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Let’s Scare Jessica to Death

Stephen King put it on his list of top horror movies. It has certainly achieved the status of cult film. Methinks it deserves much more. “Lets Scare Jessica to Death” (1971) captures an atmosphere of dreamlike yet naturalistic horror rarely seen outside maybe “Picnic at Hanging Rock.”

John D. Hancock directed and co-wrote the film, one of his first. Prior to this his career centered on theatre, where no less a luminary than Tennessee Williams praised him. Later he did “Bang The Drum Slowly” and got stuck directing “Jaws 2”. This perhaps shows his real strengths–the power not of grand scale but intimacy, the little details that suck an audience into those moments when the world seems to shift. The monster in “Jessica” also arises from the water, but not at terrifying speed with implacable purpose clear to see. Rather two women go wading into a lake. One of them goes under the surface, then doesn’t emerge. Her companion, frightened, knows not what to do. Then her confusion mounts as her seeming-friend rises, but is now wearing different clothes. Antique clothes. She approaches slowly, almost with shyness, but steadily. Does she try to kiss our heroine? Or bite her? How much (if anything) is real versus how much a hallucination (surely another kind of horror–losing one’s mind)?

We never get a clear answer.

Jessica is an artistic young wife, played by Zohra Lambert, recovering from what seems like a mental breakdown. She and her husband and a friend buy a old Victorian farmhouse in rural Connecticut (strange how relatively few vampire movies seem to take place in New England–where most actual American vampire legends can be found). They soon hear rumors about the place, that the lake may be where a girl committed suicide a century past. Locals say Abigail Bishop is now a vampire. For that matter most locals don’t much like the newcomers. “Damn hippies,” one of them says. They have a point. At one point Jessica (whose thoughts are sometimes audible to us as a chorus of whispers) insists on stopping at an old cemetery and take etchings from headstones. She sees an odd young girl, but tells no one. No one, she thinks, will believe her.

Maybe she’s right.

At the house, they find a hippie girl named Emily who’d taken refuge in the big old house. Nobody wants to throw her out, though. Indeed the married couple’s unattached friend quite likes the girl, who seems to feel the same way.

Then the details start to slowly come together. Odd how many people in this town show visible bandages. Emily and Jessica’s husband share some looks. Is something happening there? The odd young girl shows up, mute and trying to warn Jessica. Maybe. About what? Then she finds a dead body.

One particularly fantastic scene still lingered in memory long years after first seeing this flick. Jessica and Emily explore the attic. They find an old photo, a daguerreotype of the Bishop family. Abigail is the spitting image of Emily. Or vice versa. What really works is the way they play it. Emily seems mildly amused, or perhaps daring the other woman to actually believe what this implies. Jessica, seriously spooked and trying (unsuccessfully) not to show it, pondering something she desperately hopes is nothing but a coincidence and terrified is anything but. What is Emily doing, anyway? Playing with her next meal? Flirting with Jessica, as she did with the men? Cruelly teasing someone obviously vulnerable and distraught?

If you have ever been in a weird, empty place for several hours, a space whose history you could in some sense feel without saying how, this film will remind you of that experience. Or if you’ve ever had a nightmare and not been sure about your own status–asleep or waking–again “Lets Scare Jessica To Death” might stir some memories. The rhythms of this film begin slowly. Jessica (like Rosemary in the film “Rosemary’s Baby” released about the same time) remains a fragile protagonist who cannot quite grasp what is happening here might be real. But if it is, then there’s comfort there. Of sorts. At least she’s not insane. Hunted by an undead monster bent on feasting upon her blood and soul, but not imagining it all. The nuance that really, but subtly, comes across is that the latter is a worse nightmare for her. Better vampires exist than to be lost again inside her own psyche. Never once does anyone say this, but as subtext it lies deep underneath every plot point.

Every now and then internet rumors rise to the digital surface about a remake. Given how that sometimes turns out, one cannot help but feel a shudder. Consider what happened to the equally brilliant “The Haunting” when someone decided to remake that! On the other hand, let us not forget how many versions of “Dracula” or “Jane Eyre” exist and will yet be produced. Seeing another fine actress tackle the role of Jessica might be a treat–or, depending upon screenwriter and direction, an abomination.

The original remains, though, and will remain. A poetic excursion into many terrors. Losing one’s mind. The fraying of a marriage. Hostility. Death. Sexual tension. Coincidence, or not? Unnatural death in a kiss. A chase through the night, and who knows what might await in every shadow? A climactic fight (of sorts) that leaves our heroine still in between, still a little unsure. We begin with hearing her voice speaking to someone. To whom? Her self? Us? The police? Doctors in whose mercies she has again been committed? Or maybe God?

One of the best vampire movies ever. Check it out.

David MacDowell Blue blogs at Night Tinted Glasses.  He graduated from the National Shakespeare Conservatory and is the author of The Annotated Carmilla. and Your Vampire Story (And How to Write It) as well as a theatrical adaptation of Carmilla.
Abigail BishopConnecticutEmilyhallucinationJohn D. HancockLet's Scare Jessica to DeathNew Englandstephen kingsuicidevictorianZohra Lambert

david • January 19, 2011


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  • Christine

    I haven´t seen this one. My taste and Stephen King´s taste REEEALLY differ, but I can´t use that against the film.