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Seminal horror films sure do cast an imposing shadow, especially for others that try to bear similar fruit in its shade; usually what grows is withered and nothing more than a mere husk of what came before. And some films simply don’t give a horse’s patootie. Welcome to Jennifer (1978), the ultimate Mad Libs homage to Carrie (’76) that, while not in the same league, works as a fun (and somewhat observant) high school horror - with snakes. A whole lot of ‘em.

Released by AIP in May, Jennifer opened to mixed reviews at best and indifference from audiences who felt they’d already been there, DePalma’d that. They weren’t wrong of course; Jennifer gulps thirstily from Carrie’s water fountain, but adds a couple other prevalent genre staples of the ‘70s to arrive at something decidedly weird (and vicious) enough to set itself apart.

Our film opens with a theme song (!) for Jennifer Baylor (Lisa Pelikan – Julia), a nice, shy girl who lives above the pet store owned by her dad Luke (Jeff Corey – Battle Beyond the Stars), who wouldn’t you know it, is a religious zealot. Jennifer attends the snooty Green View Academy for Girls on a scholarship, far removed from a poor, West Virginia upbringing that leans towards serpent handling, evangelical division. Our antagonists appear in the form of a clique led by Sandra (Amy Johnston – Rooster: Spurs of Death!), various other perfectly permed wannabe socialites, and headmistress Mrs. Calley (Nina Foch – Spartacus), who resents Jennifer’s humble upbringing and feels only the rich are worthy. Jennifer’s only ally is her sympathetic science teacher, Jeff (played well by Bert Convy – The Cannonball Run), who understands surviving on merit instead of social standing.

As the story progresses, Sandra and her cohorts are inexplicably mean to Jennifer; leading up to and including a kitty-cat hanging, naked photos taken by the pool to shame her, and the rape of one of Sandra’s posse (offscreen, of course; this is rated PG, which in the ‘70s often felt tone-wise like an R) who refuses to play along anymore with their vicious games. As much as Jennifer tries to suppress her memories as the Appalachian “miracle child” who could talk to and control serpents, her rage builds to a point where she not only accepts her special talent, but embraces it; Sandra and her friends will wish they had learned to play nice…

One of the taglines for Jennifer states, “…makes Carrie look like an angel!” just so you know where producer Steve Krantz (Ruby)’s inspiration lies; he was pure exploitation through and through, and proud of it. The story hews soclose to Carrie’s that it adds a layer of perverse audience participation to the proceedings or at the very least a drinking game; for every correlation, take a shot, and have an ambulance ready by the midway point. All he ends up doing though is showing that there are finite stories to tell, because if one takes out the direct Carrie rips (religious fanaticism, an allied instructor, awakened powers), Jennifer is simply a tale of vengeance.

Which isn’t to say it’s overflowing with originality (or even filling the trough); Jennifer borrows its Dr. Doolittle shtick from Willard (’71), swapping out rodents for the more exotic reptiles and offering up a psychosexual bent that Bruce Davison could never muster (he’s handsome and all, but rats are rats). Pelikan however, with her flaming locks and impassioned eyes, brings plenty of sensuality to the role, plus so much more; Jennifer isn’t a broken person at the start, just reticent, yet willing to engage with those who would engage her. Pelikan doesn’t go too broad when she embraces her past, instead conveying a disconnect from her current surroundings as she plots out her revenge. Of course she’ll be compared to Sissy Spacek, which is unfair; the character of Jennifer simply isn’t given as much depth or weight for Pelikan to lift, yet she flexes quite impressively in a role that could easily drift into parody.

Director Brice Mack (Swap Meet) and writer Kay Cousins Johnson (Mighty Moose and the Quarterback Kid) come from backgrounds in Disney animation (Lady and the Tramp) and the ABC Afterschool Special respectively (see the Moose above); it’s a shame then that stylistically this mix doesn’t really occur until the home stretch when garish floodlighting and bitchin’ hot rods meet multiple snakes as Jennifer unleashes her wrath – including a couple of giant papier mache cobras that feel like a nasty Scooby Doo episode breaking through its animated constraints.

Until that time, however, the viewer has to settle for social commentary; certainly not aesthetically, as the film really does look like a cruel school small screener (until that climax), but rather in little movements that brace the haves against the have nots with a touch of poignancy. Beats are even offered up to the popular crew; abandonment issues seem to plague the lot of them, and while it doesn’t diminish their awfulness, it does shine a little light on why they turned out the way they did (except for Mrs. Calley, played with delicious relish by Foch).

Perhaps I’m giving this White-washed horror too much due; after all, if the perception is “rip-off”, why should the reality be any different? I think time has a way of tempering response though, and there’s so much space now between Carrie and Jennifer that the shadow has become irrelevant. Or maybe I also don’t give a horse’s patootie; if a muscle car muscle head has his noggin chomped by a ten foot snake, I’m going to be there regardless of the pedigree.

Jennifer is available on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber.

Next: Drive-In Dust Offs: THE GATE (1987)
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