Despite being hamstrung by a misleading and inappropriate title that conjures up the muted chills of The Cat and the Canary (1927) and Gaslight (1944), Let’s Scare Jessica to Death is in fact one of the most insidious and disconcerting horror pictures of the 1970’s. This is no small feat in a decade awash with some of the most important and influential films to ever grace the horror genre. One obvious inspiration for Jessica was George A. Romero’s keynote speech for a new type of modern horror film Night of the Living Dead (1968), but where Romero’s film utilised schlock and sensationalism, John Hancock’s debut effort instead opts for an unassuming and inconspicuous subtlety, an approach to the material that almost certainly had negative consequences on the films box office potential. It’s abundantly clear from the films descent into obscurity, lessened somewhat by its regular showings on late night television, that co-financier Paramount Pictures either didn’t have the desire or the knowledge of how to sell such a distinctively offbeat picture. The failure of Jessica to resonate with a substantive audience, in a decade which saw a number of dreadful films clean up on 42nd Street and in the drive-ins, is one of the more depressing chapters in the annals of horror history. But with the likes of Stephen King and Kim Newman championing the cause, a decent DVD from Paramount (put out in 2006, and badly in need of a re-issue), the movie has steadily built up a loyal and appreciative cult following.
© Shaun Anderson 2012