Despite the gruesome creatures, flying limbs and buckets of blood, horror as a genre can feel pretty stale. For every excellent film there is a dozen forgettable or terrible ones. And there are so many that it takes a lot of wading through the rubbish to get to the interesting stuff. For each day in October I’m going to recommend a different horror film or film about horror. For the most part they won’t be the accepted classics. My selections range from the genuinely excellent to the delightfully strange with a few that are more fascinating than they are great. Hopefully there will be something for everyone and you’ll find something new to give you a scare or maybe a laugh. This is my 31 days of Horror and today I’m talking about: Let’s Scare Jessica to Death.
So many horror films deal with the question, “Is the protagonist crazy or is something supernatural going on?” including a couple in this series. One of the best horror films to include this dilemma without being overly clichéd is John D. Hancock’s Let’s Scare Jessica to Death (1971). This is very much a film of its time; it has a pretty low budget and is so evidently 70’s. I’ve said it before but low budget films offer a much more realistic view into what that era actually felt like. From the costumes to the naturalistic dialogue it feels like such an authentic story, which makes the creepiness that bit scarier. It’s a slow burn of a film but it really gets under your skin and it portrays mental illness better than most of these types of films. More than anything though it’s genuinely frightening, incredibly atmospheric and truly unsettling.
After a six-month stay in a mental institution, Jessica (Zohra Lampert) and her husband Duncan (Barton Heyman) move out to their new home in the country. With their friend Woody (Kevin O’Connor) they head to the apple orchard farmhouse they bought. As they pass through the town nearby the residents seem somewhat sketchy and oddly all have bandages. When they get to the farmhouse they find that a young woman called Emily (Mariclare Costello) had been staying there. Before sending her on her way they invite her to dinner and eventually invite her to stay when Woody seems drawn to her. As this is all going on Jessica is plagued by occasional voices in her head and a mysterious blonde girl that appears to her every so often. Jessica becomes more and more paranoid. She starts to distrust those around her, especially Emily. The strangeness of the situation and the people in the town take a toll on her mind. She can’t tell if her mind is slipping again or something supernatural is going on, and it is terrifying her.
Character’s hearing voices in their head is not only a staple of this type of horror film but horror films in general. Early on a character will hear a voice then look around to see who spoke. When it’s clear no one is there the voice will speak again and they’ll freak out because they realise it’s in their mind. I love how Let’s Scare Jessica to Death deals with this trope. When she hears voices she strains to not pay attention and just carry on with whatever she’s doing. Early on she’s fixated on getting better and she doesn’t want to say anything that might make people think she needs to go back to the institution. All she wants is a quiet happy life with her husband. These voices will hopefully pass when she becomes more settled; she just needs to push through this. Sadly this isn’t the case. As desperately as she tries to suppress her worsening mental state she cannot stop it. The thing is that she might not actually be going crazy. If she is actually seeing this blonde girl then that blonde girl actually is trying to warn her about something. The presence of Emily in the house certainly isn’t helping. In one particularly heart-breaking scene the four housemates eat dinner together. Jessica is scared that her husband is attracted to Emily and as they talk together she keeps hearing Emily’s voice in her head. Zohra Lampert’s performance in this scene is so touching and sad. She is trying her hardest to look normal while horrible ideas are being planted in her mind. You can see the anxiety in her eyes. She becomes so shaken that she has to remove herself from the situation and we believe it. Even when things do slow down a bit and not very much is happening; the core internal struggle within Jessica really keeps things engrossing. We hope that she isn’t relapsing but at the same time she’s so fragile that we don’t want her to be in genuine supernatural danger. Either outcome would be awful and to see her go through it is nerve-wracking.
Outside of the excellent character work, it’s also just a really scary film with several surprising turns. Early on there are several creepy moments where Jessica thinks she sees something out of the corner of her eye. The camera catches something for a second and sometimes we’re not even sure if something was there. Then there are more overtly frightening moments like when Jessica is swimming in a lake when she see’s a spectre under the water that suddenly tries to pull her under. Very early on the geography of the farmhouse is well established and it’s a really effectively creepy old house. As Jessica’s fear grows every time she walks through that house becomes increasingly tense. It’s a slow build up to a point where it’s so oppressively scary that she cannot even stand to be there. As slow as the film can appear there are quite a number of spooky set pieces. On top of that it’s an exceptionally atmospheric film. There’s a quietly dreamlike quality to it all. Reality and imagination blur until reality is beyond recognition. Everything gets increasingly odd but the film makes this transition really smoothly. Some people might find it a little too leisurely in its pace but I think it works really well in slowly submerging us into Jessica’s mindset as well as the messed up world she finds herself in.
The title Let’s Scare Jessica to Death is awesome on its own but it also kind of implies that this is a pulpier film than it is. What it does communicate though is the intense paranoia of the film. The idea that there’s potentially something, some evil force, playfully just trying to petrify this poor woman is unsettling. As we are firmly in her mind throughout it’s a troubling prospect and the film has a melancholy not seen so much in horror. Although we’re there to be scared we almost feel bad because we’re not the only ones getting frightened. That speaks to how well realised Jessica is as a character. Hancock has a simple directorial style but it makes the slight surreal touches that bit creepier. The fantastical encroaches on what appears to be reality and it’s really quite chilling. Let’s Scare Jessica to Death is touching, original and most of all scary.
James M Macleod