One of the freakiest movies ever made, and one of the sneakiest, a defiantly unique viewing experience that breaks nearly every genre movie rule yet still succeeds as an unnerving excursion in pure horror.
Director John Hancock has made many eccentric films covering a variety of genres in his thirty-five-year-plus career, including the Robert De Niro baseball drama BANG THE DRUM SLOWLY (1973), the Nick Nolte prison flick WEEDS (1987), the kiddie movie PRANCER (1989) and SUSPENDED ANIMATION (2001), a spooker (and a lame one). 1971’s LET’S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH, Hancock’s feature debut, IMHO remains his best film, and the truest to his sensibilities (in a recent interview Hancock complained that “With BANG THE DRUM SLOWLY I got typed as warm and human. I’m not.”). Unlike many of his subsequent flicks, it lacks movie stars, but does feature the criminally underrated Zohra Lampert in the title role, whose performance accounts for a large part of the film’s effectiveness. You’ve seen Lampert in supporting parts in films like OPENING NIGHT, STANLEY & IRIS and THE EXORCIST III, but I think it’s safe to say that her work here represents the pinnacle of her career.
She plays the twentyish Jessica, who heads for the New England countryside together with her husband Duncan and their hippie pal Woody. Jessica has just been released from a mental institution, and it’s hoped that the scenic Connecticut home Duncan has purchased will help with her recovery.
But from the start this seems a false hope. As soon as Jessica steps out of her and Duncan’s car–a hearse–she spots a ghostly nightgown-clad woman who promptly vanishes. Upon entering the house they find it occupied by a skittish young red-head named Emily, apparently a drifter. Emily stays on with Jessica and the guys, becoming a fixture in the house…but her behavior, to Jessica at least, seems a little odd. The reason, it seems, is revealed when Jessica and Duncan head into a nearby town populated by stand-offish rednecks, all wearing bandages on their necks; the only townsperson who isn’t apathetic is an antique dealer, who reveals to Jessica and Duncan that a hundred years earlier a young woman drowned on her wedding day, a young woman who just happens to be a dead ringer for Emily.
From there Jessica’s mental state steadily deteriorates as she sees—or thinks she sees—the murdered corpse of the antique dealer lying in a field. Jessica also confronts the ghostly woman she glimpsed in the cemetery, wearing a neck bandage similar to those sported by the townspeople, who abruptly runs off. A bit later Jessica is attacked while swimming in a lake near her house by Emily, or at least someone who looks an awful lot like her. Eventually both Duncan and Woody are killed—or so it seems—and Jessica is left alone, adrift on a boat in the middle of the lake, completely unable to distinguish reality from fantasy.
What makes LET’S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH unique is how un-horror like it is, having been shot in extremely scenic lakeside locations that wouldn’t feel out of place in ON GOLDEN POND, and largely in broad daylight. The atmosphere is staunchly naturalistic and the scares fairly paltry—at times one wonders if John Hancock was even aware of the type of film he was making.
Clearly, though, Hancock did know he was crafting a horror movie, and very much so. There’s a real aura of gothic menace suffusing the early scenes that increases as the narrative advances, exploding in several profoundly chilling scenes, most notably the justifiably famous shot of the pasty-skinned Emily rising from a lake to attack Jessica, a sight as eerie and surreal as just about any you’ll see. Without resorting to the post-modern pretension popular at the time, Hancock keeps us, like his heroine, constantly on edge about what’s real and what isn’t; we’re never explicitly told whether Jessica’s exploits are all figments of her disturbed mind, but the suspicion is always there.
The film has furthermore dated quite well (excepting the title character’s make-up and wardrobe, which seem to have been patterned after those of then flavor-of-the-month Ali McGraw)—even after thirty-five years, there’s nothing else quite like it in or out of the genre. Kudos must go to Zohra Lampert as Jessica, who creates a heartbreakingly vivid study of psychological torment, in a character whose unquiet mental state is always disconcertingly visible on her face. By the time it’s all over, you’ll know exactly how she feels.
LET’S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH
Director: John Hancock
Producer: Charles B. Moss, Jr., Bill Badalato
Screenplay: Norman Jones, “Ralph Rose” (John Hancock)
Cinematography: Bob Baldwin
Editing: Murray Solomon
Cast: Zohra Lampert, Barton Heyman, Kevin O’Connor, Gretchen Corbett, Alan Manson, Mariclare Costello