Jennifer 8’s biggest problem is that it’s a silly story told with all the gravity and dedication of a serious one. Writer-director Bruce Robinson identified numerous problems with the production, including a star who didn’t fit his conception of the protagonist and a final cut that lost twenty minutes at the studio’s behest, but the failure ultimately lies with the premise and a screenplay that, unlike many of the multiplicity of serial-killer tales unleashed on audiences that decade, refuses to embrace just how schlocky it all is.
Robinson knew it wasn’t the best. In Smoking in Bed, he details how this was a second, “better” idea after an initial Hollywood pitch (Colour Blind) he had no desire to turn into a movie. He had little wish to turn Jennifer 8 into one either (“Now I’ve got two movies I don’t want to do, both out there”). For whatever reason, this was his first of two serial-killer movies (the other being In Dreams) and another prospective one that came to nought (about Jack the Ripper, eventually published as a book). One might consider him a little fixated, although in fairness, In Dreams came from Spielberg (that nice Mr Spielberg wanted to make a story about a serial killer preying on children).
There’s also the small factor that, if you were going to pitch a plot in Hollywood at this point, a serial-killer one was a reasonably safe bet. It’s probably not coincidental that Robinson’s blind victim idea comes after the blind girl dating a serial killer in Michael Mann’s seriously good Manhunter a few years earlier (that tiger scene is utterly mesmerising, and stratospherically superior to anything in Jennifer 8). But the landscape at the time was strewn with psycho movies (Sleeping with the Enemy, Pacific Heights, Single White Female, The Hand that Rocks the Cradle, Body of Evidence, Cape Fear, Color of Night, The Fan, Misery, Raising Cain, Shattered, Unlawful Entry etc) and serial killer ones (Basic Instinct, Kiss the Girls, Copycat, Sliver, Blue Steel, The First Power, Scream, Seven, The Silence of the Lambs, Striking Distance, The Bone Collector, Barton Fink, Fallen). Was there anything to distinguish Jennifer 8, besides its idiosyncratic director?
Not really. You don’t even need a full complement of fingers on one hand to count the decent ’90s serial-killer pictures, but the sub-genre’s proven, cost-effective serviceability ensured it was bullet proof (even if only on a home-rental afterlife). The serial-killer phenomenon is at very least grossly exploited by Hollywood. Dave McGowan went further and asserted it was an expressly engineered thing – by military intelligence and secret societies – designed to provoke the fear of the random killer. From this comes the questioning the legitimacy of the FBI’s Mindhunter unit.
One should be dubious, since it’s the subject of a David Fincher series, and Fincher is, par excellence (if you wish to call it that, but he’s undoubtedly one of the most talented filmmakers around), the inheritor of Kubrick’s mantle in pushing meticulous presentations of Elite practices. In this case, MKUltra programming, from pretty much as soon as he transferred from promos to features. Besides a grim trail of serial-killer flicks (Seven, Zodiac, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and on TV Mindhunter, and why not add Gone Girl, just for murderous effect), he’s embraced a raft of programming imagery and subject matter (Alien³, The Game, Fight Club, The Social Network, the latter joining with Zodiac as his take on an official history, such as Cameron and Titanic or Spielberg and Schindler’s List).
Jennifer 8 posits a jaded cop – Andy Garcia’s John Berlin – transferred to the backwater town of Eureka, California and soon obsessing over a hand found in a rubbish tip, convinced it belongs to the eighth victim of a serial killer in the area. In this case, he deduces she was blind, leading him to Uma Thurman’s Helena, the victim’s roommate and also blind. Much of the slow-burn proceedings are taken up with John’s developing relationship with Helena, and the doubt his colleagues, including old pal Freddy Ross (Lance Henriksen), have over his convictions. The consequence of this is that, unlike The Silence of the Lambs, when the formula thrills arrive, they’re distractingly cheesy.
The first of these comes at about the halfway mark, with the demise of Ross. It’s a gnarly choice anyway, having him killed at Christmas, but the clichés reach their giddy height when, with John knocked out, Ross recognises the man about to kill him: “Holy shit, John. Not you! Not you!” Holy shit, Bruce. Not good! Not good writing! Almost as not good as the actual John (cringe inducingly, yes, the killer’s a cop: Graham Beckel’s John Taylor) about to kill Helena with the sign off “Say night, night, dead girl!” Luckily, dead girl turns round to reveal herself as Kathy Baker, Ross’ grieving wife, who pumps him full of lead. Earlier, we also had to navigate John refusing to believe Helena was actually menaced by the killer, with “Are my lips lying to you? Is my mouth lying to you?” Ouch, ouch. And one more time, ouch.
For this reason, I don’t think it’s likely to have been any great loss that Robinson excised the last five minutes – to bring down the length – in which John arrives to save the day after it turns out Margie didn’t kill Taylor (bullet-proof vest) and he’s now menacing Uma. It just sounds terrible: standard-issue, Hollywood fake-out-ending crap, in the proud lineage of Michael Myers (whom, with Norman Bates, we have to duly acknowledge as the proud parents of the genre. Well after Jolly Jack, real or otherwise, and his royal connections).
Both leads are entirely solid (especially Thurman), but there’s no great conviction in the main relationship. In Robinson’s conception, John was to be played by Al Pacino, who was interested but nixed by the studio: “My argument was the whole premise of the picture. Everyone says to the old cop, ‘You’re a wrecked alcoholic who looks like something out of a jar that no one wanted to eat, and you’re making this case so you can get a fuck off his blind girl’” whereas with Garcia, “the audience is going to think ‘They look pretty good together’”.
Which is true. It doesn’t help that the killer, besides being a cop, is both cheesily drawn (his motivation is that he grew up around blind girls he was told not to touch?!!) and an unmemorable afterthought of a villain. If anyone, nervy Lenny Von Dohlen (of Twin Peaks), in about one scene as the local reporter, would have been a better pick. Taylor seems like a reshoots choice of killer (see Sliver for such things). Certain elements go astray along the way; there’s no justice for the dirty janitor taking pictures of Helena in the bath. He isn’t even accused (and we’re left to infer it’s him). The general mise-en-scène is retrospectively redolent of an X-Files episode, added to by Millennium’s Henriksen (observing an interesting delineation between on-the-job crudity and loving husband at home).
Robinson detailed how the movie had been an awful shoot due to the producers actively undermining him (this began when he pissed off Stanley Jaffe by refusing to give ground on the reality of a cop’s lateral transfer). The attitude changed when it was completed, but not for long: “We started previewing it and we were getting high scores and no walkouts, which is rare… and suddenly everyone was thrilled with the movie, which was about two hours twenty”. But in order for the studio to secure three shows a day, he was then asked to whittle it down to two hours. “We did get it down to two hours… Now I could barely follow the plot, the scores start going down and people began walking out”. It reached the point where he was considering giving Garcia a voiceover to explain missing detail.
Alistair Owen suggested “Ironically, the film seems longer than it actually is because the second half is less riveting…” I’d disagree. The first half is s-l-o-w, and the second can at least boast John Malkovich, showing up from the FBI to accuse John of killing Ross. He steals the entire movie, sniffing from a cold, loudly sharpening pencils and close talking to John to get a rise out of him. Forget the serial killer: make the movie about Malkovich trying to get his man for an assumed murder (Pacino would later play something not entirely dissimilar in Insomnia).
Robinson was of the view “No way was it ever going to be a classic, but it could have been a really strong movie”. Maybe it was in that longer version; this was the first time I saw the 125-minute cut, having been familiar with the 106-minute UK release, and I’d guardedly suggest that, in my memory, the shorter was superior (not usually my response to butchered movies). I just don’t think the picture works very well, It’s derivative, in the way of considerably lesser writers than Robinson is, and it’s rinsed with very nice but overdone Connie Hall lighting, the kind that stands out that bit too much (the garbage dump, Helena’s room when she’s first met). You also notice the product placement glaring at you (Marlboros, Diet Coke) and start thinking about that instead of the characters.
Robinson’s reminiscence is notable for his take on the now disgraced Scot Rubin (“I have a massive admiration for him on the one hand and a detailed loathing on the other”) He also misremembers his box-office competition, with regard to the picture bombing (“the weekend we opened, Coppola opens his Dracula, which had massive expectations and massive publicity”). Dracula (“a bloody awful movie, I thought”) opened on Jennifer 8’s second weekend; it’s first saw it debut at 5, with another newbie, Passenger 57, in pole position, which amounts to slightly less than Robinson’s account of “a little tug getting in the sea with Titanic”. 57 is, incidentally, the age Ross gives Helena for John.
Robinson found the experience so distasteful – back-to-back with Fat Man and Little Boy, no less – that he swore off directing for a period (perhaps he had it coming, contributing to the Elite’s illusioneering of killers and nukes*). It wasn’t his intention, however, to take a twenty-year sabbatical (he’d return with The Rum Diary and Johnny Depp, a fateful encounter with Amber Heard sealing the latter’s public fate). Jennifer 8 treats its subject matter as seriously as Fincher would, but it lacks the execution or twists that would make that director’s first serial-killer flick so memorable.
*Addendum 11/07/23: So, I was chasing the wrong conspiracy with this one, it seems. It’s almost inevitable that, when you think you’ve grasped the nettle of some subjects, you instead get stung to blue blazes. There’s long-standing theorising concerning the legitimacy of the nuke threat, and of nuclear technology generally, and it took me a while to warm to it (probably in the last three or four years). Warm to it I did, though, and it seemed Q & A answers were confirming the counterfeit nature of the subject (this, however, as tends to be the case, was based on misconception of the parameters of the response).