Let’s Scare Jessica to Death

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Release Date: August 27, 1971
Runtime: 89 minutes
Rating: PG-13
Studio: Paramount Pictures
Director: John Hancock
Cast: Zohra Lampert; Barton Heyman; Kevin O’Connor; Gretchen Corbett; Alan Manson; Mariclare Costello

This low-key quickie hearkens back to a sort of golden age for low-budget chillers. While not as gruesome as some of its contemporaries (Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Hills Have Eyes), this film makes tremendous use of its spooky old house and outdoor locations. Despite a horrendous title, Let’s Scare Jessica To Death is an effective little creeper: high on atmosphere and long on style.

Our heroine, Jessica (Zohra Lampert), has just been released from an institution, seemingly cured of an undisclosed illness (from what we gather, her illness was of the “she’s seeing and hearing things” variety) and is on the way to the country for some r&r with her husband, Duncan (Barton Heyman) and their friend, Woody (Kevin O’Connor). Duncan and Jessica have bid farewell to their city lives in NYC and purchased this quiet country house with the intention of running the adjacent orchard and getting into some antiquing. Sounds like an ideal fantasy for most of the people I know, frankly!

Of course, the house comes with issues; most immediate is an apparent squatter, the lovely Emily (Mariclare Costello). Emily has been shacking up in the house for some time, believing the house to have been abandoned. Yet, because these are the days of free love and peace among men, Jessica and Duncan invite Emily to stay with them in the house rather than move on (never a smart move).

It’s not long, however, before Jessica’s old symptoms start acting up again: she hears a soft voice call to her, thinks she sees dead bodies and, most egregiously, is confronted by the figure of a ghostly girl in white who seems to be warning her about something. Is Jessica falling back into her old mental state or is something more sinister afoot?

As far as low-budget shockers from this era go, LSJtD is actually very well done. The cinematography (by Bob Baldwin) is spectacular with its sweeping shots of the lake (where a good amount of the action takes place) and surrounding forest, both contributing greatly to the isolated mood the piece is trying to foster. John Hancock exhibits an assured and skilled hand in his feature film directorial debut, keeping the focus very much on atmospherics (both visual and auditory) and nicely maintaining the blurred line between reality and imagination. All throughout, we are never truly sure whether what Jessica is seeing or hearing is a result of her fragile psyche or her reality.

LSJtD can be seen as ruminating on the stresses and anxiety that come with major life changes. In this case, uprooting her life to the country and embarking on a new, healthy beginning awakens all sorts of phobias and tics in Jessica that have, for the moment, been kept at bay. Jessica notices her husband paying attention to Emily, the attractive new girl, and wonders if he likes Emily more than her, playing on her insecurities regarding her marriage and the love of her husband. Furthermore, when she is asked to go swimming at one point, Jessica mentions that she is afraid of water. The editorial decision to have Jessica having been just released from a mental institution is crucial to maintaining the connection between what is real and what is a product of Jessica’s internalized anxieties: we know from the outset that she is mentally fragile, so we are not surprised when she starts to exhibit signs of instability later on.

Look, this movie isn’t for everyone. It’s not a gore-fest (Texas Chainsaw Massacre) or even a disturbing grind house flick (Last House on the Left). What it is, however, is a slow-build of a creep-out (more along the lines of the original The Wicker Man, if anything). What it lacks in out-and-out “boo” moments, LSJtD more than makes up for in tone and atmosphere. Recommended for aficionados of early 70s horror only.

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