Directed by Brice Mack
Written by Steve Krantz and Kay Cousins Johnson
Starring Lisa Pelikan, Bert Convy, Nina Foch, Amy Johnston, John Gavin, and Louise Hoven
A good friend of mine says that everyone wants to be the second to do something. Pioneers do the hard work of breaking new ground, and then others swoop in to capitalize on the effort. Thus, the success of Brian De Palma’s Carrie (1976) brought imitators, including De Palma’s own The Fury in 1978. That same year saw the release of Jennifer, which switches out telekinesis for snake handing.
Jennifer (Lisa Pelikan) is the sole scholarship student at Green View School, a private school for privileged girls. As though that didn’t bring enough unwanted attention to her, Jennifer lives with her father instead of in the dorm. Her dad (John Gavin) pressures her continually to return to God, by which he means for her to command serpents. Then they could return to their religious community with the other “hill people”.
While the religious fundamentalism at home and bullying at school are beats lifted directly from Carrie, this is a completely new parental dynamic. Where Carrie’s mother had internalized religious misogyny and viewed her daughter’s power as a manifestation of demonic influence, Jennifer’s father views her abilities as divine in origin and looks forward to her embracing of it so his former position can be restored. In both cases, the daughter is blamed for the current family state, but what for Carrie was a sign of her inability to be redeemed is for Jennifer a promise of eventual return to grace.
Jennifer’s inevitable explosion of power (which honestly is why we’re watching the film) is thus desirable to her father, and rather than causing the dysfunctional family to implode in a confusion of love and self-hatred it promises to bring the family back together. It’s a dramatic reversal of the themes that drove the plot of Carrie, and the ramifications are horrific. In the secular world Jennifer’s hard work is rewarded with the isolating contempt of her peers, but in the fringes of backwoods religion she may be a revered host of God’s grace.
Adding to the moral complexity of this version of the story, the girl from the popular clique who sides with Jennifer is not a paragon of fairness and reason. Jane (Louise Hoven) is only tolerated by the popular crowd because of her family’s wealth and connections. Sandra (Amy Johnston), the vicious leader of the girls, doesn’t even pretend to like her. When Jane expresses reluctance to be completely cruel to Jennifer, Sandra has her own boyfriend rape her in an elevator. Jane sides with Jennifer not for self-redemption or altruism but for Jennifer’s promise of revenge.
The manifestation of Jennifer’s powers is made underwhelming by the reluctance of the filmmakers to show the audience much of anything. There’s a beheading and a fiery crash, but nearly every shot of the snakes (including a giant one) is intentionally blurred). I don’t know whether director Brice Mack was too embarrassed of the effects to show them or genuinely thought that not seeing was believing, but the result is a murky letdown.
To the extent that this ripoff works, I credit screenplay writer Kay Cousins Johnson. While there’s a lot that doesn’t work in the movie, the strength is the thought that went into Jennifer’s adversary Sandra. The classism from Carrie is replicated and exaggerated, but there’s more going on. Where Chris is portrayed as being primarily interested in getting revenge on Carrie, Sandra has a history of behavioral problems. She’s been kicked out of several schools already, and if she gets thrown out of Green View her father (John Gavin) will send her to live with her mother. Sandra is also in love with the science teacher Mr. Reed (Bert Convy), and she mistakes his paternal attitude toward Jennifer as love. Sandra is a monster, but she’s a believable person whose hatred of Jennifer springs from her own problems. For me this makes Jennifer stand out above the crowd of other imitators.
I can’t say it’s a good film, but Jennifer is at least an interesting one. Plainly conceived as a cash-in, it shows signs of its own life. I’m much more impressed by imagination and rough effort than by polished and mechanical blandness, so I wound up liking this one a lot. It’s a good time, and there are enough neat moments to make it memorable. Also there are really bad moments that are hard to forget. In other words, I consider it essential viewing.