Saturday, April 15, 2017

Retro-Shock Bonus Round: Let's Scare Jessica to Death (1970)

Maybe this is more specific to New Englanders than it is to fans in other countries and regions but as a lifelong Massachusetts resident, I've got my short list of "fall" horror movies that I have to watch each year as autumn rolls around and the leaves start to change, the days get shorter, and the air gets cooler - movies that embody the spirit of the season itself.

Permanently at the top of that list for me is director John Hancock’s uncommonly delicate 1970 spook show, Let’s Scare Jessica To Death.

Everything about this movie suggests an autumnal fragility, starting with its titular heroine as played by Zorpha Lambert. 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.

In voiceover, her words set the tone of mournful, melancholy uncertainty for what will follow: "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 then flashes back to the previous few days of Jessica's life, ultimately bringing us back full circle to this moment on the lake.

Days earlier, a more hopeful Jessica arrived at her new Connecticut home on an apple farm 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 free spirited trio start 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.

This being the early '70s, once the initial shock of finding an intruder passes, rather than calling the police on Emily, these groovy, hippie era types greet their squatter as a welcome new addition to the household. 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 officially invited into the home as a permanent addition.

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 sexual temptation to Duncan but she senses something more fundamentally wrong with Emily. Through a conversation with the local antique dealer, they learn that the home they're living in was the scene of a 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 still exists, 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 both vampirism and the walking dead, but yet doesn't conform to the established folklore of either. Whatever her true nature is, 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 new wrinkle to vampire lore, 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 a character bearing that telltale incision) and then drinking their blood. 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, Hancock's film 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, 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."

Death is a constant but not unwelcome presence in Jessica. Not only do Jessica, Duncan and Woody get around in a hearse rather than in a hippie van (as Woody cheerfully jokes about their macabre form of transportation to their disapproving new neighbors - "It's cheaper than a station wagon!") but the first stop they make upon arriving in their new town is to 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 old Bishop place, Jessica and co. conduct an impromptu séance 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!"). But yet, even with the hearse, the grave rubbings, the seance, this group isn't depicted as being gothic or morbid or (Jessica's issues notwithstanding) depressed.

This flower child attitude towards death (the word "Love" is painted on their hearse) 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 unusual quality informs Jessica's final moments.

In the end, we see how Jessica escapes the grasp of 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 resigned sadness - not for themselves, we sense, but towards Jessica herself.

In the end, unlike most movie monsters, Emily isn't vanquished for the sake of restoring normalcy and she doesn't walk away with a monster's frustration of having failed to claim another victim but instead as a lost soul who carries a different air of regret altogether.

For many modern viewers, Let's Scare Jessica To Death may be far too gentle in its sensibilities to sustain much interest. But for me, it's a movie that struck me as being perfect since I first came across it on TV one cold October afternoon in 1984.

Lambert's heartfelt performance was something that I hadn't encountered before in a horror film - rather than the usual feisty, empowered resourcefulness that horror heroines typically embodied, this was real emotion and real, adult heartbreak. The scenes in which we see Jessica's relationship with Duncan unraveling are genuinely agonizing to watch. The crumbling of Jessica's marriage under the weight of her mental issues and Duncan's unhappiness is depicted here with as much seriousness and sensitivity as in any straight drama.

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 really scares us in this life, what we really dread, isn't death - it's just loneliness.

Nothing else can compete with that.

...That's a wrap on all my RST material. I don't know why I was sitting on this one but for some reason, I never sent it out. But as Jessica is one of my all-time favorites, it's probably appropriate to end on this note. Thanks for reading!

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