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Oct 14, 2014

October 2014 Horror Movie a Day - Day 13: LET'S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH (1971)


Low budget horror pictures are often among the best in the genre, especially - in my opinion - ones released in the 1970s. Let's Scare Jessica to Death is a very effective low budget film from 1971. It has a rough, nightmarish quality about it. Don't pay any attention to the marketing campaign (see the one-sheet above) as it tries to sell this as a straight-up horror film about a woman being chased by some supernatural menace (the skeleton in the poster is nothing like what she encounters in the film). In fact, you come away wondering if the only thing Jessica needs to fear is her own mind.

Obvious first stop after being released from a psychiatric hospital is a cemetery.
Jessica (Zohra Lampert) has just been released from a psychiatric hospital, and is moving to the country with her husband and hippy friend (complete with 70s hair and bushy mustache). They begin their journey by stopping at a cemetery where she makes wax impressions of tombstones and they are traveling in a hearse. Jessica sees a strange figure in white and hears voices in her head but decides to ignore them and keep this information from her companions. She seems happy and alive, but this indicates to us that she is far from being stable.

I'm just here to make you realize you're still nuts.
On their way to their new home, they drive through a small town (and calling it a town is a stretch) where they encounter some strange old men (war vets at that!) who stare at the young people who in turn make fun of them. They arrive at their new home and are startled to find a squatter named Emily (Mariclare Costello) who they allow to stay for the night. She and the hippy, Woody (Kevin O'Connor) are attracted to each other and they decide to ask her to stay with them for as long as she would like. They spend a lot of time together frolicking and enjoying themselves. While swimming, Jessica sees a body floating beneath the water. A hand grabs Jessica's heel but again she decides to keep this information from her friends for fear that they will think she is losing her mind again - which seems to be the case from our perspective.

Water in horror movies is always a bad thing.
The locals don't seem too keen on this group of youngsters, and a local antiques dealer explains why when they try to sell him an old photo they found in the house. In 1880, a young woman named Abigail drowned on her wedding day and is reported to be eternally roaming the area as a vampire. Nobody seems to notice - except us - that Abigail in the photo closely resembles Emily.

Seriously...can't you see I'm the woman in that old picture?
Things get more complicated when Jessica's husband Duncan (Barton Heyman) starts making eyes with Emily in a way that suggests an interest more than friends. A mole they have made a pet is later found stabbed to death. Jessica swears she didn't do it, but Duncan thinks that she should go back to New York and see her doctor. The two sleep in separate beds as Jessica's mental health continues to deteriorate.

More proof Jessica is doomed. Look how foreboding this house is!
This of course is the moment when things really go off the deep end. Jessica sees the female apparition from earlier more frequently, the voices in her head become louder - and they now include Emily's voice - and when she recognizes that Abigail and Emily look similar, Emily tries to bite her in the neck. Emily convinces Jessica to come to the lake with her and then pushes her in which freaks Jessica out. Jessica then sees Emily rising from within the lake in a white dress that resembles the one Abigail wears in the photo. A fragile Jessica really loses her grip on reality and Emily clearly is the one that has just pushed her there - literally.

I'm just trying to push you off the deep end - literally and mentally.
I think what really struck me with this picture is the idea that we are seeing things from Jessica's messed up perspective, and it's made even more distressing since Jessica is a likable, happy, well-adjusted individual. I totally would want to hang out with her. This whole group seems very happy together, even Duncan - who it's revealed has left his job as a cellist with the New York Philharmonic to move to the country for Jessica's health. It is obvious he cares deeply for his wife, even when he's flirting with Emily.

We're the welcoming committee. You may want to start running now.
The ending plays out like a cinematic nightmare where it is difficult to ascertain what is reality, and what is an illusion. I personally think we are completely seeing things as Jessica sees them and nothing can be taken at face value. The townspeople are all creepy as they are covered in bandages and have weird cuts on their necks. One has to also wonder why this young group has chosen a hearse as their vehicle of choice. Of course we know that it foreshadows the idea that things are not going to go well and that death is in the cards for some, if not all of them.

This hearse only had 30,000 miles on it when we bought it.
Let's Scare Jessica to Death is a scary film worth checking out, one that will leave you thinking about it for some time afterwards.