Let’s Scare Jessica to Death (John D. Hancock, 1971)

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Let’s Scare Jessica to death is a strange little film about very natural insecurities. Jessica has recently been realised from psychiatric care, and with her husband and a friend, they all move to the country into an old and supposedly haunted house. She begins to see things that shouldn’t be, and fears she is once again losing her grip on reality. Things aren’t as they seem though, and she is not the only one seeing something strange.

The film is not exactly scary, though it certainly creates a paranoid atmosphere. For the most part, the horror seems to hang on the edges, and the unique perspective that Jessica brings because of her mental illness, brings a normality to what would otherwise be frightening or strange occurences. It’s because of this, that so much rests on the shoulders of Zohra Lampert, because it is through her that we must understand what is disturbing imagery, and what is a part of her natural world view. I’m not entirely sure how successful she is, Lampert is a strange screen presence and I’m not sure that is a good thing. She certainly does not have the same appeal or natural charisma as her female co-star Mariclare Costello… but perhaps that’s the point?

As much as the film is about Jessica’s fears of losing her mind, a well tread theme in horror… it’s also about being abandoned. This obviously ties into her madness, as she feels alienated by the treatment she receives by her loved ones, and the sense that they may not love or care for her in the way she may need. She is very much threatened by the mysterious presence of the “hippie” chick, Emily (Costello), because she threatens the already “weak” relationship between Jessica and her husband. Jessica fears to acknowledge or bring up this point however, because it could so easily be dismissed as another one of her delusions. Her anxiety is palpable and becomes more of a driving force in the film.

Technically, the film is hit or miss. Some of the sound editing is clumsy, though… somewhat charming, perhaps because it reminds me of early post-dubbing attempts. The cinematography is fairly strong, has a cheap but somehow beautiful 70s horror aesthetic. There are some truly wonderful shots, I particularly like the ones matching Emily with the wallpaper backgrounds, I associate wallpaper so much with horror. I don’t know why?

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2 responses to “Let’s Scare Jessica to Death (John D. Hancock, 1971)

  1. I haven’t seen this, so I’m totally skipping over your essay, but since I seem to be a repository of this kind of trivia (I love lists!), I’ll tell you that Kim Newman, the horror writer and genre guru, put this on his S&S Ten Best list in 2002, along the likes of Notorious, Apocalypse Now, The Shining, and Argento’s Inferno.

    I don’t remember the rest of his list (I’m not a total robot) and obviously he’s genre-friendly to horror, but I assume Let’s Scare Jessica must’ve made a strong impression on him–so i’m still eager to see this someday.

  2. Lampert is a strange screen presence and I’m not sure that is a good thing. She certainly does not have the same appeal or natural charisma as her female co-star Mariclare Costello… but perhaps that’s the point?

    I totally agree with the above – and yes, Lampert frustrated me. But Costello was soooo good and I love what transpires at the end. I thought you’d like this more than you did just for the mood and ending.

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