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Let's Scare Jessica to Death (1971)

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  • Let's Scare Jessica to Death (1971)

    Title Let's Scare Jessica to Death
    Year 1971
    Rated PG-13
    Released 27 Aug 1971
    Runtime 89 min
    Director John D. Hancock
    Writer John D. Hancock, Lee Kalcheim
    Actors Zohra Lampert, Barton Heyman, Kevin O'Connor, Gretchen Corbett
    Plot After a stint in a psychiatric facility Jessica, her husband and a friend move to remote farm they have recently purchased. There they find a young woman by the name of Emily living in the house and they invite her to stay. When Jessica goes for a swim in the lake, she sees a body just below the water's surface. When they go into the village to sell some old furniture, they learn that a woman by the name of Abigail Bishop drowned in the lake and her body was never found. Local folklore has that Abigail is now a vampire roaming the countryside. A mute blond girl leads her to the body of a dead man but the body is not there when Jessica goes for help. Jessica and those around begin to wonder if she is losing her mind.
    Language English
    Country USA
    Awards N/A
    Production Paramount Pictures
    .................................................. ..........................

  • #2

    Jessica (Zohra Lampert, The Exorcist III and Splendor in the Grass) has overcome her mental breakdown she suffered after her father’s death and, together with her husband Duncan (Barton Heyman, The Exorcist and Cruising) and their friend Woody (Kevin O’Connor, The Blazer Girls and Special Effects), move away from New York City to live a farm life in the countryside. They encounter a drifter named Emily (Mariclare Costello, Nightmares) who they take a liking to and invite to stay with him. Jessica begins to hear voices and see dead bodies. Is she losing her grip on reality or is she being haunted by the spirit of Abigail Bishop, a previous dweller of the farmhouse who happens to look like Emily?

    I’m not sure how many times I’ve seen this, but I know I enjoy it a little more with each viewing despite being on the fence about it for a while. It has a that surreal dream-like quality to it, but not the point where it fully dominates the story like The Beyond. It’s subtle and lies just underneath the events to the point where you can make sense of everything, but not all the questions can be fully answered. I know for some, this drives them away from these kinds of stories. The slow pace and whispered dialogue doesn’t generally earn it points either. I find it gives the film an extra layer to repeated viewings as I enjoy trying to determine if the events are in Jessica’s head as she falls apart or if Emily really is tormenting her as a vampiric ghost from beyond the grave. Those seem to be the two main approaches to Let’s Scare Jessica to Death.

    The first is to assume the events are mostly altered through Jessica’s perception of her mental status. The movie begins with her at the end of the movie relaying the events through a flashback. Because the story is told through her perspective, she’s an unreliable narrator and every scene could, and probably should, be questioned. We know little about what caused her breakdown other than her father passed away and later appeared before Jessica. To say she has a connection to the deceased is an understatement. The flashback begins with her riding across the country in a hearse, stopping at a cemetery to make traces of tombstones that she’ll later hang up in her bedroom. The voice of Emily she hears could simply be a manifestation of her own psychosis. Believing it’s Emily in the Bishop family photograph is drawing a connection where one doesn’t exist. As Emily says, it’s difficult to tell for sure in something so old. Performing a séance and truly believing the dead can hear her just adds more to her paranoia in the events that follow. She believes the men are Emily’s servants and have been drained of blood because she sees Emily as latching onto Duncan and Woody (the two men closest in her life) for survival as they want her to stay in the house with them.

    The young girl who guides Jessica to the dead body is someone viewers will never get an answer for no matter what. She seems to really exist as Woody and Duncan both talk to her. However, they’re not around when she guides Jessica to the dead body and neither of them see her at the first cemetery. Jessica may have imagined her in the other scenes. Why does the girl run away when Emily approaches? The girl was already scared enough so one more person may have been the breaking point and she decided to dash off. I’ve thought about the girl being a symbol of Jessica’s sanity, but then there’s still the explanation of Duncan and Woody talking to her. Of course, it could be that the girl in that scene does not actually look like the girl Jessica spots the other times. It’s flimsy, but there’s no real answer given by the film.

    I have to say that it’s funny I just started watching TV’s The Rockford Files only to see Gretchen Corbett in this as the mysterious girl. Corbett plays a repeating character in Rockford. She’s also corporeal although it would make for a twist if she only existed in Jim Rockford’s mind. That may explain why she didn’t sleep with Tom Atkin’s character since he plays older men that hook up with younger women. Maybe she does in a later episode.

    The other approach to Let’s Scare Jessica to Death is take it face value. Jessica had a breakdown and she’s a strange bird what with being attracted to death and all, but it only serves to make the viewer question her sanity up to a point. Eventually, the truth about Emily being Abigail Bishop overrides those doubts. Abigail / Emily is a vampire of sorts who feeds off the men. Why men? She died before her wedding ceremony. As such, maybe she never got the chance to consummate her love. As silly as that sounds, remember that this movie was released in 1971 so placing a seductress feeding off men’s blood and lust makes sense in the free love era of American society. The mystery girl is wearing a similar dress so if Emily is a ghost from 1880, maybe she is as well. It’s strange that Emil stops her by slitting her throat. Again, I don’t know if there is a logical means to fully explain the mystery girl. Emily controls the men in the story and tries to take over Jessica as well during the lake sequence. She fails, uses the men to nab her, but Jessica slips away and crosses back over the river to safety as Emily’s influence only reaches so far.

    Speaking of the river, I noticed something new this viewing. When the ferry first reaches the other side at the beginning, there’s a loud scream. I used to think it was a bird, but now I believe it’s a woman’s scream. It’s as if the other side is Hell, a place for the damned and you hear a spirit cry out in pain. Or it could be a bird after all. The movie is full of little moments like that. Jessica calling out for the spirits to invite them into the home is another. Emily has already been invited to stay overnight so I’m not sure what that accomplishes. The way Emily plays with Jessica at the lake really does look like sibling shaving a tussle in the water rather than anything malicious. The old men, one wearing a VFW shirt, can be taken so many ways. Do they despise the young newcomers because of their generation? They do have “love” written on the hearse so maybe it’s hate against hippies. That wouldn’t be uncommon for the time. Perhaps it’s the hearse itself. They’re old men. Being reminded of what’s around the corner may antagonize them. Maybe it’s a reminder of what they can’t have while under Emily’s control if view the hearse representing everlasting death.

    Usually the one constant I hear from anyone that watches this is the praise for Zohra Lampert’s performance. Make no mistake, I agree. She usually plays unbalanced characters. Instead of repeating what others point out, I want to mention the music. It’s a mixture of classical instruments with electronic. Think Silent Hill ambience when Jessica seems to lose her hold on reality. Then when things are more peaceful, a beautiful piano tune is heard.

    Which way do I lean? My mind is always changing whether the events are skewed through Jessica’s viewpoint or if it’s a supernatural tale of a vampire ghost torturing a broken woman. I have the feeling it’s meant to be the latter as the story flows better if you believe Jessica is being toyed with by Emily. It doesn’t explain why the mystery girl shows up at the first cemetery, the need for a séance, why Emily kills the antique store owner, and other questions. Like I mentioned before, you’ll never get the full picture as it operates on dream logic. There’s just enough to string together, but you’ll always be left wondering.
    People hyping up latest comic book movie to be the GOAT and I'm like "psshh, you guys must not have seen Bigfoot rip off a man's dick before in 1980's Night of the Demon."


    • #3
      Just like CHex, I seem to like this one more with each viewing.


      • #4
        Any explanation for why that is? Also, how do you perceive the story (Jessica is nuts, some ghost is haunting her, or a mix of the two)?
        People hyping up latest comic book movie to be the GOAT and I'm like "psshh, you guys must not have seen Bigfoot rip off a man's dick before in 1980's Night of the Demon."


        • #5
          There's a website devoted to the film with some interesting tidbits and interviews:

          What I found most interesting is the movie was originally written with a comedic tone instead of a horror vibe until director John D. Hancock changed it. Also, some sort of creature was supposed to be seen tormenting Jessica rather than Emily. According to an interview with Hancock, Jessica's internal monologue and hearing the voice of Emily / Abigail was created in post-production and was not even considered while filming. His interview is so to the point with answers. What was the purpose of the mute girl? No idea. She was in the earlier version of the script and the producers decided they wanted to keep the character even if her purpose wasn't known. He's asked if the movie is to be taken at face value or if it's all in Jessica's mind. It's up to the viewer.

          If I'm not mistaken, Hancock was attached to Jaws 2 for a brief time, but his version was considered too dark so he was let go.
          People hyping up latest comic book movie to be the GOAT and I'm like "psshh, you guys must not have seen Bigfoot rip off a man's dick before in 1980's Night of the Demon."