John Hancock, 1971
Starring: Zohra Lampert, Mariclare Costello, Barton Heyman, Kevin O’Connor, Gretchen Corbett
Jessica has recently been released from a mental institution and she, her husband Duncan, and friend Woody travel to the New England countryside to a live in an isolated farmhouse. When they arrive, a pretty red-haired woman, Emily, has been staying at the house. She offers to leave, but Jessica invites her to stay, soon regretting this decision because Duncan is obviously interested in Emily. Jessica observes a number of strange things and fears she may be losing her mind again. She hears the story of Abigail Bishop, a young woman who lived in the farm house in the previous century and drowned before her wedding day.
After she becomes increasingly disturbed, Duncan tries to tell Jessica to go back to her doctor. He has an affair with Emily and heads to town to call Jessica’s doctor. She is left alone in the house with Emily and notices how much Emily looks like Abigail Bishop. She becomes afraid, but can’t refuse when Emily convinces her to go swimming. Emily tries to down her, saying it was a joke, but then emerges from the water wearing Abigail’s wedding dress and tries to bite Jessica’s neck. A terrified Jessica hides all day, first in her bedroom and then in the woods, until Duncan finds her that night. He is unusually affectionate and she notices that he has a cut on his neck. She runs from him and finds other dead bodies around the farm. Will she ever escape Emily? Will she be able to tell what is real?
Let’s Scare Jessica to Death, despite its lurid title suggesting a riff on The Cat and the Canary, is one of the most subtle and genuinely scary films of the ‘70s. It is also one of the most underrated and it’s a shame it hasn’t reached a wider audience. It borrows a little from Rosemary’s Baby in terms of an isolated female character and her growing sense of paranoia, but this is really rural horror and celebrates its pastoral, lonely setting at every opportunity. Stripped of most gore, violence, nudity, and even sexuality, Let’s Scare Jessica to Death relies solely on mood and atmosphere.
Director John D. Hancock also made Bang the Drum Slowly (1973) and a number of mostly unknown films. He did an incredible job with Let’s Scare Jessica to Death and it is definitely his masterpiece. The cinematography from Bob Baldwin is excellent, playing up the spookier elements of the farm and woods. The real star of the film is the truly incredible soundscape, which moves from eerie sounds of the forest, wind, and old farmhouse to the acoustic soundtrack music, to the disturbing whispering that is all in Jessica’s mind. Walter Sear contributed some creepy ambient, electronic sounds, making this one of the most effective soundtracks in ‘70s horror.
Zohra Lampert (Splendor in the Grass, Exorcist III) is perfect as Jessica. She constantly hovers on the edge of anxiety - or outright madness - but for most of the film has a big, innocent, and infectious smile that helps make her character so sympathetic. Lampert never succumbs to cliche to portray Jessica and helps the audience to remain unsure whether the unfolding events are real or imagined. Her voice overs may come across as a bit silly, but I found them effective. The idea of an unreliable narrator that was so popular in Lovecraft’s writing can be tricky to pull of in a film, but works very well here as it becomes immediately apparent that Jessica was recently released from a mental hospital and may not have a solid grasp of reality.
The two male characters, her husband Duncan (Barton Heyman from The Exorcist) and friend Woody (Kevin O’Connor, not to be confused with Kevin J. O’Connor from Lord of Illusions and The Mummy) are not particularly memorable and feel very generic, but this somehow works. They are both overshadowed by Jessica and Emily. The lovely, charismatic Mariclare Costello nearly overwhelms Lampert, but this shifting balance is effective because of the dynamic between the two characters. Costello is quite a presence here as Emily and it’s a shame she didn’t have a more robust acting career.
There is, of course, the question of whether or not Emily is a vampire. I would only loosely call this a vampire film and I really enjoy the effort to keep things as vague as possible. Emily does try to bite Jessica, but most of her victims are covered in cuts, implying a knife or razor is used and not teeth. Her victims also act more like zombies than vampires, which makes me think more of ghouls than anything else. Speaking of zombies versus ghouls, Let’s Scare Jessica to Death certainly has a connection to Messiah of Evil. While they don’t share many plot elements, both are low budget, unexpectedly scary films with thoroughly weird, vague plots and centered around a female characters.
A subtle film with moments of genuine horror, Let’s Scare Jessica to death is ultimately about haunting, both in Jessica’s mind and in the more literal story of Emily’s death and her obvious return. The film also uses horror cliches to its benefit quite frequently. Jessica arrives to the farmhouse in a hearse and stops at a cemetery to do grave rubbings, which she uses to decorate her bedroom. She sees a chair rocking itself, shadows move, they hold a seance, and she finds a corpse. Jessica’s tenuous optimism and joy keep these scenes from descending into predictability and though the plot may be a bit slow moving for some, the film is a fresh take on both female madness and vampirism.
Let’s Scare Jessica to Death is available on DVD and comes with the highest possible recommendation. Hopefully it will receive a special edition Blu-ray release sometime soon and receive the wider audience it richly deserves.