"Jennifer" is doubly deficient: a copycat movie that fails to copy imaginatively. The principal model is Brian De Palma's "Carrie," which seems to be encouraging as many imitations as "The Excorcist." If it put an end to "Carrie" spinoffs, "Jennifer" might justify its existence.
The plot doesn't so much unfold as squirm around, subject to the filmmakers' desire to recall "Carrie" without placing themselves in technical jeopardy of plagiarism. In their desperation they pilfer from other sources to fill out the continuity: a disco sequence inspired by "Saturday Night Fever" and recollections of new obscure fight melodramas like "Willard" and "Sssssss." The story conferences were probably closer to scavenger hunts.
"Jennifer" really should have been called "Slither," since the beleagured schoolgirl heroine, portrayed by Lisa Pelikan, the adolescent incarnation of Julia in "Julia," gets even with her cruel classmates by invoking snake-charming powers rather than Carrie's telekinetic powers. It appears that the budget may not have permitted apocalyptic special effects. "Jennifer" is obliged to fake it with a batch of rubber snakes and an occasional harmless-looking real snake.
A faulty imitation can enhance one's appreciation of the original. Each blundering move in "Jennifer" tends to remind you of how astutely "Carrie" was imagined and rationalized.(Ironically, the same thing happens in De Palma's new thriller, "The Fury.") Jennifer is located at a supposedly exclusive girls' school, where she inspires the malice of a slutty troublemaker who resents her for having a scholarship and a West Virginia accent. It's immediately apparent that the copier don't quite understand what made the original tick.
Unlike Carrie, Jennifer never appears believably out of it, either socially or emotionally. The more convincing tormented character is Lousie Hoven as an overweight girl who humiliates herself trying to be one of the troublemaker's confidantes and recalls a bit of the poignance of Catherine Burns in "Last Summer." The mother whose religious fanaticism and sexual guilt afflicted Carrie has been replaced by a fundamentalist father of no dramatic consequence, even though the role is played by Jeff Corey. The troublemaker's spite, feebly motivated to begin with, ends up causing harm only because she's protected by the frankly corrupt headmistress of the school, Nina Foch, a far cry from the sympathetic teacher played by Betty Buckley who tried to help Carrie, only to become a victim when her humiliation at the prom turned Carrie into a monster.
"Jennifer" is expedient at every point. It substitutes trumped-up motives for truly elemental feelings of deprivation and rage. Even if the horror climaxes were something to look at, which they aren't the preparation that makes a climax dramatically satisfying would be missing. "Jennifer" doesn't know what horror movies are about, what emotions they're designed to clarify and purge.
It remains to be seen how sympathetic Lisa Pelikan might be under the best circumstances. She's a spooky-looking young actress, with huge gray irises and a sharply defined jawline that ends in a chin so prominently dimpled that it appears dented. In "Julia" she seemed a clever match for Vanessa Redgrave and interesting because her young Julia was vaguely dislikeable, sinister in some indefinable way. She may be better suited for vixens rather than heroines.
It's not her fault that "Jennifer" is never in the same league with "Carrie," but the next time a starring opportunity seems to knock, she might be wise to take a longer look at the caller.