Let’s Scare Jessica To Death

“Let’s Scare Jessica To Death”

Written by John D. Hancock and Lee Kalcheim

Directed by John D. Hancock

1971

1 hour, 29 minutes

I watched it on Shudder with my friend Natalie Klinger Heyman while the kids were at school. There was pizza involved. It was heaven. Haven’t met Natalie? You really should. She’s super cool. 

Continuing on from where I started with “Images,” I took a look at another is-this-mental-illness-or-is-she-being-haunted flick. Just picture me jumping up and down and squealing over this one. 

But first, let’s get this out of the way right now. That title is genius but not for this movie. It’s false advertising. “Let’s Scare Jessica To Death” sounds like a fun gaslighting, slasher 80’s teen movie. But it’s actually a thoughtful ghost(ish) story about mental illness. It even features excellent, master class acting throughout, a real find for low budget indie horror. (Why weren’t these people massive movie stars? Sometimes things aren’t fair? Okay, fine.)

Jessica (the revelatory Zohra Lampert) has just been released from a mental hospital and to up her chances of success, her husband Duncan (Barton Heyman) has quit his job as a professional musician and spent all of his money on a great big house that you and I know immediately is haunted just by looking at, but I guess this trio are just more innocent than we are. Their best friend, Woody (Kevin O’Connor) has tagged along to try living the quiet life on a farm in the country. 

But right away, while Jessica tempts fate by stopping at a cemetery along the way to do some etchings of old headstones (as you do), she sees a mysterious woman in a white nightgown. But hey, maybe Jessica is just shaking the cobwebs out. Or she’s just attaching troubling meaning to someone walking around a cemetery. She doesn’t tell the guys about the nightgown lady and the little family rides along toward their new dream home. And man, all of that hope on her face as they drive. You just know that hope will be lost and likely soon and it tugs your heart something awful. 

And sure enough, when they get to the farm, Jessica keeps on seeing things, things she keeps to herself. But then she comes upon someone they can all see: Emily, one of those Most Beautiful Woman Anyone Has Ever Seen (Gretchen Corbett) types, with long, thick red hair and, ya know, alabaster skin…

When Jessica sees Emily in the house, Desmond immediately reassures her, “Don’t worry, Jess. I see it, too.” Natalie and I both just exhaled with relief at this casual but crucial establishment of Jessica’s husband as a thoughtful dude.

It’s funny how you don’t even realize how used to schmucky or insensitive husbands in movies you are until you see a more stellar example like this. And on top of that, Woody is also a total sweetheart and has a legit just platonic relationship with his friend Jessica. Now granted this is the beginning of the film, but hey, it’s a horror flick, all bets are off once you’ve established that healthy baseline. It takes the men awhile to start to doubt what Jessica sees, and man, does she see a lot. Even then, they aren’t annoyed or dismissive (see schmucky husband in “Images“), they want to get her help. It’s interesting that here, Jessica is someone with an already confirmed mental illness that she is trying to treat and live with instead of the vagueness of Cathryn’s position in “Images.” We know Jessica is mentally ill but that doesn’t mean it’s all in her head. So the question becomes: how acute is her illness?

The way the trio interacts with Emily offers another big source of tension. Is she a free spirit squatter or more menacing? The fact that Jessica and her guys wouldn’t just turn her out straight off, let alone invite her to stay and live with them is definitely a sign of the early 70’s: free love and communes and share all of what you have. It’s a big house so why not?

Those time capsule details often add so much richness to these older horror films. You could never have that be a plot point now. Even as it is, I still found myself rather verbally disagreeing with their choice the instant they made it. But you do love them even more for their big hearts, even if some of it was motivated by the men’s interest in Emily’s appeal. Man, do I love that reveal borne out of Emily’s extremely good looks!

Director Hancock has a knack for making ordinary items foreboding, like when he frames Duncan’s upright bass case to look like the World’s Most Enormous Upright Bass Case. Natalie and I could not figure out what it even was at first. It ends up playing as both the elephant in the room – the musical career Desmond has given up to restore his fragile wife – and a very special kind of storage space. Hancock has stated that he watched down all of Hitchcock’s films before filming and it shows. It is a gorgeous, deceptively quiet film, sneaking up on you just like the house (or her mental illness?) sneaks up on poor Jessica. 

Hancock claims to have spooked himself writing the script, which I completely relate to. I typically write such personal movies, that I use my own house for the details and then have a hard time walking around in it alone. Hancock also has pitch perfect taste (read: similar to mine) and drew a lot of inspiration from “The Haunting” (featuring the Still Scariest Scene Ever) and Henry James’ classically confusing and creepy “The Turn of the Screw,” both wonderful examples of how much does a woman’s sanity or just level of satisfaction with her life play into a ghost story.

Most of the creepiness happens during the day, hitting another beloved horror button for me. There is a sequence where Jessica hides out in her bedroom, her feet and legs caked in dirt, cold and scared, for an arduous afternoon that blew me away with its down to earth terror. It’s a real “well hell, what would I do in that situation?”

But I don’t want to even dip into giving too much away. It isn’t some super twisty tale, but it is so delicious in its consistent strangeness and sincerity.

Kudos to Shudder for including this movie in their growing Psychological Thrillers section. And kudos to Elric Kane from the Shockwaves podcast, who has championed this movie and inspired me to see it. I totally see why he’s taken up the charge of spreading the gospel of “Let’s Scare Jessica to Death” and now I’m right behind him! So say it with me: “Have you heard the good word about our lord and savior, “Let’s Scare Jessica to Death?” 

P.S.: Behold my Jessica costume for 70s Night at Dead Right Horror Trivia!

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