The plot summary for Let’s Scare Jessica To Death is basic. A woman released from a mental hospital moves to an old countryside house with her husband and a friend to recuperate, but begins having strange visions and experiences around the property. Is there really something strange happening, or is it all in her in mind? (Thanks IMDB!)
Saddled with a title that has nothing to do with its content, Let’s Scare Jessica is a transitional piece of horror cinema. Positioned between classics like NOTLD and Texas Chainsaw, it is one more step away from the lurid technicolor gothics of the mid-60s. As something of a kin to Herk Harv’s Carnival Of Souls, it focuses on the time honored tradition of a woman seemingly going batshit crazy. Along with its callbacks to The Haunting of Hill House and, supposedly, Camilla, it is a movie with dark roots to the history of the genre. That a non-horror director John D Hancock made this is unusual due to the care brought to these slow burn atmospherics.
The director would move on to work in 70s television and it does show somewhat. People weaned on “car wreck chew with your mouth open” horror films will be bored by the carefully constructed characters and backstory. There are some missed opportunities on the story front and the acting is more credible than incredible. Still, all that said, there is an intriguing chain of incidence and arresting imagery here. Approached with an open mind, Let’s Scare Jessica to Death will get its creepy clammy hands on you.
The “woman’s descent into madness” plot is used to play out numerous undead tropes. This inscrutable sense of menace gives atmosphere. The divide between generations and gender is just valid as any “beastie” you could choose. Playing with expectations is stronger here than any pat answer. Your tolerance for ambiguity will determine your level of enjoyment
Another bit of contention for viewers of this movie is Zohra Lampert’s performance as Jessica. There is a discordant quality to her portrayal.It is very easy to understand other characters’ annoyance with her. To balance this out, the use of interior monologue voice-over let us to view the counterpoint. The stream of consciousness of this element is not something you see done as effectively as it is here. And a well deployed Shirley Jackson ref clues us to how aware the scriptwriters are of this device. All this said, I can see how all of this could be a turn-off.
The time frame of the film will separate this from many people. If you can’t take mustaches, 70s clothing and mores, you won’t make it through. I found the way the generational tensions, within and outside, to be effective without being overplayed. Beneath the surface there is sexual tensions but I never read it as particularly lesbian. You aren’t getting Daughters of Darkness here! There seems to more of a sexual trauma element. Several scenes point back to Jessica’s past obliquely.
Jessica’s unravelling and the events surrounding is the main attraction here. The possibilities suggested en route the creepy climax is what drew me in. For the classic horror fan, the set pieces hit all the desired buttons without going into gore territory. I never felt a need to look away but the sense of alienation and isolation was tangible. Let’s Scare Jessica To Death is an eerie drift into Post-Woodstock hysteria and anxiety. Pretty much the opposite of action horror.