Despite a title which is much more sensational than the film itself, 1971's Let's Scare Jessica to Death directed by John D. Hancock is one of the finest examples of a '70s scare flick out there, a movie that relies on atmosphere and subtle glimpses of terror to creep out its audience. By 1971, the horror genre had already started to transition into the era of gory, effects-driven films which was jump started by the prevalence of blood in European horror films of the period and by the revelation that was George Romero's 1968 classic Night of the Living Dead. Nevertheless, there were still a few holdout independents who actually tried to scare the audience without resorting to graphic bloodshed. Hancock seems to follow in this mindset, delivering a film that's slower-paced yet significantly tense, relying on the viewer's interpretation of the film to make the events more scary.
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The film begins with a young husband and wife, Duncan and Jessica, who move with their mutual friend Woody into a expansive old mansion in a sleepy small town. Jessica has recently been released from psychiatric treatment, and with her mental condition seeming fragile at best, Duncan gives up a career in the big city and moves his wife to this remote area to get her away from the clutter and distraction of society. Right away, a young woman who's shacked up in the abandoned house throws a wrench into the trio's plans, but the woman, Emily, seems pleasant enough and the trio ask her to stay. Everything seems to be working out, as Duncan sells unwanted and potentially valuable articles around the house, and Woody tends to the apple orchard and farm area that the group hopes one day will flourish. Unfortunately, Jessica's mental condition seems to take a turn for the worst, as she begins seeing a mystery figure roaming around, have visions about the former owners of the estate, and stumbles upon dead bodies in the countryside. Is Jessica reverting to her previous, unstable mental state, or is something sinister really going on?
The idea of paranoia seems to be the main idea of director Hancock and Lee Kalcheim's script, and why not? This theme has been used for many a more subtle horror film, and it has proven time and time again to be most effective in creating a sense of unknowing tension in the audience. Let's Scare Jessica to Death offers more of the same, as we are constantly left unsure as to whether or not Jessica is really going nuts. While at some points, her visions seem validated (at one point, the mystery woman prowling around is seen by her companions as well), we're often left in the dark with regard to the veracity of her claims. An interesting sound design provides us with a constant barrage of what I would assume to be the voices in Jessica's disturbed mind, making her struggle to find out what is truly going on more immediate since we have a window into her mindset.
A further positive aspect of the film is the way in which Hancock, fellow screenwriter Kalcheim, and music director Orville Stoeber create harrowing situations out of what would normally be considered everyday events. Every venture into town suddenly becomes a struggle against a seemingly inevitable fate, and even a playful swim in the lake behind the house, in which Emily may or may not be intentionally trying to drown Jessica, takes on a sinister feel when combined with Stoeber's truly unnerving music score. It's kind of a shame Stoeber only did a handful of film scores, as his work here is exemplary, working with experimental electronic music created by Walter Sear. A combination of pleasant folk tunes and jarring electronic tones and effects, the score creates an ideal, very unsettling balance between mundane and familiar sounds and ones that rattle the viewer's nerves to the core. Really, this is one of the most finely developed film scores I've heard in a long time, perfectly complimenting the already haunting nature of the film and story.
Hancock gets great mileage out of a cast that by and large was used in television programs and some smaller film roles. Zorah Lampert delivers a fine performance in the title role, her vulnerability and fragile mental state coming across with pinpoint accuracy in the performance. Lampert, to her credit, never makes the character hysterical which benefits the film immensely, since, again, we as an audience are forced to form our own opinion about the character's sanity.
Barton Heyman and Kevin O'Connor provide just the right amount of deviousness to their roles as Jessica's companions; again, we're never quite sure if these two aren't trying to make things difficult on their female friend. Mariclaire Costello, another longtime TV actress, is memorably mysterious as the young woman Emily, who perhaps is the cause of the strange activity happening around town, and may or may not actually be one of the original members of the household who has inexplicably remained alive. Costello's character provides a constant, nagging irritation to Jessica's, seemingly trying to seduce her husband and friend, and showing up an inopportune times to throw further complications into the scenario. As much as all the characters in the film are an open book with regard to their complicity in Jessica's apparently deteriorating mental well-being, Emily seems to be the catalyst for most of the problems, and is easily the most potentially diabolical character in the film.
Let's Scare Jessica to Death has a subtle, dreamlike atmosphere that permeates the entirety of the film, seeming to drift over it like an early morning fog. If I could compare the overall feel of this film to another that comes to mind, it would probably be the equally excellent low-budget genre favorite Lemora: A Child's Tale of the Supernatural made in 1973. Like Jessica, that film plays its story out from the viewpoint of a potentially unreliable source, in Lemora's case, that of a young girl. Both films have similarities in themes, with disturbing, erotic undertones occasionally drawn out from the shadows, and both seem to operate in a way that emphasizes mood over visceral terror. Jessica, in some ways, may have provided a sort of thematic inspiration for that later film, but any way you look at it, Hancock's film is quietly adept at creating a spooky atmosphere for its story to play out under.
For the fan of genuinely creepy movies, Let's Scare Jessica to Death would be a good bet, but the film does have some problems. I suspect that audiences used to more fast-paced and action-oriented genre films would find this film to be exceedingly boring and uneventful. There's almost no violence or blood in the film at all, and the overall picture moves along at a methodical, slow pace, quietly building tension instead of having it jump out at the audience. Additionally, I could see how the minimal ensemble cast in this film could rub some viewers the wrong way, as the acting is more nuanced and definitely not flashy. Jessica's low budget also doesn't really afford the film makers any opportunity for a big-time payoff at any point; the more notable scare scenes are of the small-scale variety, and the ending is more or less left to be extremely ambiguous. For me, the film is like a pumpkin patch of bizarre and mysterious goodies, but for many viewers, it would be incredibly tedious and frustrating.
In the end, then, while it may not be for all tastes, Let's Scare Jessica to Death for my money is one of the forgotten gems of low-budget '70s horror. John D. Hancock's film is highly regarded in some circles, and rightfully deserves such recognition, as it expertly crafts its eerie tale in a way that makes the viewer second guess just about everything he sees in the film. What the film lacks in blatant shocks it more than makes up for in atmosphere. Robert Baldwin's often unsettling dream-like cinematography combined with Stoeber's fantastic musical accompaniments really cement a subtly disturbing mood, and I would highly recommend this flick to viewers who don't necessarily rely on buckets of blood to make or break their scary movies.
Blood & Gore = Some hallucinatory violence, including a garden mole knifed to death
Profanity = Nothing major
Fap Factor = Emily's seductive, but this film keeps it PG-level
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