At first glance, it’s easy to slag this meta-horror homage to ’80s SOV horror (we discuss that analog genre of VHS-taped films with our review of John Howard’s Spine) as an “amateur film school project.” And, in fact, there are reviews for this inventive amalgamation of the ’80s SOV and ’90s mockumentary and found footage genres that say just that, for this, the writing and directing debut from Jody Barton.
Jody Barton is a man of reinvention: he was a civil rights attorney with a burning to desire to work as an actor. So, with the wanderlust of a beat poet, he moved to Los Angeles to work as an actor and filmmaker. And across 30 shorts and indie features (since 2009; including a role in 2019’s Beyond the Law with Steven Seagal), Barton worked his way up to a leading role in Hunting Alice, a currently in-development streaming series.
Now Barton’s written and directed his debut feature film, For Jennifer, the fourth film in the SOP series (films in which he also starred) that includes James Cullen Bressack’s (directed Beyond the Law) to Jennifer, Hunter Johnson’s 2Jennifer, and Frank Merle’s standalone film, #From Jennifer.
Bressack initiated the series with the groundbreaking to Jennifer (2013), which he shot entirely on an iPhone 5. The first commercially-released SOP film, it documents the story of a scorned boyfriend who sets out to find and confront Jennifer, his cheating girlfriend—which leads to a bloody climax.
The Felissa Rose (A Nun’s Curse*) starring 2Jennifer takes a film-with-a-film approach: Spencer (the excellent Hunter Johnson), a horror blogger and aspiring filmmaker makes his own film about the Jennifer mystery set forth in to Jennifer—and it becomes a pseudo snuff film (that reminds of Michael Powell’s 1960 classic, Peeping Tom) courtesy of its mentally unstable filmmaker: Bressack and his actors from to Jennifer are the victims.
The standalone—and Tony Todd (Candyman) starring—#For Jennifer concerns an Internet-fame obsessed actress who will achieve fame at any costs and her blood, and of others, spills: the “curse” of Jennifer resulted in the disappearance of those filmmakers.
For Barton’s entry in the franchise, Felissa Rose returns from 2Jennifer as one of the “Jennifers,” and introduces two new characters: Randi, played by Dominque Swain (The 6th Friend, A Husband for Christmas), and another “Jennifer,” Tiffani Fest (Rootwood*; itself a meta-horror).
As a surprise horror-themed birthday celebration for Fest’s horror movie fan and blogger unfolds, one of her gifts—revealed to be from a stalker—is a copy of scenes from the series’ second installment, 2Jennifer—and it leads to her having a car accident. To lift her spirits—and to satiate her curiosity as to who and what happened to Jennifer and where the first two Jennifer films came from—she and her friends decide to shoot their own movie. At that point the meta-venture goes off the rails, with film fantasy blurring with bloody reality, as her life, and of her friends, will suffer the fates depicted in the previous films. And the red herrings are a-flopping: who’s the stalker? The masked guy at the party no one knew? The guy Jennifer hit with her car? Her boyfriend’s creepy buddy Gene? The clerk at the video store?
For Jennifer isn’t a film for those who prefer traditionally-shot films; you’ll critique the cinematography and acting as “bad.” And that’s the point: the movie is shot by horror-blogging aficionados who love horror film—with zero filmmaking skills. And the actors are supposed to “look” like they’re acting: because they’re not “actors.”
In referring back to the ‘80s SOV/Spine analogy: For Jennifer is clearly the better film—and the gold standard (if there is one) for SOP horror—across the disciplines of screenwriting, cinematography, lighting, and acting. Especially screenwriting, courtesy of Barton’s self-deprecation of not only his own film, but the low-budget horror genre in general, when the cackling killer (intentionally overplayed to prove a point) chastises Jennifer for making a boring film with too much talking and that you “need kills” in a horror movie. That’s when For Jennifer film blazes through its third act: everybody dies—via their blood soaked POVs.
To get on board the For Jennifer sequels-narrative, one needs no explanations—as with all of the Halloween remake-reboots on how “this movie connects to that movie via this timeline,” etc. If you didn’t see the first three Jennifers: not a problem. Barton’s smart script pays homage to the predecessor trio while it creates its own standalone narrative—like James Cameron did with the sequel gold standard: Aliens vs. Alien.
If you’re intrigued by metacinema, films that break the fourth wall, and faux-urban legends driven by a “video diary” format colliding with the SOV and found footage genres, you’ll enjoy Jody’s Barton’s debut film that “solves” the Jennifer mystery. For his first time effort—using phones and handicams—it’s a commendable work; he learned the craft well, due to his association with James Cullen Bressack. I look forward to Barton’s accomplishments in a conventional narrative and technical format.
Also equally exciting: Bressack’s follow up to Seagal’s Beyond the Law, Alone, stars Bruce Davison of the ‘70s horror classic, Willard. Currently in post-production, the film concerns a woman’s fight for survival against sex traffickers. And the acting performance of Hunter Johnson, in his brief return here as Spenser, is stellar. His extensive resume is mostly shorts, web series, and indie films—but he’s ready for the mainstream. Somebody book this guy with a guest role on a network series: book him on a Law and Order: SVU (my favorite TV series). And this friggin’ rockabilly rippin’ end credits tune from the Cold Blue Rebels, rules.