Let's Scare Jessica to Death (1971)
Even from the opening image of John D. Hancock's slice of 1970s horror-melancholia it becomes apparent that this is film where things won't be seen clearly. A woman, hidden in silhouette, sits in a boat steadily drifting away from the shore. The morning mist distorts our view, while the orange sunrise adds an unreality to the scene - as if this is something dreamed. To further muddy the cognitive waters, we are introduced to this place by Jessica, who in a whispery internal monologue confesses that she is unsure of what is real and what is not. And as she is our only guide, inviting us to see the world through her eyes, we too begin to question what we see. Let's Scare Jessica to Death is a film about insanity, but what makes it so astounding is that it doesn't ask us to study madness, but rather to share in it.
Released from an institution Jessica (Zorha Lampert) abandons the city with husband Duncan (Barton Heyman) for the tranquility of the countryside. Taking residence in a converted farmhouse the couple are joined by their friend Woody (Kevin O'Connor) and the beautiful Emily (Mariclare Costello) whom they discover squatting in an upstairs bedroom. But what starts as a kind of hippie commune soon reveals something darker when Jessica is haunted by visions of a woman in white. Later she learns that their farm was home to Abigail Bishop, a woman who drowned and was rumored to have been a vampire. Her paranoia increases. But then Emily does bear a striking resemblance to the old photo of Abigail and just why are the local men covered in scars? Is Jessica suffering another breakdown or, out in that remote farmhouse, is there something worse?
While the early 70s aesthetic may have dated, Let's Scare Jessica to Death remains a neat exploration of a post-Manson hippie generation and its permeable obsession with death. The 'family' are introduced driving a converted hearse, before Jessica stops them to take etchings in a graveyard. This hip, almost bourgeois fascination with the macabre (sympathy for the devil as the Stones would have it) is a potential catalyst for Jessica's collapse as she is unable to see this lighter side of darkness. When the group holds a séance, Jessica really can hear voices, but forces a smile anyway. Tensions are heightened by the appearance of Emily, an otherworldly figure, whose offer of free love leads to the bloody destruction of those around her. Her attempted seduction of Jessica as they bathe in the river is erotic and disturbing - the icy water glistening while Jessica shivers under Emily's hands, her body frozen, her mind reeling in panic.
Jessica's fragile psyche is Hancock's main preoccupation. Her inner thoughts are constantly divulged to us, whether it's noticing Duncan's attraction to Emily ("he likes her") or responding to ghostly voices that only she can hear ("don't tell them, act normal," she instructs herself). That she must keep these thoughts to herself creates a feeling of separateness (consider too that she is on an island surrounded by water in a house two miles from the nearest town) and Hancock's camera enforces this with long close ups of Jessica listening. In one heartbreaking scene we close in on her as she laughs awkwardly at a joke she doesn't understand, desperately trying to fit in. Slowly as she begins to break down (repeatedly telling herself, "I'm alive, I'm alive") we are drawn towards the very real horror of a mind in chaos.
Zohra Lampert's naturalistic wide-eyed shyness insists upon our empathy and Hancock associates us with her further by constantly shifting the camera to Jessica's point of view. We see Duncan and Woody look at us as if we were made of glass, and later when Jessica is surrounded by the town locals we see them in a series of distorted big close ups - peering and deformed. Because of Jessica's paranoia, and that we see things from her perspective, the ghostly appearance of the woman in white is thrown into doubt. We too begin to mistrust our own eyes. And as Jessica asks herself, "Madness or sanity? I don't know which one is which," we must ask the same questions. And this is perhaps Hancock's masterstroke, questioning which is more plausible - that this is a town of vampires or that our own sense of reasoning, distorted by Jessica, is not to be trusted?
That Let's Scare Jessica to Death should be overlooked as one of the finest horror pictures of the 1970s is apt. Lacking the guttural, attention grabbing scares of contemporaries Night of the Living Dead and Last House on the Left, the film is a more somber, subdued affair. Its autumnal light casts dark shadows and the rural farmhouse location becomes secondary to the inner landscape of a mentally unstable mind. Also Let's Scare Jessica to Death refuses the sensationalism usually associated with movie madness (no cannibal doctors or men dressed as their mothers here) and instead retreats inward, sharing whispered thoughts and ghostly warnings. Like its central protagonist, it is a movie that shyly refuses to draw attention to itself, but underneath lays insanity, sadness and startling beauty. A masterpiece.