Synopsis: A recently institutionalized woman has bizarre experiences after moving into a supposedly haunted country farmhouse and fears she may be losing her sanity once again.
Stars: Zohra Lampert, Barton Heyman, Kevin O’Connor, Gretchen Corbett, Alan Manson, Mariclare Costello
Director: John Hancock
Running Length: 89 minutes
Where to Watch: DVD/Vudu/Amazon
Review: When I was a kid, the box cover for Let’s Scare Jessica to Death really freaked me out…and intrigued me at the same time. It was years before I finally saw it and by that time I had taken in all types of less than subtle horror gore-fests so its lackadaisical pacing and open for interpretation finale left me less than impressed. Viewing the film now with a more forgiving eye and taking into account the time period it was made, Let’s Scare Jessica to Death emerges as an atmospheric and creepy excursion.
Released in 1971 when the horror genre was lying dormant in between its ‘50s heyday and ‘80s renaissance, this is a low budget endeavor with a tiny cast and extras culled from the Connecticut hamlet where it was filmed. Opening at the end (or what we think is the end), Jessica (Zohra Lampert) recounts how she came to be sitting in a boat bathed in golden sunlight. Jumping back several days, we see Jessica, her husband (Barton Heyman), and their friend (Kevin O’Connor) traveling to an idyllic farmhouse where Jessica can continue her recuperation after suffering a nervous breakdown. Before they even arrive, Jessica catches sight of a girl (Gretchen Corbett) in an old cemetery…or did she? Writer/director John Hancock (who was famously hired and subsequently fired from directing Jaws 2 in 1978) effectively scripts in Jessica’s inner-thoughts and the various ways she tries to convince herself she’s not falling apart and seeing things again.
As they approach the farmhouse (did I mention they are traveling in a hearse?) they encounter several locals who don’t seem very happy about the arrival of outsiders or where the trio has chosen to stay. Before they can even unpack they catch Emily (Mariclare Costello), a pretty squatter who saw the empty house and claimed it as her own. Since it is the time of peace, love, and understanding, they let her stay. All three begin to fall under her charms…but only Jessica starts to see a figure in a white dress under the surface of the lake and wandering around her house. A figure that looks an awful lot like the woman from an old picture in their dusty attic thought drowned on her wedding day but whose body was never found. An apparition that resembles…Emily.
At 88 minutes, the film feels closer to 120 thanks to its slow development but it’s punctuated by several spine-tingling moments when Jessica begins to unravel and question everything around her. Is her husband trying to drive mad and carrying on an affair with Emily? Why do all the townspeople have scars on their necks and bandages on their arms? Are the voices in her head real or imaginary? What about the other girl from the cemetery that seems to be leading Jessica to bodies and clues to the local mystery?
Aside from Costello, this is a very ordinary looking (read non-Hollywood) cast which helps instill a bit of realism. Heyman and O’Connor’s characters aren’t fleshed out that much so it falls to Costello and Lampert to carry the film. Costello is nicely mysterious, never telegraphing what’s happening next but clearly showing something isn’t right from the get-go. It almost feels like Lampert was fed the plot in pieces because her actions and reactions seem genuine. She can’t trust herself so she deeply wants to trust others; when that security disintegrates, Jessica becomes increasingly erratic and unstable.
While it has several gaping plot holes that can’t be totally forgiven, Let’s Scare Jessica to Death is an interesting find as an early horror entry of a new decade. Unlike it’s genre siblings that followed, it’s low on gore and nudity and likely will be too slow for most to take in and appreciate. I’ve long since gotten over my fears of the poster art, but the film leaves a cool shiver in its wake.