Horror Review: Let's Scare Jessica to Death (1971)
Spoiler alert! Let’s Scare Jessica to Death (1971) was directed by John Hancock. Hancock also is credited as co-writing the script. The original story was composed by Lee Kalcheim. In its first form the story was written as a satirical horror film about a group of teenagers who are tormented by a lake monster. Hancock drastically overhauled the plot and turned it into a classic ghost story with an unreliable narrator/woman whose mental health is unstable. If you’ve read Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla (I highly recommend it if you haven’t) you’ll recognize the basics of the plot. Interesting that IMDB actually credits Sheradan Le Fanu as a writer because it feels so similar to Carmilla.
The lead role is played by Zohra Lampert. The film also stars Barton Heyman, Gretchen Corbett and Mariclaire Costello. Critics often connect this film with the decline of the hippie movement, many citing the fact that the teenagers in the film had spray painted the word ‘love’ on the hearse they drove around. You can also see this with how immediately the group welcomes the squatter, which of course ends up coming back to haunt them.
Let’s Scare Jessica to Death was filmed in Connected. The exterior shots of the haunted house were actually filmed at a stunning and surreal home that belonged to my friend Patrick Goodsell’s Great-Grandparents, Fred and Bertha Piontkowski, in Old Saybrook, CT. The property was known as the Fairview Farm and was built in 1875, Fred and Bertha bought it in the 1920s. There is quite a bit written about the property and it's history if you're interested. And it was super cool to find out Patrick was connected to it!
This film is both a hit and miss for me. I enjoy the dreamy 70s style of the cinematography. Some of the day-horror scenes didn’t hit me in an impactful way, mostly the shot when our antagonist walks out of the lake in her wedding dress. It just didn’t feel scary to me. That being said, the townspeople and the slowly growing scarred zombie population definitely freaked me out. But this film exists between sub-genres. The zombies make it not entirely a paranormal horror film, but the haunting makes it not entirely a zombie film. I’d also say there are a ton of psychological thriller elements. This genre mixing doesn’t bother me specifically, but it doesn’t give a ton of satisfying explanation or world building for any of the supernatural elements.
Overall, it’s a dizzying and creepy movie. Being both from Connecticut, and someone who frequents historic cemeteries, there were a lot of fun scenes for me. Not to mention the dazzling farm house. But it pulled me in so many different (and interesting) directions, but just didn’t deliver enough for me. I wanted to know more about how this solid, seemingly human or immortal or ghostly woman is controlling the town of also solid but dead zombie people?
But the thing that stays with me the most from this film is the feeling of losing your grip on reality. This comes through so brilliantly from Zohra Lampert. I felt her anxiety, I felt her paranoia and I also felt for her. All while I questioned her sanity. The film is actually really successful at creating a Turn of The Screw type ambiguity with the audience. Is Jessica losing her hold on reality or is something paranormal actually going on? Or maybe a bit of both?