Directed by: John D Hancock
Release Date: 1971
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. When 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. In 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.
Saturday, August 19, 2006
Directed by: John D Hancock