The Doubting of Reality in “Let’s Scare Jessica to Death”

A horror movie so strong you'd be surprised to find out its legacy hadn’t yet been ruined by an inferior remake, Let’s Scare Jessica to Death drips with atmospheric dread and terror; even the house looks unwelcoming. Released by Paramount Pictures in 1971 (a year before they unveiled The Godfather), director John D. Hancock’s four-person starrer features a fragile title character dealing with mental illness, paranoia, and something else entirely.

When the film opens, Jessica has just been released from a hospital for mental problems only hinted at. Along with her lover and a family friend, Jessica says goodbye to Manhattan and heads to the countryside to start anew. Free-spirited and optimistic, the trio, calling upon a hearse as their mode of transportation, hope to find work in a town unfortunately filled with angry old men sick and tired of this unwelcomed “hippie generation." Anyone familiar with the genre will realize that a film set in the bucolic countryside will often have a rather sinister backstory, and there’s one here too.

When the group arrives at their new house, they discover a woman already living inside. She’s a squatter looking for a place to sleep, and so rather than kick her out, she is invited to make herself comfortable until she can find her way. So far, so good. But Jessica still hears voices inside her head (including her own) filing her with with self-doubt and unrest – the implantation of voiceover is used quite effectively. In an opening scene set in a cemetery, she sees a woman who may or may really be present, while later, she suspects that there is something living at the bottom of the lake. Are there foul forces at play or is Jessica an unreliable narrator not yet fully cured?

The technical qualities of the film are superb. With gorgeous cinematography and an audio track that takes on a life of its own, each sound and image presents a hazy version of reality.  As the plot develops, we learn that the world around Jessica is scarier than anything her mind could concoct.  The group’s new house has one heck of a history — an old photo found in the attic prompts Jessica to realize that her newfound friend may be hiding something —  and when the scope of  the supernatural occurrences are revealed, the screenplay pulls back to show us the things right in the open we didn’t originally see. Like our heroine, we were struggling to make sense of it all. Creepy at every turn, this psychological drama with a body count has been getting its due in recent years and, screening in 16mm this Saturday afternoon, you too can join the growing number of new discoverers.

Let's Scare Jessica to Death
Director: John D. Hancock
Screens: November 2 at 3:00pm

Scary Movies 7 Official Description:

Spoken in somber voiceover by the titular Jessica (Zohra Lampert), these cryptic words are the first we hear in the film—they pull us in immediately and we never stop being transfixed by the creepy events that lead up to them. Following a recent stint in a mental hospital, Jessica has relocated to the Connecticut countryside with her husband and a friend from New York City to find some peace. But they sure picked the wrong farmhouse to live in! They arrive to find an alluring young squatter there—who, as it turns out, bears an uncanny resemblance to a woman who lived there centuries earlier, and who, as legend goes, drowned and now walks the grounds as a vampire. A series of strange occurrences begin, but only Jessica, who may or may not be unraveling again, seems to witness them. With its eerie use of water imagery and of the great outdoors in general, this unnerving film defines moody.

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