Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Tuesday's Overlooked Films: Let's Scare Jessica To Death

For more overlooked films go here.

When I was a kid I used to flip through the entertainment section of my local paper and ogle the lurid ads for movies that I wasn't anywhere near old enough to see. Thanks to the magic of home video I've since been able to track down most of those films that I thought would be forever out of my reach, with the result being that most of the time the movie I imagined in my head turned out to be more exciting than the real thing. I can only thank the movie gods that they made me wait thirty years before finally seeing LET'S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH (1971) because if I had seen this movie as a child I'm sure I would have hated it. First of all, the movie doesn't feature any skeletons crawling out of lakes. There aren't any memorable set pieces and the horror depends entirely on the character's perceptions of what is happening to them. These things would have combined to make my childhood head explode. Yet despite all this JESSICA manages to be quite frightening, albeit not for those with short attention spans.

Jessica, recently release from a psychiatric hospital after suffering a breakdown, is looking to make a fresh start with her husband Duncan and friend/hanger-on Woody. They move to an isolated country farmhouse and when they arrive they find the house is already being inhabited by Emily, who apparently has been squatting there for some time. Since she seems nice enough and Woody seems to dig her they ask her to stay and join their extended family. It's not long before Jessica starts hearing voices and seeing people following her. Not wanting to be thought crazy she keeps it to herself. Of course the farmhouse has a tragic history. Nearly one hundred years before a young girl living in the house drowned in a nearby lake shortly before her wedding day. Jessica soon finds herself drawn to a photograph of the girl and her family that she finds in the attic. Hmmm, that dead girl sure looks a lot like Emily....

This movie is the very definition of a slow burn. Very little actually happens yet director John Hancock is very good at building a sense of dread that increases throughout the film's running time. the film also avoids giving easy answers. Is Jessica being driven mad? Is Emily a ghost? Or is Jessica just imagining everything? In any case, it's hard to imagine things turning out well for Jessica, which brings me to the other nice thing about this film: The characters are likable and you actually root for them. In an age when horror movie characters are usually just set up to be killed it's nice to see a movie where you hope the main character will escape alive and in one piece. A lot of the film's running time is invested in building character development and it pays off. Slow but never boring, LET'S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH is a movie to seek out. For me, it was worth the wait.


  1. I DID see this when I was a sprat, and even then I think I preferred Dead Emilys coming up out of the water to skeletons (though I would've happily accepted both in the same picture), and liked the slow burn, though I haven't seen it since those long lost Days o' Yout' and it was probably badly chopped for broadcast television purposes at the time. I will have to look at Zora Lampert's career in the easy places online, since she seemed so relatively vanished far too quickly...I seem to recall she was a Second Citizen, as her early pro gigs went...

  2. Ah, yes, as I've discovered tonight, Kim Newman was also highlighting LET'S on his Facebook page simultaneously...let's synchronize JESSICA to the attention of the coteries...