Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Let's Not, But Say We Did: "Let's Scare Jessica to Death" (1971)

This little 1971 film proves you don't need computer generated special effects, corn syrup gore, or nubile campers getting sliced and diced in order to make a creepy flick.

Jessica (Zohra Lampert), her husband Duncan (Barton Heyman), and their friend Woody (Kevin O'Connor) all escape to the Connecticut countryside from the hustle and bustle of New York City. They buy an old apple orchard and the accompanying creepy farmhouse, and travel in a hearse. The local townsfolk don't take a shine to the trio, shunning the aging hippies right away. At the house, they find Emily (Mariclare Costello), the country's sexiest squatter, and invite her to stay on.

Jessica has just spent six months battling mental illness in an institution, and tries to ignore the voices and visions she still has. She wants to make the orchard work, and doesn't want to bother put-upon Duncan with her mental problems. Woody takes a shine to Emily, but is rejected, and the off-kilter Emily then sets her sights on Duncan. The group explores the old house, uncovering clues to its weird history...and has anyone noticed the locals all sport bandages and scars?

John D. Hancock co-wrote and directed this film, and his knack for setting up atmosphere is without peer. The film has an uncomfortable feel from the beginning, and never shakes it. The sound effects are terrific, the whispering voices and wind sent chills down my spine every time I heard them. The screenplay does have a few slow spots and a red herring title, but refuses to explain everything to the viewer, which was nice for a change.

Zohra Lampert as Jessica is so sympathetic, the viewer cannot help but cheer her on. Lampert doesn't play Jessica as a whack-job nutzoid, the pain is evident on her face as Jessica fears she is slipping back into her hallucinations. Her internal monologues reassuring herself that what she is seeing or hearing is not real scores. Heyman and O'Connor are both good in their supporting roles, although you may wonder why Woody's character is even here at all. Costello is perfectly cast, and Hancock uses her to keep the film's balance off. Emily seems normal, but does not turn into a monstrous villain, and we are never sure if Jessica is imagining things or not concerning her new best friend. Research indicates that the cast was best known for television work (Lampert won an Emmy), and their performances are not showy or overly theatrical.

"Let's Scare Jessica to Death" has developed a cult following in the almost four decades since it came out, with many online demanding a remake (I have mixed feelings about that). While Hippie Horror may be a specialized genre, this film would sit on top! (* * * *) out of five stars.