Saturday, August 19, 2006

Let’s Scare Jessica to Death - review

DVDDirected by: John D Hancock

Release Date: 1971

Contains spoilers

A bit of an exclusive as the region 1 DVD of “Let’s Scare Jessica to Death” is due for release on the 28th of this month and yet the online merchant I ordered it from has sent me the copy and it arrived today (the 19th). A quick word about the DVD release, whilst there are no extras to speak of, both the print and sound are excellent, bringing this neglected film to vibrant life.

The film opens with a woman, Jessica (Zohra Lampert), in a rowboat and a voice over. During this we hear the words, “I sit here and I can't believe that it happened. And yet I have to believe it. Dreams or nightmares? Madness or sanity? I don't know which is which.” This quote really sums up the film, as things progress we discover that Jessica had a breakdown following the death of her father and was institutionalised for 6 months. We are never quite sure if what happens to her is real or a product of her own fractured mind and neither is she. This film is a study in sanity desperately trying to clutch onto itself.

We see, what appears to be, a coffin pushed into a hearse and the vehicle pull away. It stops outside the gate of a cemetery and Jessica climbs out of the back. She seems excited and, leaving her husband Duncan (Barton Heyman) and their friend Woody (Kevin O’Connor) in the hearse, she goes to take rubbings of gravestones. In the cemetery she, for a second, spots a blond girl in a white dress (never given a name but played by Gretchen Corbett), then the girl is gone. Jessica’s exuberance vanishes as we hear Jessica’s thoughts “Don’t tell them, act normal.”

Duncan was a concert musician with the philharmonic (the New York one we can assume) but has given that up for Jessica. They are moving from the city to the country, to a house he has bought called the “old Bishop Place”, aiming to work the orchard. They have to cross over by ferry and, as they pass through the nearby town, the locals seem less than friendly. Movie posterWhen they arrive at the large, gothic looking house Jessica leaves the guys to unpack – the “coffin” is actually a cello or bass case we discover. Jessica stands alone and we can hear a voice whispering “Jessica, why have you come here?” She looks to the house and we see a figure in a rocking chair, partially obscured, then the chair is empty. Jessica goes to the door, it is opened, “Don’t tell them” she thinks. In the house she sees legs, at the head of the stairs, running past but Duncan has seen them too.

They find, eventually, Emily (Mariclare Costello) who has been squatting in the house. Jessica invites her to dinner and to stay the night before vacating their property. After dinner the girl plays guitar and sings, Duncan accompanies her but the music takes on a strange timbre and Jessica believes that the plate has blood on it, though again she remains silent. The four try a séance, at Emily’s urging and we hear, though perhaps only Jessica hears with us, a toast being given to the bride, Abigail. It is clear that Woody is attracted to Emily, though it is also clear that Jessica believes that Duncan is too.

The next day the four swim and wash up in the cove behind the house. Jessica notices that as Duncan washes Emily’s neck his hands linger. Emily leaves the cove to prepare lunch and pack and Jessica is swimming alone, the guys are out of the water. We see what appears to be a body in the water touching Jessica and Jessica panics, having to be rescued- when the guys check there is nothing in the water.

After lunch Duncan is preparing things to sell from the house and Jessica finds a portrait of the Bishops. One of the girls in the portrait, Abigail, looks to us very much like Emily, though none of the characters seem to notice (Jessica does later). Having asked Emily to stay, Duncan and Jessica go into town. They are given short shrift by the locals, perhaps to the point of harassment, and Jessica notices that they all wear bandages on necks or arms. They eventually find an antique dealer, recently moved from New York, who is willing to buy their items. He tells them, and us, a little about the Bishops. Of how their daughter Abigail was to be married but drowned in the cove. Of how her body was never recovered and that some say she lives still, a vampire roaming the countryside.

The film becomes more and more intense as it progresses, filmed almost exclusively from Jessica’s point of view. Emily emerges from the waterIn Jessica’s mind Emily and Abigail are one and the same. The mysterious girl appears occasionally, Duncan is with Jessica when they catch her, but she is mute and can answer no questions (escaping and running when Emily comes near). Jessica comes to believe that she is warning her. When the bandages that the townsfolk wear are removed we see scarring.

The joy of the movie is that it leaves much to the imagination, although as the film was shot in the 1970’s we see more than perhaps we would have done if the film had been made earlier. In the main what we get is generated by clever use of sound, half hinted images, whispers in the night (and day) and solid acting by Lampert.

Lampert’s performance cannot be underestimated here. She seamlessly flows between calm and panic, happiness and terror. It is a powerhouse performance and we are never really sure if all that happens is real or in Jessica’s head. Because of this, some of the choices Jessica makes, which in other films may have led the audience to question the scriptwriter, seem natural as Jessica is a woman rapidly loosing touch with reality and desperate to cling to it whatever the cost. I do, however, have to mention the mole – caught by Duncan and kept as a pet by Jessica, it was clearly a mouse, not a mole!

This film is a revelation, too long kept under wraps. Indeed the film keeps much under wraps anyway, refusing to answer questions and leaving mysteries hanging before us. In many ways the vampiric elements are understated, hinted at even and the film has much in common with the more ghost type films such as “The Haunting” (1963). Fans of good, psychologically based horror movies, as well as vampire genre fans searching the more unusual films the genre has to offer, could do much worse than seek this gem out.

8.5 out of 10.

The imdb page is here.


Iorga said...

Hey Andy,

When I came looking for this film I actually expected it to be found under "Vamp or Not?" due to the fact of whether it was all in Jessica's mind or reality...

I agree with the mix of ghost and vampire genres. It's interesting that it doesn't explain how Abigail/Emily became a vampire, whether it was suicide in the lake or whatever.

I found it funny that she was squatting in her own home, why not just pretend to be the daughter of each ancestor and pass it along through wills etc, obviously the whole town was privy to her existence. Was good to see a vampire film without fangs, and how she was using a knife to draw blood, and of course none of the trappings such as sunlight, reflection etc...which of course could be a play on Jessica's mind.

I agree with the acting, it was quite good. There is something about horror films made back then, that can never be replicated now. The print of the film, the fashion, culture etc, some how all those elements make horror films better back then they'll ever be again.

In a ways it reminded me somewhat of the Phantasm films at times too.

The drowning in the cove bit and her coming out of the water was very creepy, almost "The Woman in Black" creepy.

All-in-all I was quite impressed, and I want that hearse!

Taliesin_ttlg said...

CB - if I could give you that hearse I would :)

A marvelous film and, as you mention, they just don't make 'em like that any more.

I'd actually quite like to hear a Basarab take ont he whole thing - sure it isn't classic gothic but it has a certain something :)

Iorga said...

Yes, I've been rather slack with the blog, shame on me! I do want to continue with it, and I'm watching heaps of horror lately, including that list you recommended me lately that I plan on doing some articles as I'm on holidays now as we speak.

Time for me to catch up on reading and a whole bunch of other things, including the blog, work has just been exhausting the hell out of me.

I have Burnt Offerings, Messiah of Evil and The Grapes of Death (Rollin) to watch tomorrow :)

Plus I've been writing short stories trying to come up with something good enough I wish to expand into a novella etc...

Taliesin_ttlg said...

sounds like a lot of potential ready to explode into a flurry of creativity - I'll look forward to it.