31 October 2014

(1971)

Let's Scare Jessica To Death is an archetype of early '70s low-key horror and drive-in filmmaking in general. It's a type of style long gone, unfortunately.

Extremely well done and eerie, this was directed by John D. Hancock and features an effectively fragile performance from Zohra Lampert. The haunting score was composed by Orville Stoeber.

I sit here and I can't believe that it happened. And yet I have to believe it. Dreams or nightmares, madness or sanity. I don't know which is which.

Jessica (Lampert) has just been released from a sanitarium. In hopes of starting a new life, her husband Duncan (Barton Heyman) and their friend Woody (Kevin O'Connor) are moving her from Manhattan to a Connecticut farmhouse they've just bought.

Woody drives a hearse, an appropriate mode of transportation for Jessica, who is fascinated by death. On the way, she insists on stopping by a cemetery...where she makes a tracing of one of the headstones. In the distance, she catches a glimpse of a blonde girl (Gretchen Corbett). Before she can tell the others, the girl vanishes. Jessica decides not to tell them; they wouldn't believe her anyway.

The house, known as the old Bishop place, is located outside of Brookfield - a town at the other end of a lake. It's so isolated, they have to take a ferry to get there. The townspeople are less than hospitable to the newcomers. An old man even remarks, "Look what they're driving, damn hippies!"

The area is desolate but the home is huge. As Jessica approaches it, she thinks she sees a woman on the porch sitting in a rocking chair. The person disappears and Jessica wonders if she should have come there. Again, she keeps this to herself.

Inside, there is someone at the top of the stairs. But this time, Duncan notices as well. While Jessica looks in one of the many rooms upstairs, the intruder suddenly runs past her and frightens her. Duncan and Woody grab the girl, who tells them she's a drifter and she thought the house was abandoned.

As the girl packs to leave, Jessica takes pity and invites her to stay for dinner and spend the night there. The girl agrees and introduces herself as Emily (Mariclare Costello). During supper, the group tries to find out more about the stranger but only get the impression that Emily has no home and is disconnected to everything. A musician, she plays a song for them at the table after they've eaten.

Duncan, who used to be with the Philharmonic, brings his bass out and joins her. "He likes her," Jessica says to herself. As Jessica is clearing the table, she is momentarily shaken by the sight of blood from the meat on Emily's plate.

Sitting on the floor in the living room, the four have a discussion about the supernatural. Emily gets the idea to have a seance. Duncan is reluctant at first...but they join hands and Emily calls on the spirits of everyone who ever died in the house. Jessica does the same and is saddened by voices she hears in her head.

As they prepare for bed, Jessica hangs her headstone tracings on the walls in the room. Woody is attracted to Emily and the two spend some time together by the lake. He tries to kiss her but Emily stops him and tells him not to rush things; she won't be going away.

The next morning, they all go for a swim. Jessica gets a feeling that Duncan and Emily are getting cozy but she tries to ignore it. Emily goes back to the house to prepare lunch and finish packing, while the two men relax on the pier.

Jessica goes for another swim by herself. Something touches her and she hears a voice say, "Come to me." She screams and Duncan and Woody rush out to help her. Sure enough, there's nothing in the water. But someone is standing in the distance, watching them.

During lunch, Jessica imagines that Duncan is convinced she's getting sick again. After they eat, Duncan tells her they should start looking for things in the house to sell in town...since they don't have a lot of money.

Jessica comes across some old Victorian clothing in the attic and tries some of it on. She also finds a photo of the Bishops, the family who once lived there, which she plans to sell.

Before she and Duncan head into town, Jessica asks Emily to stay with them indefinitely. Emily is thrilled and unpacks. In the car, Jessica asks her husband if he finds Emily attractive and he says that he does.

Once in Brookefield, Jessica steps out to buy some fresh eggs from a chicken farmer while Duncan looks for an antique store. Back at the car, they see a small group of old men standing around it. They don't say a word and Jessica is creeped out by them. She tells Duncan that she noticed the men, as well as the chicken farmer, were all bandaged.

The couple find an antique store owned by Sam Dorker (Alan Manson), a refugee from New York City as well. In fact, he had a shop there not far from where Duncan and Jessica used to live. Sam is friendly and tries to make them a sale until Duncan tells him they're there to unload their own stuff.

The photo of the Bishops catches his eye and Sam asks them if they knew that Abigail Bishop drowned in the lake in 1880. When he realizes the couple live at the Bishop house, he tells them he would have trouble selling their antiques in the town. Jessica suggests he sell them in NYC and Sam offers $250 for everything.

Sam continues his story and tells them that Abigail wasn't able to wear her wedding gown. Her body was never found and legend has it that she's still alive. Some say she's a vampire who roams the countryside. Jessica is fascinated but Duncan cuts Sam off and asks for the money they were offered.

On the farm, Emily sits on the porch strumming her guitar while Woody is driving the tractor in the orchard. In a nearby cemetery, Jessica finds a mole and insists on keeping it.

As she's looking at Abigail's headstone, the mysterious blonde girl stands nearby beckoning Jessica to follow her. She starts running and Jessica chases after her. Jessica is lead to an area where she finds Sam's bloodied body lying in a stream.

When she brings Duncan back to the spot, the corpse has disappeared. Jessica thinks she's losing her mind and cries in her husband's arms. Just then, she sees the girl and points her out to him.

The stranger runs but Jessica and Duncan catch up to her. It turns out she is mute and cannot verify Jessica's claim about the body. When Emily shows up, the girl breaks free and disappears once again.

Emily entertains the men with her stories at the dinner table. Jessica is still troubled by what happened earlier and excuses herself, saying she's tired. She says goodnight to her new pet mole and heads upstairs.

Woody follows, telling Duncan to "take care of his wife." This admonition makes Duncan realize he shouldn't leave Jessica alone and he too goes to bed.

Although Jessica tries to make small talk, Duncan has a lot on his mind and isn't responsive. He suggests she go back to New York to see her doctor again because he can't take it anymore.

A tearful and hurt Jessica tells him to leave and Duncan finds another room to sleep in. During the night, someone takes a knife and kills Jessica's mole. Emily approaches Duncan and successfully seduces him.

The next morning, Jessica finds the dead rodent and tells the others she thinks the same person who killed the antique dealer is responsible. The cold stares she gets only reinforce her feeling that nobody believes her. Moments later, Jess sees Emily kiss Duncan goodbye from an attic window before he leaves for town.

Jessica takes a look at the photo of Abigail Bishop and a voice in her head says, "I'm alive." Emily approaches her and Jessica points out the resemblance between she and Abigail. Emily tries to comfort Jessica and suggests they go out for some air by the lake.

At the pier, after putting suntan lotion on Jessica...Emily abruptly pushes her into the water. Jess tries to get away but a voice calls out to her. She sees a ghostly figure below the lake - which suddenly grabs her and begins pulling her down.

Jessica escapes and when the pasty white girl emerges, it appears to be Emily wearing the young Abigail Bishop's wedding gown. Jessica is frightened and runs to the house after Emily tries to sink her teeth into her neck.

Locking herself in her bedroom, Jess sits on the bed surrounded by the headstone tracings. A voice in her head is repeatedly telling her, "You want to die." Finally getting the nerve to leave the house, she flags down a truck to take her into town.

Meanwhile, Woody finds Emily alone in the house and tells her he knows what she's been doing. But he too succumbs to her charms.

Jessica is dropped off in front of a house where the hearse is parked. When she starts asking people if they've seen Duncan, she notices they all have strange scars on their bodies. She runs away and faints - but Duncan finds her and takes her back to the farmhouse.

The power has gone out and the couple decides to just go to bed. In an intimate moment, Jessica is horrified to find a scar on Duncan's neck.

In a daze, she witnesses Emily come into the room holding a knife. Unable to move, Jessica is cut in the neck as several townspeople surround her. Finally, she leaps up out of bed just as Emily is about to suck the blood from her neck.

Running down the stairs, she trips over Duncan's bass case and sees the blonde girl's body. In the field, Jessica sees the tractor and tries to get Woody's attention. Instead, she finds his corpse as well.

Realizing she is alone, Jessica heads out to the middle of the lake in a rowboat. Duncan tries to tip it over - but Jessica manages to bludgeon him with a fishing hook, leaving his bloodied body floating in the water.

In the distance, she can see Emily and the townspeople standing around by the edge of the lake, disappointed that someone got away...

Let's Scare Jessica To Death stands as one of the most subtle, yet truly scary films ever made. It just gets under your skin, despite a sensational title that suggests one of those "let's do something to get her inheritance" contrived plots.

It is a masterful example of believable horror that has all the haunting lyricism needed to keep its motor going and draw the audience into Jessica's surreal nightmares.

Zohra Lampert's performance is superb and one of the most realistic portrayals of mental instability we have in the genre. Does it all really happen or is it in Jessica's mind? In the end, she still doesn't know and neither do we. Simply put, that is the triumph and beauty of this wonderful thriller.

The Overlook Film Encyclopedia calls Let's Scare Jessica To Death a "poetic and persuasive film" that "borrows from both the gothic and post-Night of the Living Dead traditions to depict the death of the love generation as a group of dropouts who find rural America less than accommodating."

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