to Jonas, that jock goof that was crying in biology class. Jennifer shows up from an impossible direction and uses his grief over his best friend, who died in the Low Shoulder fire, to lure him into the woods surrounding the high school campus. She tears Jonas' jersey off and then bites him to death with badly rendered demon teeth; the bio teacher, hearing the death screams, believes he's listening to some kind of primal-yelling grief therapy. He's the one who stumbles over the body in the forest (I'm not sure exactly why he was walking in the forest when the previous shot had him getting into his car after work), and Jonas is looking quite a bit worse for wear when he gets discovered.
While the paramedics load the body bag into an ambulance that isn't going to need to hit the lights or sirens on the way out of the school parking lot, Jennifer goes for a nude swim in a nearby lake in a scene I'm sure was used in the trailers to imply that Megan Fox goes topless in the film. In case you were wondering, the film's R rating is for cussing and disembowelment so far, not for breasts on display. Jennifer calls Needy later that day to say she feels fantastic; I guess that killing and possibly partially consuming teenaged boys really agrees with her. She doesn't even feel pain when she burns her tongue with a cigarette lighter.
Chip calls Needy and says they need to meet up in a local park; judging from the red and blue police lights flickering outside the room where Chip's making the call, something else is up. It's dark when Needy gets there (after Jennifer tells her that Chip looks really cute, and asking Needy about her boyfriend's dick size before the call ends). When Needy gets to the park, Chip tells her about Jonas' death, mutilation and partial consumption. Needy thinks the nightclub fire and Jonas' death are connected, though she can't quite articulate how.
Montage time! Newspaper headlines about the tragedy! A quite well-done slow motion shot of Megan Fox walking down a hallway in a pink hoodie while all the mourning students are wearing dark somber clothing! A spectacularly tacky high school choir singing a Low Shoulder song at a candlelight vigil! A shrine to the football player in the main hallway at school!
One month after Melody Lane burned down, Low Shoulder decides to release their song "Through the Trees" as a benefit single, contributing a whopping 3 percent of its profits to local families who lost people in the disaster. Needy finds it crass, and uses her status as a survivor and witness of the tragedy to speak out. Nobody else wants to hear it, though. Jennifer looks like death warmed over at this chronologically significant point; Needy thinks she's really sick and Jennifer hates that now that her skin and hair look horrible she's been downgraded to "normal", looks-wise. When Colin the goth asks Jennifer out to a movie (a midnight showing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show) she shoots him down. When Needy says that she likes Colin it changes Jennifer's mind; she invites him over to watch Aquamarine (a movie where one of the leads of The Innkeepers plays a mermaid) at her place.
Needy makes plans to hang out with Chip (who mentions that he's bought more condoms, but also doesn't want to pressure his girlfriend into doing anything she doesn't want to do--it's kind of adorable the way they both flail through the conversation like a pool noodle in a hurricane). The scenes of Chip and Needy expressing their affection and love for each other get intercut with Colin driving to his doom (listening to a really awful / fantastic pop-punk cover of "I Can See Clearly Now"). When he gets to the address that Jennifer sent to him it's a creepy row house that's still under construction. He sneaks in past the plastic-sheeting covered window and those creaky floorboards make a return appearance. The Spring-Loaded Crow is a new wrinkle, though, and like all horny teenagers in a horror movie it isn't enough to scare Colin away from getting eaten by the monster of lust.
Jennifer put out plenty of candles and has some mood music playing, and comes on strong enough to get past Colin's reservations. While Needy and Chip make love (looking into each others' eyes and kissing; it's actually a pretty romantic scene), Jennifer uses her supernatural strength to break Colin's arms and terrify him before murdering and partially eating him. We get an exposition drop here, too: Jennifer (or whatever it is inside her that's making her supernaturally beautiful and strong) needs her victims terrified and hopeless in order to make full use of their deaths. Needy hallucinates blood and corpses while the simultaneous Eros / Thanatos scenes are going on. Chip's too distracted to notice how distraught Needy is at first, but becomes aware that something's really shaken his girlfriend up (the goofy anticipation on his face when he asks if he's too big for her is one of the best and subtlest jokes in the movie).
In the wake of her psychic vision thing, Needy drives off to look for her friend, eventually finding her covered in blood in the middle of a fog-wreathed road. Needy skids past her friend, who provides a jump scare by leaping into the air and landing on the car's hood (the film might be realistic enough that Needy has to explain that cracked windshield to her mom), then skittering away into the night. Needy goes home, calls for her mother (who is off at work on the night shift) and breaks down sobbing. It's nice to see someone in a horror movie who doesn't have all the answers and isn't instantly tough enough to deal with whatever the supernatural throws at them.
Once Needy collapses into her bed and tries to get some sleep, it turns out Jennifer's already there and claiming that this is a "slumber party" rather than a monster getting to the Lesnicki house faster than a car and lying in ambush. Jennifer gives her friend a kiss that leads to a not-exploitative-at-all makeout session that Needy breaks off when she remembers that the thing that looks like her friend is really a flesh-eating monster. Jennifer decides to explain what's up with things (telling Needy that best friends don't have any secrets from each other).
It turns out that Nikolai from Low Shoulder wanted a virgin for reasons other than the usual rock star bedpost notch scorecard ones. The band has books on the occult in their van, and wanted Jennifer for a ritual sacrifice to Satan rather than sex (and it seems that Nikolai's the ringleader of the cover as well as the band; he talks one of his bandmates into going through with a Satanic ritual by giving him the choice between wealth and fame or working at Moose Hoof Coffee for the rest of his life. Given those terms, it's an easy choice). In an equally matter-of-fact way, Nikolai explains to Jennifer that the modern indie-rock marketplace is oversaturated and being in league with the devil is the only way he can see that guarantees success. Jennifer's terrified, of course, and winds up getting stabbed to death by Nikolai--although unlike the scenes with her victims, we don't see any gore when Jennifer gets killed. That's because sympathizing with a terrified murder victim calls for different cinema techniques than cheering on a monster that's working its way through a checklist of high school cliques.
Needy wonders if the sacrifice really did kill Jennifer (her friend doesn't think it did, or at least that's Jennifer's story and she's sticking to it). Something else that Jennifer tells her friend (or possibly just implies it--the movie's a touch unclear about just how much Needy knows and Jennifer tells her, exactly ) about that night is that she ran into Ahmet the exchange student, killed and ate him, and wound up supernaturally tough after she fed on him. She demonstrates how quickly she regenerates from a wound by name-checking the X-Men, which makes sense. Jennifer also implies that anyone Needy tells about what she's seen will assume that the less popular girl has PTSD based on escaping the fire and that nobody's going to listen to her. When Jennifer threatens Chip, Needy's finally had enough of this weirdness and orders her to leave. Which she does, jumping out of a second-story window and getting out of sight in the seconds it takes Needy to get to the window.
Colin has his funeral--and one of the things I do like about the movie is that it shows the victims leave behind grieving families; the film doesn't treat them as awesome kill sequences that are immediately forgotten. Devil's Kettle institutes a curfew and tells all its high-school students about the buddy system. That's also a good idea. Since all she knows is that clearly impossible things are happening, her friends and classmates are dying, and Jennifer Check is in the center of what's going on, Needy decides to do some research and figure out exactly what kind of monster is preying on the town. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Devil's Kettle High has a large selection of occult books in its library and Needy figures out that Jennifer's been possessed by a succubus because the sacrifice went wrong (a side effect of your victim being "impure"). According to the literature, stabbing a demon in the heart will kill it and they're weakest when they haven't fed for a while.
Another commendable thing about this movie--Needy doesn't instantly turn into Ashley Williams when she knows what she's up against. She winds up withdrawing and thinking things over to the point where she stops talking to anybody while she's processing what she knows. And she's terrible at explaining things when Chip reminds her about the upcoming school dance. She says she isn't going to go and tells Chip he shouldn't either--and Chip reacts with concern for his girlfriend. Needy tries explaining what she knows about Jennifer ("She's evil." "I know." "No, I mean she's actually evil. Not high-school evil.") and it turns out that going on about human sacrifice (and Low Shoulder being Satanists and that non-virgin sacrifices get possessed by a demon and Jennifer's newly demonic personality viewing the dance as a soul-food buffet) doesn't sound any better to Chip than it does to you, dear reader, when someone lays it all out like that. Chip tries not to be insensitive to his girlfriend, but he also doesn't want to waste $12 on a genuine orchid corsage and eat the cost of the formal tickets.
It goes terribly for Needy after that--Chip thinks she's breaking up with him, and she winds up alone in a school alcove after he walks off. But the dance is coming, and everyone wants to look good. Chip's mom gives him a pepper-spray bottle as part of his dance preparations; the adults in this movie aren't stupid and that would probably work against a human antagonist. Both Needy and Chip try to put on a happy face for the pictures their mothers take before the dance (and tellingly, neither one has a father in their lives; we never meet either of Jennifer's parents, for that matter).
At the dance, Needy's a wallflower looking around to make sure the succubus-possessed Jennifer doesn't wander off with any of the boys. She's so busy looking for Jennifer there that she doesn't realize Chip isn't there either, and it turns out that while her boyfriend was walking to the dance through the foggy dark night, Jennifer was following him. She psyches out Chip by saying Needy was cheating on him with Colin the goth (he buys this pretty much instantly) and Jennifer then drops the boom, saying she's always pined for Chip from afar and feels so, so bad for him right now. Just as Jennifer starts trying to make her move on Chip, we get another ominous development back at the dance as Low Shoulder makes an unannounced appearance for a free performance. It's always nice when big stars give something back to their fans.
Low Shoulder's first song of the night, "I'm Still Here Breathing Now", is intercut with Jennifer's seduction of Chip. Though when she tells him to tell her she's better than his girlfriend, Chip gets weirded out and repulsed by this, as well he should. Needy gets another (still-unexplained) psychic flash and runs out to save Chip from the possessed Jennifer. It's a horror movie, not an action movie, so she's too late to save her boyfriend from her foremer best friend. She also misses out on Chip turning down a chance to have sex with Jennifer because he's still loyal to Needy even though he thought she dumped him. There's also another Evil Dead reference when Jennifer levitates out of the abandoned pool that's the site of Chip's murder (and at least a possible "City of Heroes" reference when Needy points out that hovering isn't true flight, and is not really that impressive). The one positive thing about the whole horrible experience is that Needy finally tells Jennifer what an awful person she was and what a shit friend she'd been even before she got her brain reamed out and filled with a demonic puppeteer.
However, Jennifer didn't get to feed on Chip, so she's still weak and injured; Needy, on the other hand, is full of vengeful fury. And there's still more Sam Raimi levitation and female-gendered insults during the fight scene where Needy applies the knowledge she learned from the school library's occult section, eventually triumphing over her antagonist.
But, y'know, the movie started with Needy in an asylum for the criminally insane, so we know that killing Jennifer doesn't do anything but stop the killings (and I assume that Needy took the fall for all the other murders). And an out-of-left-field twist ending reveals that demonic levitation and strength are communicable diseases; Needy got bitten but not killed by the Jennifer-thing and has a few more names to cross off her Shit List before she feels like she can stop. Lucky for her some people are willing to stop for a hitchhiker, as long as she's cute. And it's nice to see a cameo appearance by a horror luminary in that car.
Man, I wasn't expecting much from this movie--and it did exceed my modest hopes unreservedly. It's a vanishingly rare movie--a horror film about female characters with female concerns, and examining a toxic relationship between two adolescent women. The only other fright flick I can think of with women as the main characters is The Descent--and this one has a woman playing the protagonist as well as the villain. Even more surprising than that, Megan Fox displays more than one emotion over the course of the film and isn't just on screen to show off her body. Even the least charitable of reviewers would be forced to conceded that she is genuinely acting. Both the writer and the director have given her more to do in this film than in anything else I've seen her in. It's not a fantastic film, but it's a bit above average and made with plenty of affection for horror films of the VHS generation. You could do quite a bit worse, but you could do a whole lot better as well. It's just as well that I didn't have much of a choice when looking for this year's J movie, because pleasant surprises from quarters least expected are one of my HubrisWeen traditions.
Even if the marketing department utterly fumbled by not putting Megan Fox in a cheerleader outfit on the poster. Think of the tagline: "Two! Four! Six! Eight! Who will she eviscerate?"
This review is part of the HubrisWeen blogging roundtable where 26 horror movies are reviewed in 26 days. Click on the banner to see what everyone else did for J. There's not many movies that work for this category that start with J.