1 Hr., 29 Mins.
Let's Scare Jessica to Death
Good news: Jessica makes it to the end. Bad news: no one in Let’s Scare Jessica to Death (1971) seems that bent on scaring our eponymous heroine to the climax of a lethal collapse. The intriguing title, so flatulent that I’d at first thought the movie was maybe a giallo, was, I guess, a false lead — an attempt to make an atmospheric, sometimes-torpid, 89 minutes of creepy lethargy more appealing.
The movie, at least becomingly sleepy in a Jean Rollin kind of way, stars Zohra Lampert as the titular Jessica, a 30-something who’s just been released from a psychiatric asylum. Currently, she’s in the process of rebuilding her life with her dedicated husband, Duncan (Barton Heyman), by her side. The latter, a musician, thinks the healing process will evolve more quickly if he quits his coveted job as a New York Philharmonic bassist and relocates himself and the wife to a secluded farmhouse in Connecticut, on which he got a suspiciously good deal.
On brand for a movie with “death” in its title, the film’s expectedly not all that interested in uneventful recuperation. Since Jessica’s a quasi-eggshell of a person during this particular time in her life, she makes for an easy target — a fitting anti-protagonist for a movie perpetuating the type of horror feature that inspires us to wonder if what we’re seeing’s real or if it’s all in our lead’s head.
When the couple, along with a fleecy buddy named Woody (Kevin O’Connor), arrive on the property, they discover that a svelte, crystal-eyed drifter, Emily (Mariclare Costello), has been shacking up there for the last few weeks. She, thinking the house was abandoned, didn’t realize anyone was coming.
Emily is willing to leave. But the triad, for whatever reason (I’m assuming the men are fans of her looks), invites her to stay for the night, then indeterminately. Never mind that there’s a photo in the house, clearly taken sometime during the back half of the 19th century, that includes a woman who looks a hell of a lot like Emily. And never mind that the voices in Jessica’s head, almost clairvoyant-like, start acting up again upon Emily’s integration.
Sensicality isn’t coveted in Let’s Scare Jessica to Death, which means attention to tonal cohesion isn’t, either. At first, the movie comes across like the sort of film that’ll at some point make it clear that this ghoulish Emily is either a creature of the night or an atypical stalk-and-slash fiend. Then it becomes evident that this is a marked descent-into-madness movie. Lots of dead bodies, all covered in blood, start showing up, but it's unclear whether Jessica’s imagining it all or if there’s something nefarious about this Connecticut hamlet our ensemble’s been calling home for a little while. The obliquity, surprisingly, works here.
Let’s Scare Jessica to Death’s been mocked on the critical front; most have a beef with its red herring of a title, and the film’s ultimate somnolent qualities. It has become, nonetheless, I think partly as a result of its gimmicky appellation, something of a cult favorite. I rather like it, in spite of its dearth of stylistic conviction. The illogicality, inadvertently or otherwise, complements the phantasmagoria. B-