Oct 31, 2007

Jennifer The Snake Goddess (1978)

Happy Halloween!

On this evening, it seems that pretty much any horror flick ever made seems appropriate enough to view in honour of this holiday. And many October 31st's in my past have been graced with what I called "darkness festivals", often watching horror films all day long. But especially, on this night, I seek out semi-obscure, low-budget, imperfect films... (It just seemed so appropriate to watch Blood and Lace on October 31, 1987)... these movies are flawed though misunderstood little children that nonetheless possess a unique quality that others do not. Case in point, tonight's picture.

Jennifer was a minor release from AIP, made to cash in on the success of Carrie (hence the one-word title referring to the female protagonist). When it was released to television, it was retitled Jennifer The Snake Goddess... a title I actually prefer! It encapsulates the cheesy appeal of this minor but absorbing chiller.

Lisa Pelikan is the country girl Jennifer, who is at a private school on a scholarship, and is soon ostracized by the 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 (but father instead of mother this time).. and it's a credit to Jeff Corey that he still manages to give this over-the-top characterization some dignity (as opposed to, say, John Carradine doing yet another "I don't give a fuck" hammy supporting role). And then there's Bert Convy, with the baddest afro a conservative white dude could ever have, as the kindly science teacher who seems to be the one flicker of goodness in Jennifer's world.

In fact, what makes this film quite compelling is that the performances are surprisingly strong. Considering this is a "girl with killer snakes" movie, refreshingly, everyone plays it straight. (In fact, Sandra is such a little vixen, that you're kept watching.) Despite that Jennifer later uses her power over snakes to wreak vengeance, the real monsters in this film are human. In this school, the faculty lets the pupils get away with murder as long as the money pours in, and members of these little cliques freely endorse rape of fellow gang members to keep them in check. Perhaps because the writers either recognized the real monsters in their little scenario, or because they didn't have a heck of a lot of effects or imagination to work with, the plot device of the snakes is rather sustained until the end. The snakes, you ask? Ah yes.

Yep, y'see Jennifer growed up with them there "hill people", whose peculiar religion involves little kids sticking their hands in snake pits, and I'll be jiggered if this gal didn't learn when she was knee high to a possum that she had some kinda spell over them there creepy crawlies. (Okay- enough.) When Jennifer begins to plot her revenge with her squiggly friends, you can tell she's getting all supernatural and the like, because she talks slower, almost trancelike, and is suddenly illuminated by a hard key light. (During these shots, Lisa Pelikan's angular face with those wide eyes eerily resembles Maya Deren's.) And so, when Jennifer dispatches the killer snakes on these horrible preppies, the sequence is backlit with these blinding spotlights, mousey Jennifer suddenly has a perm, and the giant snakes chomping on her enemies is wisely kept to two shots to obscure how silly it looks. This film suddenly resembles a futuristic disco musical.

When I first saw this film on "The Cat's Pajamas" in 1986 (as part of the huge AIP catalog they had in their programming schedule), I figured that it could have been a film that Elvira should've had on her show, with that ridiculous climax. Yet, I've managed to remember this little film quite well over the years. In fact, seeing it again as an adult, it's less campy, as one can read more into the subtly horrible characters. I was expecting to sit down and enjoy an enjoyable piece of horror cheese, yet was rudely awakened by how dour this picture really is.

The direction by Brice Mack is quite mediocre, but now I'm interested to see his other pictures that have fallen through the cracks. (As stated in my "film of the day" review yesterday, the 70s is just a bottomless pit of films to discover.) He also made the teen comedy Swap Meet (1979), the domestic farce Half Way House (1979), featuring Anthony Eisley (!), and his final cinematic gift to the world was his reunion with Amy Johnston in (now this sounds like a lost classic) Rooster: Spurs of Death (1983). I love this job.


Rob Craig said...

Yet another great review of a weird film nobody ever heard of! Onward! Rob

Kinky Paprika said...

I saw the same film on "The Cat's Pajamas," probably in the same showing.
(I left another comment on another Cat's Pajamas post with more of my memories of the show.)