Originally published September 25th, 2013
With Halloween around the corner it’s time to start dusting off those Halloween DVDs to scare you and your friends. Warner Archive gets into the spirit with their release of the 1971 cult classic, Let’s Scare Jessica to Death. The mix of psychological thriller and supernatural horror works, especially as the terror intensifies and adds up equally in favor of insanity or truth. The main hurdle is getting past the slow pacing and incredibly dated 1970s aesthetic (this is a movie worthy of a remake). Fans of the movie back in ’71 will be happy to get a chance to own this with an impressive transfer, but it might have a harder time finding new fans.
After spending time in a mental hospital, Jessica (Zohra Lampert) and her husband Duncan (Barton Heyman) go to a secluded Connecticut farmhouse to start over. Upon arrival the couple learns that a mysterious woman named Emily (Mariclare Costello) has been squatting in the house, and, deciding to be charitable, invite her to live with them. However, as Emily becomes chummier with Duncan, Jessica is unsure whether Emily is really evil, or if the psychosis that landed her in the hospital has come back to torment her.
The crux of Let’s Scare Jessica to Death is finding out the scare: Is Emily a vampire, or is Jessica’s own mind corroding and turning against her. The scariest films, to me, are ones where the horror lies within your body’s ability to turn on you, and while that’s not developed nearly as well as it should be, it is evident within the framework of the narrative. The movie takes a slow pace to introduce the characters and the situation, which is sorely missing in horror films of today. Jessica’s breakdown is never specified which works to prevent eye-rolling melodrama. Her relationship with her husband seems tenuous, if only because Lampert and Heyman have little chemistry, but it adds to the tone that whatever compelled Jessica to lose her mind has had a lasting effect on her relationships. Emily’s introduction is where the movie turns into a psychological horror piece loaded with women’s issues that are both dated, and intriguing to see laid out within the horror genre.
The best part of the movie was Mariclare Costello as Emily. Her look is ethereal and other-worldly, as if she’s pulled from a different time. Because the plot isn’t told from her perspective you’re completely thrust into a situation you can’t explain with her character. Her rapidly shifting eyes and soft-spoken voice prevent you, and Jessica, from realizing her intentions until it’s too late. The relationship of the two women, reverting to outright hostility by story’s end, is rife with issues revolving around feminism both in 1971 and today. It’s a proven fact (in movies at least) that two women can’t be friends, so what better way to emphasize that split than having Emily be a reincarnated vampire out to devour Jessica and the townsfolk? Furthermore, Jessica is the older, damaged, and less sexually exciting woman to the younger, prettier, and flirtatious Emily. The various men in the town are all covered in bandages, part of Emily’s nightly feedings? In fact, the entire town is men and other than Emily and Jessica you don’t see another female face heightening the isolation and turning the movie into a grudge match for the soul of all females.
You can’t please everyone with this type of film, and Let’s Scare Jessica to Death is incredibly dated. The fashions notwithstanding, the acting is incredibly hammy. Zohra Lampert is the quintessential ’70s actress (in terms of looks) but there’s a bizarre quality she brings. You never know if she’s a terrible actress or just really into the part. In situations that are tense or disturbing, Lampert puts on an awkward smile that had me wondering whether she had zero clue how to play the scene, or just wanted to enhance Jessica’s own social awkwardness. Heyman is okay, but he’s reserved to being quiet for the most part. Kevin O’Connor plays the hippie friend of the couple and he lends 1970s comic relief as the prototypical hippie who takes a shine to spraying pesticides on the vegetation around the farmhouse.
The movie takes a leisurely stroll through events with little overt scares before ending abruptly. All of this adds to the eeriness of the plot and compels the audience to deduce what they believed has happened to Jessica. This can also frustrate viewers who expected a more gruesome 1970s horror film. I say, if you’re looking for something different with a great female driven story, then spend some time scaring Jessica to death!
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.