Friday, April 2, 2010

REVIEW: Let's Scare Jessica to Death

Let's Scare Jessica to Death
Director: John D. Hancock
Year 1971

Let's Scare Jessica to Death, or what I like to call, "Watch Out For That Damned Ginger-headed Albino!", is a masterpiece of 70's horror. This graceful tale of a woman gone mad is constructed with such patience and care that you come to appreciate its slow pace and attention to detail.

The story opens with a young woman by the name of Jessica, played by a wonderfully mad Zohra Lampert, who has just been released from an institution where she has been struggling with separating reality from fantasy. In other words she has tendencies to be as crazy as a loon.

Jessica is a few fries short of a happy meal when it comes to sanity.

Jessica and her husband Duncan, played by an asshole-ish Barton Heyman, decide that some country air will do Jessica some good, so they set off to live in a farmhouse along with their mutual friend Woody, played by Kevin O'Connor. The farmhouse that they will be living in is like something out of a ghost story with a heavy mist that seems to hang in the air around the estate. This is definitely not a good place to take someone who lets their mind run away with themselves, but it sure looks great and it's a perfect location for a spooky horror film.

Good idea. Let's bring the crazy woman here to get better.

This really is 70's cerebral horror at its finest as we watch Jessica struggle to separate her imagination from reality. As soon as they arrive at the house she thinks she sees someone run by at the top of the stairs. Turns out it wasn't her mind playing tricks with her, because it ends up to be an apparent squatter who has decided to call one of the upstairs bedrooms her home. This woman's name is Emily, played by a creepy looking Mariclare Costello, who is one of the most disturbing looking albinos I've ever laid eyes on and to top it off she's a gingerhead! Nooooo! They decide to let her stay and she joins their merry band.

The new sitcom, "Two Men, One Girl, and a Gingerheaded Albino".

The visions and paranoia that Jessica deals with throughout the film is very imaginative and it never ceases to entertain even though those moments come at a tremendously slow pace. This is one of those films that like to take its time. Each set up pays off though and you're left with an icky feeling of doubt on whether what Jessica is seeing is real or truly all in her head. The way the director handles the material is masterful as he delicately crafts the scares in a classical manner that lacks the gore and jump scares and instead chooses to leave you with a haunting image that will truthfully stay with you long after the film ends.

How about let's not scare Jessica to death. She's been through enough.

One of the great creepy moments that John Hancock sets up, is where Jessica and her friends decide to go swimming at the lake. They're all having fun and Jessica decides to go out to the deep end by herself. She wades for a few minutes and is then grabbed by something under the water. She struggles to break free, but is tugged under a few times. Then without warning the unseen thing lets her go and we're given a brief glimpse of what looks like a white ghostlike blurry image of a mermaid glide away until it disappears totally under the depths of the clouded water. This scene is so effective and sends a shiver down your spin when you see the strange thing in the water gracefully fade away. Now that's some haunting stuff.

Jessica learns never to swim in the lake behind the house.

This film is a combination of a ghost story, creature feature, psychological horror, and a hint of vampirism that creeps up from time to time. The ingredients of all these things make the film seem very fresh and original, which it is. There has been nothing like it in all the 70's horror cinema that I've seen and it has always stood out in my mind as in a league of its own. Let's Scare Jessica to Death is one of those truly haunting films that seem soaked in ambiance from the start and never really seems to let up as the story progresses.

The Wilson family with their disappointing albino child.

I've never seen any other films by John Hancock, which frankly his name sounds made up, but the images that he's captured here are just breathtaking. There are some establishing shots of the farmhouse and of the lake and surrounding areas that are so beautiful that they almost look like a painting. You can tell there was much care when framing these shots and they come off as just brilliant which is surprising in such a depressive laden horror film.

One of the many beautiful shots that John Hancock has brought to this picture.

As the film goes on, Jessica's visions begin to increase in both frequency and strength, as she goes into town and starts to see bites and scars on the villagers necks and body parts suggesting that this is a town plagued by vampires or some sinister beast. Even when she's at home the visions worsen. In one section of the movie, she is almost hypnotized by the albino girl Emily to come down to the lake for a swim. They go in the water and the albino proceeds to dunk Jessica under the water. Suddenly the albino disappears and we're given another glimpse of that strange opaque watery image underneath the ripples of water. This time the thing comes up to the surface and it is the albino girl dressed in an old colonial style dress. She attempts to bite Jessica's neck but somehow she breaks the hypnotic hold the albino has on her and she runs for her life back to the house. This is a very surreal scene where you're not sure if it's playing out in Jessica's mind or not. Hancock does a great job of conveying the madness that a crazy person would perceive as normal.

Didn't she learn the first time to not go back into the water?

Near the end of the film we start to see a body count as Jessica's visions ramp up to dangerous levels. The ambiguity of her perception plays up to the very end of the film where you're still not sure if all that has happened was real. It's a great way to give the audience a role in figuring out the movie in their heads and letting them play out what their conclusion of the tale would be. All we really know for sure is that people are actually dying, but we're not sure if it is some evil force or if it is in fact Jessica as she blindly lashes out at her visions. Needless to say both outcomes are quite possible and either one would satisfy because there is so much going for this film and so much substance in it that we're brought along to believe that anything is possible in this dreamlike film.

Death by tractor.

This film just has a certain feel of being lost in a dream. It's almost like a scaled down version of a Jean Rollin film where everything seems to play out in a hazy fog void of reality. Let's Scare Jessica to Death is much more grounded then Rollin's films but in essence it has that similar feel in the atmosphere and much of the locations hark back to Rollin's films like Grapes of Death or Night of the Hunted. It's all just a fun surreal experience that always seems to have a deeper meaning underneath all the information that Hancock puts visibly up on the screen.

A surreal like shot that resembles a Jean Rollin film.

The ending is a delight with everything and everyone Jessica's character has come into contact with, revolts against her like some soul sucking zombie from a Romero movie. Her world comes crashing down in a chaotic mess of attacks where she has to run for her life. It's a very hectic ending to such a passive film and it switches gears quickly, impacting the ending that much more for its abrupt change into the madness that resembles her previous mindset at the beginning of the film. It really is a great ending to a mesmerizing film.

Life sucks when you don't have a friend to row your boat.

Let's Scare Jessica to Death is a haunting movie that will stay with you for a very long time. The images that are concocted from this web of madness make for a memorable film that treats the material with a detailed hand and sets the pace for a slow burning psychological horror. The blending of so many themes that eventually come together as one voice really impress. If you want a movie to internally change you in ways you're not expecting and make you think beyond the movie screen, then watch this movie as soon as you can obtain it. There aren't to many of these kind of movies around and that's a damn shame. John Hancock hasn't made too many films in his career, but from what he accomplished here he can call it quits and still have had made the most compelling 70's horror that the era has known. Just Haunting.

5 out of 5 stars             A Haunting 70's Horror Film Like No Other.


  1. I lived in a small town in northern Ontario (1500 ppl). We had a room at the back of a grocery store that doubled as a makeshift theater on Saturday night. I was 10 years old and we lined up through the grocery store to get into the back where the big screen was. It was 1974 and though the movie debuted in '71, our small little town did not get new releases...ever. Hmmm....very eerie..Let's Scare Jessica to Death...oh well, I'm with several friends. I have never forgotten the scare, the fear, the long walk home through dark 10 years old. The film had a major impact on me and I talk of it to others to this day. One of the unsung greats...

  2. Saw this as a kid late one night on a local UHF station in the late 70's. I was a bit of a scaredy cat ( Halloween made me fear the dark all over again) and this movie scared the crap out of me. I only have a hazy recollection of it, but I did remember the title, so I thought I'd check on IMDB and saw your post.

  3. Yeah, it's as scary as you remembered. There's really something creepy about the whole story and how it is shot. You should really check it out again and you can get it for real cheap now on DVD. Thanks for checking out the review.

  4. Great review, though I disagree that there are no other prior films that are similar in theme and style. "Carnival of Souls" comes to mind and also Robert Altman's "Images".

  5. Yeah that is true. Carnival of Souls and Images are both similar in tone, showing the heroine of the film lose her grip with reality all the while the audience gets to watch her mind unravel at the seams. I really need to break out Images again, cause that is one trippy piece of filmmaking. Seems like a good time to revisit it. Thanks for reminding me.

  6. Great review, man!!!! Awesome, it's youtube so I'm watching it again!! :)

  7. Awesome review, bro!!! You're a great writer. I'm just re-watching Let's scare jessica to death after all these years and it's great!! (It's on youtube full length) Thanks again!!