Tuesday, January 17, 2006

CULT MOVIE BLOGGING: Let's Scare Jessica to Death (1973)

Following her recovery from a nervous breakdown, a sensitive woman named Jessica (Zohra Lampert) "starts over" with her husband Duncan (Barton Heyman) and a buddy, Woody (Kevin O'Connor), relocating to New England, where a new home awaits them.

In a quiet, rural town, Jessica and her friends move in to a grand old mansion...and find a strange squatter already living there, a mysterious woman named Emily...who claims to be a traveler. In fact, Emily seems to be attracted to Duncan, and soon a disturbed Jessica, spurred by her insecurities perhaps, begins to hear whispers in their new house. She also experiences visions of a young woman in white. The girl seems to be trying to warn her about something...

When Jessica visits the local antique store, she learns from the proprietor that her "new house" once belonged to Abigail Bishop...back in the 1880s. Abigail, a beautiful woman, drowned in the cove on the eve of her wedding, but some folk suggest she yet lives...as some kind of treacherous, ravenous, man-eating vampire. This thought terrifies Jessica, and when she goes swimming in the creek later, Emily tries to drown her, as if aware of her terror.

Before long, Jessica starts to grow suspicious of her husband, Duncan too . For one thing, he has a strange mark on his neck, just like all the old men in the nearby village. For another, he refuses to acknowledge that strange things are happening. Jessica fears she is losing her mind, but then -- one night -- in the stillness of her bedroom -- , a community of decrepit vampires arrive to take her. She flees to a rowboat, as an army of the dead pursue her...

That's the core plot-line of Let's Scare Jessica to Death, one of my favorite horror films of the early 1970s. At the time the movie was released, the critics didn't have many kind words for this John Hancock production. "With the exception of Zohra Lampert's subtle and knowledgeable performance," wrote Time Magazine on September 20, 1971, "no one in the cast has enough substance even to be considered humanoid."

The New York Times was not much kinder, arguing that Let's Scare Jessica to Death "tends to lose much sense of what kind of movie it is...Among the actors, only Miss Lampert develops a characterization."

Despite these notices, I always fall back on my common theme when reviewing horror films. The bottom line is that genre films are supposed to be scary. How a movie reaches that common denominator is a matter of taste, style, and the individual gifts of the director. Alas, today many in the industry think that CGI is scary. I don't. CGI is okay in a science fiction film; but for me the technique rarely works in horror.

Oppositely, Hitchcock believed he could terrify audiences with misdirection, surprise, and shock. He utilized every arrow in a formalist's quiver (expressionist angles; shock cutting and the like) to generate fear. William Friedkin, auteur of The Exorcist adopted an almost documentary-style approach to his horrific material, making it feel "real" to involved audiences.

Yet Let's Scare Jessica to Death finds another way to reach that pinnacle of "scariness." It's a more difficult and more subjective approach, perhaps, as it involves the auspices of texture, feeling and mood. Indeed, the film's overall narrative makes precious little sense if taken as a whole. There are few dramatic "action" scenes where anything really happens (save for an exquisite jolt moment early on), and even fewer special effects. Yet the film remains, in the best sense of the word, creepy. It is a scary little production that gets under audience nerves, and puts a viewer ill-at- ease almost from the first frame.

It'd difficult to chart the manner in which this "mood" is achieved. One might make mention of the brilliant cinematography as a start. The film is hazy and overcast at times, feeling like a dream. Or one could point to the gothic imagery and overarching aesthetic: the beautiful opening view that reveals a fog settling over the still waters of a cove. The sun is orange and low in an apricot sky, forecasting night, and a sad, isolated figure (Jessica) sits alone in a canoe, a post-modern Lady of Shallotte. The villain is a porcelain woman in flowing white dress, a contemporary Rappaccini's daughter, who brings terror and death to anyone who treads too close.

On a simple level, Jessica's abandoned mansion is an imposing edifice too, inspiring dread. It is well filmed from multiple low angles to inspire feelings of menace and fear. This, and the film's other canny visuals, play on old dreads, perhaps, but effective ones nonetheless, and so Let's Scare Jessica to Death is a lovely and even poetic horror film, at least in a visual sense. And film, of course, is a visual medium.

Director Hancock has also taken special care to suggest (rather than definitively depict) the movie's most horrific encounters. That's another trick for mood-drenched horror movies. Consider for a moment the impact of The Blair Witch Project. Almost nothing overtly horrific is seen on screen, but the overall effect of seeing the witch's icons and figures (which she leaves behind in the woods), the uncertainty of being lost, and the paranoia of the kids, combines to create a mood approaching abject terror.

Let's Scare Jessica to Death adopts a similar modus operandi. There's an unsettling moment in a darkened attic when a shadowy figure shifts suddenly in the frame's foreground, while Jessica is seen in the background. This dark blur is never clearly detected. It is visible merely as a black movement; for a split second. What is it? Who is it? We don't know, yet its presence unnerves us.

Similarly, the old men of the town are often referred to in film books (and this post too...) as "vampires." As is the winsome Abigail. Yet these characters aren't your garden-variety cape-and-fangs, Euro-trash sort. They're more like a mob of undead zombies, moving slowly, strangely - gnarled in their old age and enigmatic in their agenda. Had Hancock desired it, he could have provided increased clarity about these aged specters; their nature and history. Instead, like that fast-moving and frightening blur in the attic, the director merely hints at what they are. A tried- and-true method of scaring audiences involves the removal of clarity, of explanation, from reality's equation. Ambiguity, as was once stated on MST3K, is scary. The audience starts to wonder, along with Jessica, if it has really seen or understood what is occurring here.

New England Gothic - that's the mood of Let's Scare Jessica to Death. There's an ancient evil here, a town with a dark secret, one woman's struggle with sanity...and a coven of blood-thirsty old men. What else could one want out of the horror movie? Director Hancock sets a grim, dreamy mood, and viewers get to revel in it for eight nine hypnotic minutes...


  1. Anonymous8:38 PM

    I surprised that anyone else rembers this movie. It used to run quite a bit on tv in the early 80's (on 4 O'Clock movie slots etc). I usually watched it again every time it was on.

  2. Anonymous9:40 PM

    I actually saw this in a theatre, sometime in 1973...I was 13 or 14 and "Jessica" left a lasting impression on me. ABC-TV ran it late nights a few times in the mid-70's, and it was a weekday afternoon staple on Ch. 7 in Washington D.C. Baltimore's Ch. 45 also got mileage out of it (never, sadly, on the popular "Ghost Host Theatre" where "Jessica" would have been perfect).

    Another important element of the movie is the haunting acoustic music score by Orville Stoeber, as well as the electronic effects by Walter Sear, which heighten the movie's unsettled feel. The piano duet in the scene where Jess is in the attic is one of my favorites.

    Of course, the world can rejoice now that our poor, lovely Jessica is on DVD!!

  3. Anonymous11:56 AM

    I recorded all this music to picture and overdubbed at will. John needed to be very much in control of what kind of music he wanted for his films and I usually needed to be with him when I came up with something useful for any of the film projects we collaborated on . Orville Stoeber

  4. Anonymous12:00 PM

    I recorded all this music to picture and overdubbed at will. John needed to be very much in control of what kind of music he wanted for his films and I usually needed to be with him when I came up with something useful for any of the film projects we collaborated on . Orville Stoeber

  5. Marilyn6:20 AM

    Speaking of let's Scare Jessica To death. It is 6:15 am in the morning and I am actually listening to the film while on the computer. I seen The film a thousand times. I never get tired of it. maybe Just looking at. I can see the movie in my mind as I sit at the computer. i know what happens next, just by the sound.

  6. Anonymous11:58 PM

    Oh my gosh, can't believe I finally figured out the name to a movie that I watched when I was 14 years old. I watched this movie alone in my bedroom many years ago, I'd never been so scared. This was a classic, they just dont make movies like this anymore.
    Definately looking forward to watching it again, I hope the experience will be close to the same.

  7. Anonymous3:09 AM

    I was nine years old when I saw this movie in our neighborhood theater. I couldn't remember the title but remembered it for the near 35 years now. If this is the correct film I think it begins with the ending, and that's why I could never forget it.