Let's Scare Jessica to Death (1971)
By: J.R. Gregory on June 7, 2011  | 
Paramount (USA) | Region 1, NTSC | 1.77:1 (16:9 enhanced) | English DD 2.0 | 88 minutes (Full Specs)
The Movie
Cover Art
Director: John Hancock
Starring: Zohra Lampert, Barton Heyman, Kevin O'Connor, Gretchen Corbettt, Alan Manson
Screenplay: Ralph Rose, Norman Jonas
Country: USA
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The rural landscape has proved a fruitful ground for independent horror, especially during the 1970's, when American independent films were at their zenith. True, there is a lot of dross to sift through to find something worthwhile, but keep sifting and you will find a gem of a film like Let's Scare Jessica to Death.

Filmed in a mixture of mist and sunshine, Let's Scare Jessica to Death has a hallucinatory claustrophobic quality about it that places this in the top shelf of independent horror. The story revolves around Jessica (Zohra Lampert) who has just been released from a mental institution for an unexplained illness. She is travelling with her husband Duncan (Barton Heyman) and their friend Woody (Kevin O'Connor) to their new home, a run-down farm in Conneticut. As befitting aging hippies, they are travelling to their new home in a black hearse with pink peace symbols and love written on the sides. The move from New York is regarded as being a way of not only assisting Jessica's recovery, but also as a final attempt at reclaiming their quickly departing youth.

When stopping to ask directions, the trio are given an openly hostile reception in town from the old men who reside there. Escaping from the slow-moving mob, they eventually find the farm house and that there is a young woman, Emily (Mariclare Costello), who has been squatting in the house. While initially alarmed, and going against the advice of her husband and Woody, Jessica convinces the men to allow Emily to stay with them, a decision that will lead to unintended and disturbing consequences.

While initially charmed by Emily, Jessica becomes increasingly fearful of her as both Woody and Duncan become enamoured. Other strange events start to accumulate that add to Jessica's growing paranoia: the discovery of an old photograph with a young woman who looks like Emily; an antique dealer who informs her that the girl in the photograph is Abigail Bishop, who drowned in the lake nearby in the 1890's; the appearance of a white-gowned woman who leads Jessica to a waterfall where the dead body of the antique dealer is found, and when she brings her husband to the spot, the body has disappeared. As Jessica becomes increasingly frantic and isolated, Emily starts to act with increased hostility, attempting to drown her in the lake. Jessica manages to escape to the village, where things are just as intimidating. Threatened from those around her as well as from her own frailty, Jessica struggles to keep a grasp of what is real and what is imagined.

Slow and measured in pace, this is a powerful film that explores some big issues that were especially pertinent at the time. Filmed in 1971, the counter-culture movement could already be seen in the past, and its adherents were moving into a hedonistic middle-age. There is a sense throughout this film that there is an end coming, if not already gone by unnoticed, and that this attempt to move away from the trappings of city life and regain the ideals of a hippie youth is a last stand, filled with yearning and futility. This is a sense displayed not solely by the four main characters for themselves, but for the counter-culture as a whole.

The relationship between the four characters is similarly reminiscent of the "free-love" that was held as an ideal in the 1960's. However, the situation between the three friends is complicated by the arrival of Emily and the sense of security that Jessica depends on with her husband. Emily appears to represent something that is sexually available and willing, upsetting the tenuous strands that keep Jessica, Duncan and Woody in an uneasy alliance. The interactions between the four of them becoming increasingly distant and fraught with double meanings, a certain look, a particular phrase, a forced smile, all add to the tension.

As important as this aspect of the film is, if this was all there was then this would be solely a drama and an unworthy addition to the reviews here. There is mystery as well, exemplified by the character of Emily. All the old men in the village are familiar with her but unwilling to provide any greater detail. Then there is the discovery of an old portrait of a woman who bears a striking resemblance to Emily, who drowned in mysterious circumstances on her wedding day. Her relationship with all the men, particularly the characters of Duncan and Woody, has a predatory feel about them, and she exudes a sexual power that has all in her thrall. Yet there is mysteriousness about her, that all is not quite right behind those eyes, wrapping doubt about her true motivations.

Similarly, the character of Jessica is unnerving, coming across initially as all toothy smiles, too loud laughter and overly nice, as she over-compensates for the uncertainties, torments and worries within her damaged psyche. Jessica is a woman under siege, much like the beleaguered female leads in Les Diaboliques and Repulsion. The narrative of the film comes largely from her as a strange disconnected voice, thanks to the measured use of post-synching and having Jessica's voice subtly change to a different pitch. This interior monologue adds to this sense of unease, unsure about the source of such words and giving a feeling akin to eavesdropping. Jessica has a sense of fragility about her, as if she is being stretched to her limits, adding to the belief that things could shatter at any moment, returning her to a place that remains unnamed yet feared.

As is often the case with independent films, there are annoying aspects that detract from the whole experience. The pacing is slow, with some scenes and conversations appearing interminably long, and some viewers may find this excruciating. Overall though, this can be seen as deliberate and makes this one for the patient viewer. Other aspects are the inclusion of characters that act as distractions rather than adding anything to the story, such as with the mute girl who appears sporadically throughout the film. The title itself is similarly misleading, giving an idea that there is a specific plot against Jessica, when the film itself remains ambiguous on the topic. There are plot threads that remain unresolved, such as with the previous owners of the farm house, and the lack of exploration of this aspect of the story is a source of frustration.
The qualities of the visuals in this film are well presented on this disc. The countryside, with combinations of mists, autumnal colours, and the lake itself, are all captured in stunning detail. Disconcertingly, considering large parts of this film are shot outside in daylight, the feelings generated by the cinematography is both eerily beautiful and ominous simultaneously. The print used here is a widescreen version enhanced for 16:9 television screens.
While the sound is delivered clearly, it is presented in mono only. The use of post-synching when the film was originally made results in a strangely claustrophobic feel. The limited use of music adds to the haunting, melancholic feel of the film. Presented in Dolby Digital with English subtitles only.
Extra Features
No extras are available on this disc.
The Verdict
Movie Score
Disc Score
Overall Score
Ambiguity, atmosphere and characterisation are qualities in film that contribute to making a classic. This is because these are rare qualities to find and fewer films appear to aim for such subtleties when cheaper thrills can be had. Combine them with an artistic eye, strong portrayals and an assuredness in your vision, and you have the elements necessary for a strong and enduring film. Let's Scare Jessica to Death is a slow, measured film that builds to a satisfying and startling conclusion. A classic character study of a woman under siege from those around her and from her own mind, this is an underrated film that will satisfy the discerning viewer.

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