Retro Review: Let's Scare Jessica to Death (1971)
The way I see it, one of the great things about being a horror film buff is the joy of discovering older films that never caught on with larger audiences but still serve as impressive examples of horror cinema. My latest discovery is Let's Scare Jessica to Death, a 1971 creeper that was directed by John D. Hancock.
I first noticed this film when I saw it on the shelf at our local video store back in the '80s, but I didn't pay much attention to it because I never heard of it before. Yet as the years went by, I noticed how this title kept popping up in many horror film reviews, books, articles and Web sites, so I finally got around to watching it the other week. Fun trivia fact: Let's Scare Jessica to Death is the film that landed Hancock the job of directing Jaws 2, but he was fired from that sequel due to a disagreement he had with a Universal executive. Stephen King has also mentioned in interviews that this movie is one of his favorite horror films, and you can see its influence in one of his novels from the mid-70s.
Let's Scare Jessica to Death begins with the titular character Jessica (Zohra Lampert) traveling with her husband Duncan (Barton Heyman) and their friend Woody (Kevin O'Connor) to a small town in rural New England. Jessica was recently released from a psychiatric facility, and Duncan purchased an abandoned farm outside of the town as a place for his wife to heal and resume her life. Soon after arriving at her new home, Jessica begins to see and hear strange things around the farm that may be linked to its legendary past. Is Jessica relapsing into insanity, or is someone trying to scare her to death?
To say much more about Let's Scare Jessica to Death is to give away too much. What I can say is that it is very similar to films such as Mario Bava's Lisa and the Devil (1973) and Francesco Barilli's The Perfume of the Lady in Black (1974) in that it is a moody, dreamlike story about an emotionally fragile woman who is in the thrall of an unknown force that slowly unravels the fabric of her sanity. Like other films of its kind, Let's Scare Jessica to Death takes its time to set up many different details within the narrative--details that don't make much sense at first--all for the purpose of delivering a relentless ending that ties it all together in a matter of minutes and leaves you reeling over what you just saw. The revelation of who the 'us' is that's suggested in the title (i.e., Let's is a contraction for 'let us') was something that I didn't see coming at all as the film reached its concluding scenes.
If you prefer horror films that have oodles of violence, jump scares and gore, Let's Scare Jessica to Death won't hold your interest at all. Yet if you're interested in older horror films that crawl under your skin through ghostly imagery, strange landscapes, disorienting narratives and pervasive dread, you should give this one a try.