Let’s Scare Jessica to Death

I grew up in the in Chicago area. Lots of people, lots of buildings, lots of activity. My wife grew up in a more rural area. One time, early in our marriage, I admitted to her that, at times, I find being out in the country, away from the bustle of the city, to be a bit scary. I like the comfort of knowing that there’s a grocery store just down the road, an emergency room not far away, and a fast food establishment every few blocks. If you’re like me, and occasionally find the country a bit creepy, then today’s movie, 1971’s “Let’s Scare Jessica to Death,” may not be for you.

The film concerns a woman named Jessica (Zohra Lampert) who is recovering from a nervous breakdown. It’s unclear what she has been going through, but it seems to involve seeing and hearing people who are not really there. In an attempt to help her get back to normal, she and her husband, Duncan (Barton Heyman), leave New York City and purchase a farm in Connecticut. Their friend Woody (Kevin O’Connor) comes with to help them settle in.

Upon arrival, Jessica thinks she sees someone lurking around the house. At first she is afraid she is seeing things again, but Duncan sees it as well. They end up finding a young woman named Emily (Mariclare Costello), a squatter who has been living in the empty house. At first, Emily prepares to leave the new owners to their home, but Jessica and Duncan decide to ask her to stay. It’s the early 70’s after all…peace, love, togetherness, all that.

The house is quiet and peaceful and everyone seems to be settling in. Woody is beginning to tend to the orchard and every now and then everyone goes for a dip in the pond. That is, until Jessica gets spooked by what appears to be a white clothed figure reaching for her in the water.

Now, since these city folk don’t seem to have any jobs, they decide they need to sell some of the antiques in the house so they can get some dough. Duncan and Jessica load up a bunch of stuff to take to an antique dealer, including a strange picture of the family that once owned the house in a huge metal frame. The men in town, who all sport strange bandages, are none too willing to help them find an antiques dealer, but soon they do find a place. The dealer at the shop, tells them that the home they purchased once belonged to a family which included, legend has it, a vampire. Now that’s the way to cure Jessica of her nervous breakdown.

Back at the home, things start to get stranger. One day, Jessica spots a strange girl (Gretchen Corbett) who beckons for Jessica to follow her. She leads her to a waterfall where they find the dead body of the antiques dealer. When Jessica leads Duncan back to the spot, the body is gone. Meanwhile, both Woody and Duncan begin to have relationships with Emily…who is beginning to act stranger and stranger. You know, biting people’s necks and stuff.

While looking around in the attic, Jessica notices that Emily looks an awful lot like the girl in the old family picture, which has mysteriously reappeared at the house after the death of the antiques dealer. When the two ladies go for a swim, Emily reveals herself to be the 100-year-old vampire. Now, Jessica struggles to find a way to escape Emily and the undead townsfolk.

“Let’s Scare Jessica to Death” is a very different sort of horror flick. It’s not bloody or gory and builds to it scary moments at a very slow pace. It has a bit of a film school feel to it, at times lingering a bit too long on a pretty shot or a scene that doesn’t really advance the story at all. I will say, though, that the photography is impressive, but it does throw off the pacing a bit. Still, as the film reaches it’s climax, it does succeed in becoming quite scary.

There is an interesting subtlety to the performances in the film. Zohra Lampert is very believable as someone who has been through a mental breakdown and still questions whether the things she sees truly exist. It’s really helped along by the fact that we can often hear the dialogue going on in Jessica’s head, both her voice and the other voices she hears. Likewise, Mariclare Costello is very intriguing as she slowly builds a quietly creepy performance.

Probably many modern viewers will find parts of the film somewhat frustrating. I certainly did. It requires a lot patience on the part of the viewer. In some respects the slow pace of the film works, and in others it doesn’t, but the final payoff ends up being pretty darn good. It’s a unusual little film that just goes to prove that I’m right about the country being a creepy place.

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3 thoughts on “Let’s Scare Jessica to Death

  1. Your review in on target. Just an interesting bit of trivia. The original script was apparently intended to be a comedy, or parody of horror films, but when they started filming director John Hancock decided to play it straight. Definitely has a film school feel, but I liked Zohra.

  2. I saw this late one Saturday night at around the age of 14. It amazes me now that it held my interest until the wee hours of the morning, but it ended up scaring me something fierce by the end. I watched it again just a few years ago with TCM showed it and was shocked at how slow it moves, but the dread is still palpable and successfully builds to a genuinely unsettling climax.

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