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Saturday, November 14, 2015

Jennifer (Brice Mack; 1978)

Jennifer was a release from drive-in specialists American-International Pictures to cash in on the success of Carrie (hence the one-word title referring to the female protagonist). In this blatant rip-off, the mousey misfit spouts a power over snakes, rather than telekinesis, which comes in handy for her revenge on the snotty school clique that picks on her. The movie was renamed Jennifer The Snake Goddess for television, and I actually prefer that title! It encapsulates the cheesy appeal of this minor but absorbing chiller.
Lisa Pelikan is the poor country girl Jennifer, who attends a posh private school on a scholarship, and is ostracized by the clique of rich bitches led by the diabolical little wench Sandra Tremayne (played with utmost conviction by the small but mighty Amy Johnston). Sandra is not without problems of her own, too, yet her senator dad (John Gavin) patches things up with his chequebook. The school is so dependent on the man's wallet, that the headmistress (Nina Foch) fluffs off the evil doings of Sandra to keep her there, and thereby keep the money flowing in, and she too wants to get rid of poor Jennifer. In this Carrie ripoff, our protagonist also has a nightmarish home life thanks to a religious zealot parent (instead of a God-fearing mother, it’s a snake-worshipping father descended from “the hill people”… and it's a credit to Jeff Corey that he manages to give this over-the-top characterization some dignity). The only flicker of light in Jennifer’s world, such as it is, appears in Bert Convy, with the baddest afro a conservative white dude could ever have, as the kindly science teacher.
The film is made compelling for the surprisingly strong performances (everyone wisely plays it straight in what is  a "girl with killer snakes" movie), and because Sandra is such a vile character, you’re kept watching to see what happens next.  Despite that Jennifer later uses her power over snakes to wreak vengeance, the real monsters in this film are human. The school faculty lets the pupils get away with murder as long as the money pours in, and members of these little cliques endorse rape of fellow gang members to keep them in check. The “snake” plot device is (wisely) sustained until the end: perhaps because the writers saw that the real monsters in their little scenario are of the human variety, or because the production lacked a proper effects budget or imagination to properly pull off the supernatural climax.
When Jennifer takes revenge with the help of her squiggly friends, she talks slower, almost trancelike, and is suddenly illuminated by a hard key light. (During these shots, Lisa Pelikan's wide-eyed, angular face eerily resembles the visage of underground filmmaking legend Maya Deren.) When Jennifer dispatches the killer snakes on these horrible preppies (redundant phrase, I know), the scene is illuminated with blinding spotlights, and mousey Jennifer suddenly has a perm: this film suddenly resembles a futuristic disco musical. The sequence of the giant snakes chomping on her enemies is wisely kept to two shots to obscure how silly it looks.
After first seeing this film on Buffalo’s all-night movie show, "The Cat's Pajamas" in 1986 (as part of the huge AIP catalog in their programming schedule), I wrote (in those days, I wrote capsule reviews of every film I saw, filed on index cards) that it was “…something Elvira would love”, because of that cheesy climax. (Ironically, many years later I discovered that this movie was featured by The Mistress of The Dark, although that episode was never syndicated in our broadcast area.)

Still, I’ve managed to remember this picture since that night, because of that ending (that remains in the brain despite or because of its shortcomings). But after seeing it again as an adult, the movie appears far less campy: my expectations of an enjoyable night of horror cheese were subverted by a surprisingly dour picture, in which grown-up eyes can read more shades into the subtly horrible characters. Although a minor, quickie cash-in, it is given further conviction because of the strong performances. The appealing Lisa Pelikan is very good as the vulnerable Jennifer (winning her a Best Actress Award from the International Science Fiction & Horror Film Festival), and is properly matched by the volcanic Amy Johnston as her nemesis (what ever became of her?).
The performances and the surprisingly nuanced screenplay make a greater impression than the mediocre direction by Brice Mack, whose resume nonetheless has a handful of interesting titles which would qualify for appearances in these pages some day: the teen comedy Swap Meet (1979), and the domestic farce Half a House (1975), featuring Anthony Eisley (!), surely one of the most obscure features to receive an Oscar nomination (for Best Song), and his final cinematic gift to the world, Rooster: Spurs of Death (1983), reuniting with Amy Johnston.

Availability: Vestron (VHS), Scorpion Releasing (DVD, Blu-Ray)

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