Sunday, September 7, 2008

Let's Scare Jessica To Death


No other horror film has given us a heroine as memorably fragile as the title character of director John Hancock's unusually sensitive shocker Let's Scare Jessica To Death (1971) and sadly, it's unlikely that we'll ever see her kind again. Not only do we live in the post-Ripley world of female heroes but in the post-Sarah Connor and post-Buffy age as well. As a rule, girls have to kick ass.

But with Jessica, Hancock and co-writer Lee Kalcheim gave us a heartbreaking protagonist (brilliantly played by Zorpha Lambert) who makes the insecure Eleanor of Robert Wise's The Haunting (1963) look like Lara Croft.

The film opens with a pre-title sequence that introduces us to Jessica seated alone in a small rowboat in the middle of a lake, quietly sitting in the light of early dawn. As Jessica's voiceover tells us: "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 that follows flashes back to the previous few days of Jessica's life, telling us who she is and finally bringing us back full circle to this moment on the lake. Days earlier, Jessica arrived at her new Connecticut home on an apple farm ("the old Bishop place", we're told) along with her musician husband Duncan (Barton Heyman) and their friend Woody (Kevin O'Connor). Jessica was recently released from a stay at a mental institution following treatment for a nervous breakdown and she and Duncan hope that their new life in the country will be a change for the better.

When the group starts to move into their new rural digs, however, they're startled to find a young vagabond named Emily (Mariclare Costello) freely enjoying the shelter of their empty house. Of course this being the early '70s, after the initial shock of finding an intruder passes, instead of calling the police Emily is greeted as a welcome visitor. And because Emily is such an appealing free spirit - as well as a stunning, red-headed beauty who Woody has eyes for - she soon is welcomed into the home as a permanent guest.

It isn't long, though, before Emily's presence is perceived as sinister by Jessica. Not only is Emily a threat to Jessica's marriage by being a ready sexual temptation to Duncan but she senses something more fundamentally wrong with Emily. Through meeting the local antique dealer, they learn that the home they're living in was the scene of a terrible tragedy years earlier which involved Abigail Bishop, a bride who drowned in 1880 prior to her wedding. Her body was never recovered and legend says she's still alive as a vampire roaming the area.

Discovering pictures of Abigail left behind in the attic of the house, Jessica sees that the doomed bride bears a striking resemblance to Emily. Given her mental history, however, Jessica is more likely to believe she's suffering a relapse then to think her wild suspicions have merit. But even though the film's title suggests that there may be a possible Gaslight-esque plot at work against Jessica, we know that Emily really is either a ghost, a vampire or some kind of ghoul.

One of the most intriguing aspects of Jessica is how Emily embodies qualities of vampirism and the walking dead, but yet doesn't conform to the established folklore of either. Whatever her true nature, Emily has converted the town folk around her (most of whom seem to be elderly - and all of whom have contempt for the bohemian ways of Jessica, Duncan and Woody) into a cabal of undead followers. In an imaginative detail, she brings victims over to her side by slicing them with a knife (never in the same spot - sometimes it's seen on the forearm, sometimes hidden behind the ear - so it's always an eerie surprise when we see that telltale incision) and then drinking their blood (an act that's suggested more than explicitly shown). Only for one key victim does she resort to the traditional neck bite.

But rather than becoming what we would recognize as familiar zombies or creatures of the night, these people simply bandage themselves (which makes for a creepy visual to see a town full of people all sporting random, unexplained wounds - as Duncan says of his conspicuously bandaged neighbors: "I bet they're left over from the Civil War!") and walk around freely in the daylight. In this aspect, Jessica is as much a "pod" movie as it is a vampire or zombie film, recalling the transformations of Invasion of the Body Snatchers in which people look the same and act the same but yet are no longer human.

Set in Connecticut in the fall, with its ripe red-orange foliage, Jessica is more lyrical than it is lurid - informed by an autumnal sense of decay. And there's a mournful, elegiac mood (augmented by Orville Stoeber's score) that pervades the film, a sense of morbid romanticism embodied in a verse Jessica finds on a gravestone: "Frail as the leaves that shiver on a spray/Like them, we flourish/Like them, decay."

Not only do Jessica, Duncan and Woody make the drive to Connecticut in a used hearse (as Woody cheerfully explains to their new neighbors - "It's cheaper than a station wagon!") but the first stop they make is in the local cemetery so Jessica can indulge her hobby of making grave-rubbings - which, with their poignant reminders of life's brevity, paper the walls of her and Duncan's bedroom. And on their first night in the house, Jessica and co. conduct an impromptu seance to welcome all the souls of those who have ever passed in their new home to communicate with them (as Jessica earnestly implores, "Give us a sign!").

This flower child attitude towards death may explain why Emily is never quite depicted as being a force of evil, even as she causes the deaths of several people. In fact, Emily is more passive than almost any other 'villain' in film history, and that becomes a telling quality in Jessica's final moments.

In the end, we see that Jessica has escaped Emily and her mob of ghouls by finding refuge in the rowboat. But as Emily and her followers all standing on the shore watching Jessica give up one by one and saunter off back to their haunted town, it's with a peculiar sadness - not for themselves, we sense, but towards Jessica herself. Emily doesn't walk away with a monster's frustration of having failed to claim another victim but instead as a lost soul with a different air of regret altogether.

For many modern viewers, Let's Scare Jessica To Death may be too slow and ambiguous to sustain much interest. But for me, it's a movie that struck me as being perfect since I first saw it as a fifteen-year-old on TV one cold October afternoon in 1984. Lambert's heartfelt performance was something that I hadn't encountered before in a horror film - this wasn't the usual screaming and running of a 'final girl', this was real emotion. The scenes in which we see her relationship with Duncan fraying past the point of repair are genuinely agonizing to watch. It took me years to realize exactly what made this film so special to me, but over time it became clear: Let's Scare Jessica To Death remains the one horror film to truly convey that what scares us the most isn't vampires, or ghosts, or even necessarily our own death - it's loneliness. Nothing else can compete with that.

Count me among this film's scores of devoted fans who continue to love Jessica to death.

9 comments:

Bob Ignizio said...

This is a favorite of mine, as well. Truly one of a kind.

Jeff Allard said...

I agree, Bob - for me, there's no other film quite like it.

Fred said...

I remember the tv ad for this one scaring the 7 year old me "to death." The movie somehow made the list of "Worst Horror Films of 1971" in the Monster Times, but after seeing it, I disagreed and thought it aged pretty well. The early scene of the tombstone rubbing was creepy, and the film just went from there. I think many of the current crop of horror film directors could take a lesson from this film, and see how what is implied, together with good acting and a script that is emotionally truthful and mature, can add up to some real scares.

Jeff Allard said...

I came across that issue of Monster Times a few years back. I think it had some kind of snarky comment like "Let's Bore Jessica To Death" or something. Makes you wonder what films from today will be considered classics in thirty years or so!

knobgobbler said...

Good write-up!
'Jessica' has been one of my all time favorite horror films since I first saw it long long ago...
To this day I put the blame on it for my fear of deep water... I keep expecting to look down and see a figure in a white dress drifting up towards me.
The sense of loss and regret and loneliness... so strongly presented in 'Jessica' are common to most all of my favorite horror films.

Kenneth Duane said...

The first time seeing this film scared the hell out of this seven year old in 1972.In 1981,I seen it again on the tube's late show and gathered my friends to watch it with me.In 1998,I discovered it was out of print and could be purchased for fifty dollars on VHS,so I was thrilled to pay the price just to get it!One of these days I will go to Seybrook,Conn.to find this films location and walk the grounds to see what has changed and what has remained the same.I love this film on sleepless nights.

Kenneth Duane said...

I was seven years old when I seen this film in 1972.In 1981,I caught it with friends on the late show.In1997,I discovered it was out of print,but,available for fifty dollars so I was glad to pay the price.One of these days I will go to Seybrook Conn.and walk the grounds of where this film was made just to see the house and what has changed from nearly forty years ago.I love this film on sleepless nights.It's an evergreen.

Kenneth Duane said...

I paid fifty dollars for this film because it reminds me of my youth and I love to watch it over and over on sleepless nights.One of these days I will travel to Seybrook to see what has changed in forty years and what remains the same.

Kenn More said...

I found the house on Google Earth
The film,Lets scare Jessica to death. Google earth sat me down on
the street facing the old Bishope
place.See it @298 Middlesex Turnpike,Old Saybrook,Connecticutt
06475 I also found out that Katherine Hepburn lived in Old
Saybrook.