Thirty years of horror: Let’s Scare Jessica to Death (1971)

Chris: Jessica swims toward the middle of a placid little pond. The sky seems overcast, as if it could rain. The camera hovers just above her looking down, and we see it. Something’s slowly emerging from the depths. It comes into focus and we realize it’s a body. Jessica screams…and the clip suddenly cuts to a card with the lurid title of the movie, urging viewers to tune in after the late local news and the nightly 11 pm twin bill of MASH reruns.

When I was a child, that teaser clip was just about the scariest thing on TV, and for whatever reason Let’s Scare Jessica To Death seemed to air almost monthly on local stations that weren’t lucky enough to have Johnny Carson after the late news. The thing was ubiquitous, and fueled more than a few bad dreams. When I was old enough to stay up late to see it, I always missed it. When I was even older, I’d moved on to more recent films. Setting off on this tour seemed like the perfect time for me to finally see if there was anything to the film that gave me so many childhood nightmares.

After the jump, let’s scare Chris to death before he grows up

Tom: I didn’t remember this movie at all. Until I was watching it. At which point certain scenes came back to me as they played out. I’ve definitely seen this before. At some point, this movie had lodged in my subconscious. But I didn’t remember a lot of the specifics. As I was about to find out, that’s because a lot of it doesn’t seem to make sense. Oh, 70s.

Chris: I’ll admit that I’d always assumed this was a ghost story. It sure starts out seeming like it is. But hey, there’s actually a vampire movie hiding in here! Especially considered in that context, I thought Let’s Scare Jessica To Death took some interesting chances that mostly worked. I loved that instead of just the traditional bites for the victims, there was apparently knife-play involved, even if the wounds left behind were rather odd-looking. The archetype of the creepy, antagonistic town and the way that figures into the vampiric back story is a nice touch as well.

Tom: Well, what do you expect when a bunch of damn hippies come rolling into town in a hearse? So disrespectful.

Chris: The biggest problem in the film is the decision by young director John D. Hancock to verbalize Jessica’s internal monologue. We understand fairly early on that she’s in a frail mental state, and actress Zohra Lampert seems up to the challenge of conveying those thoughts without needing those out-loud thought cues, which quickly become a distraction.

Tom: Wait, what? Zohra Lampert? What are you on about? Hold on a second.

…checking IMDB…

Okay, so that’s Zohra Lampert. I thought I’d just watched a movie with Tyne Daly. I even told my roommate it was Tyne Daly. He didn’t believe me and I made fun of him for not knowing Tyne Daly. “Okay, I can see it in her smile,” he eventually admitted.

“And in her eyes, and in her cheeks, and in her nose, and in her chin. Dude, it’s Tyne Daly. How could you not know that?”

I actually liked the voiceover of her thoughts. We know she’s come out of some sort of mental breakdown that resulted in her being institutionalized. Rather than explaining that to us, the movie lets us see the tension between her thought process and her outward appearance, whether it’s simple insecurity or going mad. I really liked the moment when they first walk in the house and see the squatter upstairs. She flinches, but doesn’t say anything. Her husband, noticing her reaction, reassures her that he saw it, too. In fact, that was one of the few things I liked about this movie.

Chris: I liked that part too, which is why I’m not sure I need the additional voiceovers. Given the era, it wasn’t completely unreasonable to have Jessica do a “Duncan never has two cups of coffee at home…” reading. But this is a little movie in almost every sense. For the most part it appears to have been shot in someone’s backyard, and there’s nothing really resembling a special effect to be found. Although the film was tied to Paramount, it actually shares the kind of personal and claustrophobic tone that would surface later in the decade with Tobe Hooper and Wes Craven and — lack of gore aside — has more in common with the way those films were shot.

Tom: It has the greasy sheen of a lot of crappy horror movies from the 70s, but without the greasy subject matter.

Chris: I also rather wish this film didn’t follow on our list right on the heels of Rosemary’s Baby, because I couldn’t help but notice similarities between them. We wonder whether Jessica is seeing things or is just going crazy, too…but as good as Lampert is here, she’s not Mia Farrow, and this movie isn’t written by Roman Polanski and so it can’t help but pale in comparison. Like with Rosemary’s Baby, an old picture features prominently in the story, but in this case I thought it was an error for Hancock to give us such a focused look at his photograph as it really gives away the rest of the movie.

Tom: I was pretty sure it was just going to end up being a weird pre-Lynch mindfuck storyline, and I’m not entirely convinced I’m wrong. So the idea is that, yes, the redhead was an immortal undead vampire who made everyone else a vampire by slicing them open and drinking their blood? Okay. Uh. I have questions. Why did she murder the dude with the mustache while he was spray insecticide instead of turning him? Why was Jessica’s husband swimming in the lake at the end of the movie? What’s with the mute girl running around before she ends up in the cello case? Who brings his cello into the kitchen for a jam session with a guitarist? How funny is it that the mustache dude got shot down by the redhead? Could they not find a real mole? Did they think moviegoers in the 70s didn’t know a mole from a mouse?

Chris: You have questions, I have answers. Well, one answer. That’s not a guitar; it’s a mandolin. A more obvious question to me than mouse or mole (seriously, that’s a mole?) is wondering who the hell brings in rodents they find outside to be pets? Is that a hippie thing? But I agree the vampire mythology falls apart under scrutiny. Right from the start though, the movie asks me to buy the notion that riding around in the back of a hearse and making charcoal rubbings of headstones is a healthy activity for a mental patient who thinks she sees ghosts. As long as I’m suspending credulity for that sort of nonsense, I suppose I was a little more willing to buy — or at least rent — what the rest of the film was selling.

Tom: The best thing I can say about Let’s Scare Jessica to Death is that it made me want to watch Martha Marcy May Marlene again. Or maybe even the original Uruguayan Silent House.

(So what’s this “thirty years of horror” thing?)