Sunday, August 21, 2016

Retro Movie: "Jessica" Is An Eerie Chiller

There are numerous versions of the vampire myth in books, movies, theatre and even music. The Twilight craze gave rise to a whole sub-genre of young adult literature featuring supernatural characters, and HBO’s True Blood had a legion of loyal fans. More recently, the excellent Showtime series Penny Dreadful gave us a new spin on Dracula, as well as some other classic monsters. But today let’s look at a different take on this often re-interpreted horror concept. I first saw 1971’s Let’s Scare Jessica To Death on the late show when I was around ten years old, and it definitely left a lasting impression on me. Zohra Lampert (best remembered as “the Goya lady” in commercials, and a frequent TV guest star at the time) stars as the title character, who’s recovering from a nervous breakdown. In order to make a new start, Jessica, her husband Duncan, and their friend Woody travel to a Connecticut farm, where they plan to live off the land. They encounter a woman named Emily, who’s been living in the empty house. They invite her to remain with them, and strike up a friendship with her. Is Emily really as innocent as she seems? She sets her sights on seducing Woody, and later, Duncan. Perhaps there's a dark underside to her free-living, hippie-esque personality.

An uncanny encounter in Let's Scare Jessica To Death
Strange and unexplained things start to happen: Jessica is hearing voices, and keeps seeing a ghostly figure in white. She learns the house was once owned by a woman named Abigail Bishop. The mysterious Abigail drowned, and is rumored to have been a vampire. Is that why so many people in the nearby town seem to have wounds on their throats? Is there really a ghostly presence in the house? Or maybe Jessica is having a relapse. Lampert gives a great performance, skillfully conveying the fragile state of Jessica’s psyche. The rest of the cast, including a young Gretchen Corbett in a key role, are also very effective. Director John D. Hancock slowly builds the level of suspense and terror to a fever pitch. Much like The Haunting (1963), Curse of The Demon (1957) or producer Val Lewton's Cat People (1942) and The Seventh Victim (1943), the horror here is understated, and in most cases, subtly suggested rather than shown.

We hear Jessica’s thoughts throughout the film, in a sort of interior monologue, and we see things as she sees them; but is any of it real? There are several eerie set pieces, including a seance, a haunting scene between Emily and Jessica in a cold lake, and a creepy confrontation in Jessica’s room. In the end, it’s our choice to decide if the events in the movie occurred or not. This atmospheric, well made thriller offers no easy answers. As Jessica says “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."  The film used to be a staple of late night TV back in the pre-cable days. While it may seem a bit dated now, it’s a quietly unsettling horror film that will stay with you long after it's over. The movie deftly combines elements of ghost stories and vampire fiction, and is significantly influenced by J. Sheridan Le Fanu's classic novella Carmilla.

Let’s Scare Jessica To Death is currently unavailable on DVD (though used copies can be found, if you look around online) However, the film can be viewed online at various sites, including Amazon. The film occasionally shows up on Turner Classic Movies, as well as other cable stations. I think it's one of the best fright films of the 1970s, and it holds up well on repeat viewings. Here’s a link to the trailer: read more about the film, seek out Rue Morgue, a magazine focused on the horror genre. The December 2016 issue features several articles about Let’s Scare Jessica To Death, including an interview with director John D. Hancock, and an appreciation of the film from author Kim (Anno Dracula) Newman. Here's a link to their website:

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