Let’s Scare Jessica to Death (1971)
Directed by: John D. Hancock
Starring: Zohra Lampert, Mariclare Costello, Barton Heyman, Kevin O’Connor, Gretchen Corbett, Alan Manson
(out of 4)
Bathing styles of the 70s. The 1870s.
Well, the title Let’s Scare Jessica to Death is misleading – coming in, I expected to find a film about some kind of conspiracy to frighten poor Jessica (Zohra Lampert) into offing herself, but it turns out that this is an early 70s reworking of the Carmilla story, in which a group of lost souls find themselves prey to a vampire/succubus/revenant. It’s a film of its time, coming in that weird period between the summer of love and Watergate, during the height of the Vietnam war, past the point of Hunter Thompson’s watermark where the wave finally broke and rolled back. As Kevin O’Connor’s quasi-hippie Woody says “we’re all running from something…. we’re all kind of… wandering spirits.” By the end, nobody is filled with more disappointment than poor Jessica, her hopes of living a simpler life among nature dashed, not to mention the destruction of her marriage and, probably, her sanity.
Jessica has just gotten out of an asylum due to some kind of breakdown, so her husband Duncan (Barton Heyman) takes her to their new home in the country with friend Woody in tow. Death is already with them – their ride is a hearse, and they are greeted by the older men in the town with contempt. Given the revelations at the end, the fact that the townsmen think of the new group as “hippies” and “creeps” is funny, given that they are revealed to have their own brand of communalism and other stuff I won’t spoil. Before our group reaches the house, Jessica has created impressions of gravestones to hang on her wall; she has already started seeing and hearing things but won’t talk about it for fear of being sent back to the hospital. But she’s relieved to find that the squatter in their newly acquired home is real (“That’s ok, Jess, I see her too.”). Red haired Emily (Mariclare Costello) proves likable and free-spirited enough that the threesome invite her to stay awhile, which is certainly a mistake because she becomes romantically entangled with both men. Things get weird when Duncan and Jessica try to sell old artifacts they found in the house, including an old photo from the late 1800s with a girl in it who looks suspiciously like Emily.
Attention BRC Residents! Non-potable Water!
Let’s Scare Jessica to Death is a slow burn. By the end of it, Jessica’s grip on reality is practically gone, but unlike some reviewers I have read, I didn’t find the story that confusing. In fact, I think it’s rather straightforward; the film gives plenty of clues to what is going on. Things progress maybe a little more slowly than they should, but I think the focus is more on what’s going on in Jessica’s head and how she feels. (There are lots of internal monologues, and a nice touch is to occasionally intermingle another person’s thoughts with Jessica’s, giving a sense that she might indeed be losing her sanity again). Zohra Lampert is good in her role as the fragile, vulnerable lead, but Mariclare Costello is perfect – she knows how to play sexy and dangerous; she makes the movie work.
Let’s Scare Jessica to Death is by no means perfect – I think that maybe director Hancock throws in too many symbolic references (the poisoned apples, the “angelic” but “merciless” faces, the hearse, the mole) but it’s very atmospheric, nightmarish, and creepy in that 70s way. You can tell it gets some influence from 1968’s Rosemary’s Baby (especially the last bedroom scene); on the other hand, the electronic score and scenes of Woody’s spraying machine seem to have influenced 1974’s Let Sleeping Corpses Lie. My final thought on the movie is that it is extremely sad; not scary per se (although some might find it that) but just filled with melancholy and fatalism. It’s a flick about sheep inviting the wolf for dinner and a bit of commentary on the flower children’s broken dreams. Funny title, though.
– Bill Gordon
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“Bring out your dead!”
“But I’m getting better…”
“If you want to put me into an early grave, that hippie folk music should do it.”