On the release of Diablo Cody's smarter-than-it-looks dive into campy horror-comedy Jennifer's Body, this week's Reelist takes a look at other high school films, both horrific and hilarious, that flip teenage tropes on their head.
"Jennifer's evil...she's actually evil, not high school evil," says heroine Needy Lesnicky (Amanda Seyfried) in the new Megan Fox-starrer Jennifer's Body. Directed by Girlfight's Karyn Kusama and "from the mind" of Juno-scribe Diablo Cody (and come on, however it does, it's being sold as Cody's film far more than Kusama's) the horror-comedy is a smart left turn for the Oscar-winning writer. It subverts expectations, of course: nobody ever expects a horror film to be good, and if you get the chance to take your basic gory horror and add some layers to it? Well then, you're a genius.
Similar in spirit to the high school is horror and girls can be terrors vein that Jennifer's Body is striving for, films like Carrie,Heathers, Buffy the Vampire Slayer (admittedly, more the TV show), and Teeth take basic high school emotions—feeling like an outcast, a loser, a virgin—and flip them on their head, showing female characters coming into their own power. (Teen Witch can sort of apply, too, but in the bright/shiny/cheesy category.)
This week's Reelist takes a look at several high school flicks that could've been an inspiration to Cody, whether we're dealing in horror metaphors or rich, irony-laden snarky comedy. What unites these flicks? Good metaphors and a tendency to deal with sex on terms that are far more interesting than the "final girl" tradition (i.e., when the virginal heroine finishes off the bad guy). We have a feeling that Jennifer's Body plays around with the Megan Fox-is-the-sexiest-girl-ever meme, turning a critical eye towards the audience's expectations of the character. (Kind of similar to how, in real life, the media-genius Cody appears to be self-aware, both playing into and totally above the grating "stripper-turned-writer!" marketing around her "brand.") The nerdy girl character (who is a hottie in glasses, of course), gets to have sex and enjoy it, which doesn't quite make her a final girl. And this is all wrapped up in a major-league horror movie. Kind of subversive, yes?
A full-fledged horror classic, Carrie starts with school outcast Carrie White (Sissy Spacek) being humiliated in the girls' locker room after she gets her period. After all, when your mom (Piper Laurie, who was nominated for an Oscar, along with Spacek) is a devoutly religious dame, she's not going to tell you what that time of the month is all about; she'll simply call you dirty.
De Palma's audacious film, with its split screens/slow-motions and a whole host of other tricks, has created quite the template for any teenager revenge flick. But it's partially the story—stemming from one of Stephen King's first efforts—that sticks with the audience: that is, the casual cruelty of the kids. Oh, and the ever ethereal/creepy/wonderful face of Spacek, who was originally cast as mean girl Christine Hargenseon. When Melanie Griffith dropped out of the lead role, Spacek asked for a chance, and got the role by arriving to the audition all dressed up as a hot mess: Vaseline in her hair, unwashed face, and wearing a creepy sailor dress from her childhood. And cinema history was created.
Okay, so this is the nerdiest film in the queue. And keep in mind that this film came out the same year as Heathers, which is part of the reason that the latter's amazing dialogue and dark plot was such an anomaly at the time. (Still is, really, save Mean Girls.) Ever-cheesy, 1989's Teen Witch started out as a female version of Teen Wolf. In this quasi-musical, teen nerd Louise Miller (Robin Lively, the older sister to Gossip Girl Blake) is non-existent to the hottest guy in school and a token of ridicule for the glamorous cheerleaders.
But then she becomes a witch. And her dreams come true. Even if witchery is a false god and she has to believe in herself. (Shades of the dark 1996 version of this plot can be found in the teen horror classic The Craft, with Fairuza Balk.) And this happens. Oh, the horror!
Heathers. Every high school comedy needs to answer to this dark comedy masterpiece (and you know Cody has a thread-bare copy of this on VHS)."My teenage angst has a body count." So classic! It's the price paid by Veronica (Winona Ryder), a popular girl who had changed her whole personality around to fit in with the ruling clique: the Heathers. From the super quotable script to the sharp, smart direction to the fact that a kid running around killing people and framing it as suicide is dark as hell and simply wouldn't really fly in the post-Columbine era (recent news of a Heathers TV show aside), it's a truly memorable film about a girl finding her power through unadvisable means.
Also along these lines? Mean Girls (2004), directed by Mark Waters (who is, coicindentally, the brother of Heathers scribe Daniel Waters). Writer/girl-crush Tina Fey took a (plotless! scientific!) non-fiction text, Rosalind Wiseman's Queen Bees and Wannabes, and ended up applying those specific social insights to the story of Cady Heron and how she (in a scientific manner) infiltrates and figures out the social caste at her public high school. It really is kind of brilliant.
If you haven't heard of Ginger Snaps, that's okay: it's a Canadian feminist horror film (former wife-of-Tom Cruise Mimi Rogers being the biggest star) and went virtually direct-to-DVD here in the States. That said, it's worth a look, because it's pretty great. Sisters Ginger and Brigitte Fitzgerald are the resident loser goth girls at their high school, spending their days staging fake suicides (shades of Harold and Maude). Neither of the virginal girls have started menstruating, until one day, where everything changes. Ginger gets her period. And has a run-in with a werewolf.
The havoc that results turns the horror movie tropes on its head: the onset of puberty literally makes a teenage girl into a man-eating monster. (Sample dialogue: "Something's wrong with you. More than you just being female.") The film is zingily written, and did well enough in Canada to spawn two sequels. If lycanthropy is the new vampire (and New Moon's going to shift from vampires to werewolves), expect a lot more people to rip off this gem.
Whoa: Teeth writer/director Mitchell Lichtenstein is the son of famed pop artist Roy Litchenstein. That makes so much sense, in some ways. After all, Teeth is a bright and shiny suburban satire about an Austin teen, Dawn, who, when arriving at her sexual maturity, realizes that she has a... certain skill (let's just say...vagina dentata). Complicating matters, of course, is that she's an abstinence counselor and, well, there's quite a bit of sexual abuse going on in this town. The results? Satire and gore, all for the sake of subverting accepted ideas about the coming of age of female sexual desire.
Whether you're into Teeth or not is another story. It's received decidedly mixed reviews—and there's a lot of situations of Dawn's "female power" coming from scenes where people are using force on her. That makes sense for a film where Camille Pagila was a consultant.
That said, the film definitely proved to be an interesting jumping off point for the Juilliard-educated Jess Weixler, who's definitely due for bigger and brighter roles. (She's currently stuck with leading female roles in interesting-but-slight indies: Alexander the Last, the upcoming Peter and Vandy.)
Also along these lines? The made-to-be-controversial Dead Girl (2008), which is about what happens when two teenagers find a beautiful zombie girl in the basement of a building. While I've personally heard terrible reviews of the film (it's very disturbing), websites like Feministing.com have called it "the most feminist film we've seen since Teeth," arguing that the horrors of the film reflect the horrors of masculinity. An interesting point; however, it's still not really an argument to see the film, as far as I can tell.
There's nothing new under the sun to say about Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It started with a vision from creator Joss Whedon: a blonde teenage girl walks down an alley, a man attacks her, and... she can fight back! The original script was made into a 1992 film, but when the fledgling WB network needed some cheap, teen-oriented product, Whedon was able to refashion his vision into a major TV show.
For those of you who don't know, it follows Buffy Summers (Sarah Michelle Gellar), the 16-year-old "Chosen One," who is equipped to fight the forces of evil. And when her family moves to Sunnydale, CA, where "the Hellmouth" and center-of-all-evil is located, she's stabbling vampires and fighting the bad guys on a regular basis. After a 12-episode first season, the show became a cult hit, thanks to the fantastic dialogue and Whedon's impeccable, thriling sense of plot. The high school years of the show are a particular treat, as the writers have a knack for turning monsters' versions of high school insecurities into amazing, touching metaphors. For example, when Buffy sleeps with a dude... and he turns into an angry, soulless vampire. It's both a great metaphor for events that happen in real life and, beyond that commentary incredibly devastating to watch Buffy deal with at the same time. Excellent.
And Seasons 1 - 3 are on Hulu! Begin at the beginning (but it gets classic starting Season 2):