Saturday, October 29, 2016

#2,236. Let's Scare Jessica to Death (1971)

Directed By: John Hancock

Starring: Zohra Lampert, Barton Heyman, Kevin O'Connor

Tag line: "Something is after Jessica. Something very cold, very wet... and very dead..."

Trivia: The hearse used in the film was also used to transport the actors to the different filming locations

I sit here and I can’t believe that it happened. And yet I have to believe it. Dreams or nightmares… Madness or sanity… I don’t know which is which

These are the opening lines of 1971’s Let’s Scare Jessica to Death, a low-budget horror film directed by John Hancock that is either about a woman slowly losing her mind, or a vampire that controls a small Connecticut town.

It might even be a little of both.

Jessica (Zohra Lampert) has just been released from a New York City mental hospital, where she spent 6 months following a nervous breakdown. Looking to start anew, she and her husband Duncan (Barton Heyman), as well as their good friend Woody (Kevin O’Connor), move into a farmhouse in rural Connecticut, one situated next to a large, picturesque lake. When they first arrive, they find a girl named Emily (Mariclare Costello), who, believing the house abandoned, has been living there for some time. Realizing she has nowhere else to go, Jessica invites Emily to stay, and the two become fast friends.

In need of money, Duncan (who quit his job with the Philharmonic and spent their entire life savings to buy the house) and Jessica decide to drive into town to sell some of their new home’s more unusual knick-knacks, some of which they found in the attic. While the townsfolk are anything but friendly, the couple does eventually stumble upon an amiable antiques dealer (Alan Manson) who tells them the history of their house, which, in the late 1800’s belonged to the Bishop family. According to legend, young Abigail Bishop, days away from her wedding, drowned in the nearby lake. Because her body was never recovered, some believe she is not only still alive, but also a vampire, feasting on the blood of the locals!

Jessica, who has had several frightening experiences since moving into the house (including nearly drowning in the lake when a figure in white tried to pull her down), begins to believe these stories, and wonders why an old picture of Abigail Bishop so closely resembles Emily. But when she tells Duncan and Woody about what she’s seen, they don’t believe her, and fear that she may once again be losing her mind. Is the horror real, or is Jessica slipping into insanity?

Let’s Scare Jessica to Death is, by no means, a conventional horror film. The majority of it takes place during daylight, and the setting (an actual farm house) is idyllic, even beautiful at times (the opening shot of a rowboat on the lake at sunrise is striking). As for the scares, they are (for most of its run-time, anyway) of the subtle variety, and because of the lead character’s past issues, we’re not even sure if what’s going on is real (did Jessica see a figure in the water, or was it her mind playing tricks on her?).

Yet thanks to the way its director approaches the story, Let’s Scare Jessica to Death is, indeed, an unsettling experience. By utilizing voiceover through much of the film, Hancock makes us privy to what Jessica is thinking, the voices in her head that sometimes reveal how she herself isn’t sure of what’s going on (in the opening scene, she spots a young girl decked out in white, played by Gretchen Corbett, walking through a cemetery, and, fearing that it’s all in her head, tells herself to keep what she’s seen quiet). Yet, as the movie progresses, Jessica starts to hear another voice, one that’s talking directly to her, saying Duncan no longer loves her and that she should stay in the house forever. Regardless of whether or not the voice is genuine or a figment of Jessica’s imagination, it’s enough to occasionally send a chill up your spine.

In addition, Let’s Scare Jessica to Death features two strong female characters, with each actress doing a fine job in their respective role. As Jessica, Zohra Lampert perfectly conveys her character’s frailty, as well as the uncertainty that haunts her every waking minute. Jessica does try to put on a happy face (especially at the outset), yet her self-doubt soon gets the better of her. Equal to her is Mariclare Costello as Emily, who is either an innocent house guest or an undead parasite. Her actions sometimes suggest there’s more to her than meets the eye; she attempts to seduce Duncan, and later on insists that Jessica join her down by the lake, resulting in what is easily the film’s most frightening moment. Yet, like Jessica, we’re not quite sure what to make of her. The mystery surrounding this character is eventually solved, but for the majority of the movie we’re as much in the dark as the title character.

Know going in that Let’s Scare Jessica to Death is a slow building horror film, and that there’s very little blood and no gore to speak of. That said, the movie does offer it share of chills, and the finale is just creepy enough to make what went before it worthwhile.

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