Sunday, 29 April 2012

Let's Scare Jessica to Death (1971)

Country: USA

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.

Although John Hancock and Lee Kalcheim drew inspiration from Sheridan Le Fanu’s oft adapted novella Carmilla (1827), the filmmakers wisely chose to develop an astonishing atmosphere of dream-like melancholia, instead of emphasising the more prurient and exploitative elements of vampirism. In this regard the film has much more in common with Harry Kumel’s own treatment of Le Fanu’s tale Daughters of Darkness (1971) rather than the stodgier and obvious way that Hammer addressed the same material in their ‘Karnstein Trilogy’. But Hancock’s interest is in insanity, in the difference between fact and fiction, between the subjective and the objective. The decision to tell the story from the point of view of a young woman who has just spent six months in a mental institution, and has relocated to the rural climes of Connecticut to aid her recovery, immediately signifies that issues of trust will be open to debate. The unreliable narrator is a masterstroke in this case, especially when working in tandem with an interior monologue that shows that Jessica is only too well aware of how her husband Duncan (Barton Heyman) and friend Woody (Kevin O’Connor) will react if she tells them of the spectral girl she keeps seeing, or of the whispered voices that invade her subconscious.

The narrative also concerns itself with addressing the alienating effects of modernity as the trio of city drop outs seek placement within, what they hope, is a rural idyll. The film was shot in Old Saybrook in Connecticut and much of the action takes place in an old gothic house overlooking a lake. This location becomes an effective spatial metaphor when Jessica finds she is increasingly alone and isolated, the house is cut off from the mainland, and for Jessica the mainland represents reality. Without this anchor she is increasingly at the mercy of forces beyond her control. As with much rural horror the tension between the city and the country is highlighted by the brusque and weird behaviour of the townsfolk, but the reasons for the citizens brash hatred of the young interlopers takes a particularly sinister and unexpected turn as the narrative progresses. It doesn’t help that their means of transportation is a hearse, and it’s fairly clear from Jessica’s morbid interest in the macabre, that such a vehicle is driven purely for its cosmetic value. Her overriding hobby, apart from hearing voices, is to travel to desolate graveyards and to take tracings of tombstones. Such a morose obsession with death and all of its trappings (yes they have an obligatory séance) sets up a situation where one feels that Jessica would gladly accept the incursion of the supernatural, but when it rears its head in the shape of hippy transient Emily (Mariclare Costello) she proves that her interest is far from genuine.

It becomes clear very quickly what Emily is (or could be) but the manner in which she cynically takes advantage of ‘free love’ and jealousy to destroy the unity of the trio speaks of vampirism of an entirely different brand. When the film actually does use the more traditional aspects of vampire lore it doesn’t work anywhere near as well. Interestingly the film is almost entirely set in daylight hours, thus putting to bed one particular vampire myth, and offering evidence to support a reading that Jessica is genuinely imagining everything. These daylight moments are shot in a hazy languid fashion, as though everything exists within the fevered framework of a daydream. The eerie and unmovable fog that settles over the lake at night-time adds to the odd atmosphere of dislocation and remoteness. The narrative does make a concession to its source material by adding a certain lesbian frisson to proceedings, but it is entirely justifiable because it culminates in the unforgettably haunting image of Emily rising from the cold waters of the lake in her wedding dress. The performances of the two women are excellent, especially Zohra Lampert as the unhinged Jessica, who despite her increasing paranoia and desperation, makes the character just irritating enough to affect our sympathies for her. In the films obsessions with exploring feminine psychosis it forgets there are male characters, but this is easily forgiven for its refreshing interest in female subjectivity. Let’s Scare Jessica to Death is poetic, haunting, and lyrical; it’s slow paced, lacks excitement, and lacks sensationalism, and only makes a half-hearted appeal to the conventions of vampire fiction, but for those reasons alone it is afforded a prominent place on The Celluloid Highway.

© Shaun Anderson 2012


  1. Excellent review, Shaun. Late night TV is where I saw this first; on Shock Theater. Wonderful little movie.

  2. I couldn't agree more Brian - I first became aware of this one after reading Kim Newman's NIGHTMARE MOVIES, and have since followed and supported his continual efforts to champion the film.

  3. Very nice review. I adore this movie - I first read about it in Thrower's Nightmare USA, then had to import the DVD, but it was worth the effort. I love the ambiguity, and Zohra Lampert is just excellent. Great stuff.

  4. Indeed this is a quiet chiller I am extremely partial to. The uncertainty,the lazy,Summer fed uneasiness. You have to enjoy the low key,suggestive approach (a lost art he said,lighting a candle to Val Lewton). Was able to obtain the out of print Paramount DVD for a reasonable price and the film looks quite good,faithful in texture. No extras but there is a site devoted to the film (believe it or not)Let's Scare Jessica To Death.Net for those who wish to explore further.
    Best wishes Shaun. Hope your health has improved!

  5. Yes, I think it is the approach to the material that distinguishes JESSICA from its contemporaries. This film is after all, on one level at least, a lesbian vampire movie. A kind of loose adaptation of Le Fanu's CARMILLA...just take a look at what Hammer were doing with similar material and you can see why JESSICA stands out. But its true importance I feel lies in its investigation of feminine subjectivity. I managed to download a print of the film sourced from the Paramount DVD and it does look very good indeed. The problem is that (believe it or not) the film hasn't legitimately been released on DVD in the in order to purchase the DVD one must pay quite a bit of postage.

  6. indeed scared the wits right out of me


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