Movie Reviews 302 – Let’s Scare Jessica to Death (1971)

The Horror genre can be broken down into various categories that are vastly different from one another in ways to deliver the anticipated scares. Most horror movies rely on physical aspects, be they creatures or human attributable violence. The more ephemeral ones employ ghosts as a foundation, but even those can be overt ghostly apparitions or mere observation of ghostly influence on surroundings. The subtle brands of horror are the psychological films that have scant jump scares and rely on emotion and implied dread. Let’s Scare Jessica to Death adds another dimension to this latter form of horror giving us a protagonist that has a questionable state of sanity to begin with before introducing the horror at hand.

Recently released from a stay at psychiatric institution, Jessica (Zohra Lampert), her husband Duncan (Barton Heyman) and their friend Woody (Kevin O’Connor) make a brief stopover in the Connecticut town that is near a farmhouse the couple recently purchased. Beginning with a tepid reception from the ferryman once he learns of their destination they get even more abrasive encounter from the townsmen hovering the porch of the local goods store.

Ostensibly the couple bought the house to get away from the big city but the underlying reason was for a fresh start  for Jessica and hoping she is really over her mental issues. But even before arriving at their new home Jessica has visions of a young girl and also begins hearing whispers, all of which she keeps to herself while beginning to question her sanity.

Once their hippie painted hearse arrives at the fog enshrouded, turreted Victorian house they are surprised by Emily (Mariclare Costello) a young homeless vagabond. Evident that Woody has taken a shine to her, Jessica convinces Duncan to let Emily to stay for a while. Jessica soon regrets this noticing an attraction between Emily and her husband. Jessica is further strained when they hold a seance that night as suggested by Emily hoping to contact those that have died in the house.

Low on funds as the trio intend to farm the grounds around the house, the couple pilfer the house contents and furnishings to see if they can sell some of the stuff to a local antique dealer. One particular item that catches Jessica’s eyes is an old silver framed picture she finds in the attic. In the picture are long departed residents of the house, the Bishop family. The picture includes the Bishop’s daughter Abigail who legend has it died on her wedding day and is now a vampire roaming the area. Notable is the fact that Emily is the striking image of long dead Abigail.

Soon after learning the story, Jessica notices that all the townsfolk are physically marked or impaired in some manner. The one ‘normal’ person they met, the antique dealer is soon found dead by Jessica after being lured to the body by the girl in her apparitions. But when Jessica drags Duncan to the location of the body it is no longer there. This convinces Duncan that Jessica needs to return to see her doctor, which splits the couple apart. Each new revelation further traumatizes Jessica, bit by bit, until she reaches the breaking point.

What makes the movie effective is the heavy handed and unrelenting strain on Jessica. While the main actors are all in top form, Lampert’s portrayal of Jessica is unnerving. Jessica is always smiling but it’s a tension filled smile. Viewers feel her vulnerability and self doubt. The film enhances this effect by sharing her thoughts as audible dialog along with the constant whispers, “I’m still here. You’ll never get better…”.

While clearly a vampire movie, that aspect is almost inconsequential from the horror perspective as it takes a back seat to the horror in Jessica’s mind. The movie has a ‘distant’ feel that makes it an underrated classic. The title says it all and it highlights the horror in the film. Thankfully the filmmakers did not use the original title they were considering. I suspect the movie would not be as cherished today if it was called “It Drinks Hippy Blood”.

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