“I’M CALLING ON ALL THE SIRITS THAT DIED IN THIS HOUSE….IF YOU’RE PRESENT, GIVE US A SIGN. GIVE US A SIGN…ALL THE DEAD, COME TO US….”
And with that, the characters in the film LET’S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH (1971) get more than what they bargained for. In this much underrated cult classic, we find Jessica (played by Zohra Lampert ) with her husband Duncan (Barton Heyman) and friend Woody (Kevin O’connor) driving from New York to Connecticut Island. With hippy ideals, they move into a farmhouse to raise apples. While Duncan and Jessica lived in New York City, Jessica was prone to panic attacks and had a six month stay in a mental hospital. As they are moving into the house they hear a noise upstairs. They discover someone has been living in the house for months. It turns out to be a drifter, Emily (Mariclare Costello.).
The townsfolk are uneasy with their new citizens. The whole idea of hippies moving in their town causes tensions with what looks to be elderly people. Through the whole movie there doesn’t seem to be anyone under thirty, except a strange young girl (played by Gretchen Corbett of Rockford Files fame) who seems to haunt Jessica. They four of them seem to have a good time, cohabit together peacefully, even among strange circumstances. Oddly enough the townspeople all are bandaged. The only one that seems normal is the antique dealer Duncan and Jessica befriend after selling him junk found at the farmhouse befalls a nasty demise. Before this, the antique dealer tells of the Bishops who were previous owners. How poor Abigail drowned and never got the chance to wear her wedding dress on her wedding day. Jessica is out tracing gravestones when the mysterious girl beckons her. Jessica follows, only to find the antique dealer lying in a streams, bleeding from his neck.
Jessica is obviously not a well person. The movie shows this by having her thoughts as a narrator of sorts. She worries about everything, almost chalking up woman’s intuition when she notices Duncan really likes Emily a little too much. In the meantime Woody tries to start a romance with Emily, but she is unresponsive.
The ending to this movie is ambiguous. Did the events that took place really happen? Or was it all in Jessica’s mind? Whatever the interpretation, it works. At the time the movie was released it didn’t fare well with the critics. I’ve heard negative reviews, of course somewhat the audience or critics had a problem with was a few details such as the bandages on the townspeople. If in fact an audience can overlook an unrealistic action scene where the hero shoots a car in the hood and it blows up, why not forgive that? What makes this film work is mood. There’s little to no gore, and the characters feel like real people with real problems. Also the real star is the performance of Zohra Lampert, who has had a varied career of small roles on TV and film and stage.
Director John D. Hancock has said he was more proud of Bang the Drum Slowly; in its own right is a fine movie. This film has the look and feel of a true independent film. Shot on location in Old Saybrook Conneticut. The shots of landscape lend to dreariness of the subject matter, even the scenes in daytime. The music score by Orville Stoeber is very important to the mood of the film - conversations drowned out by everyday machinery, or the voices in Jessica’s head overtaking the scene where characters interact with each other. No matter what critics thought of the film back in the day, time has been more kind to it. Its cult status has grown to the point it now has a website dedicated to it. From what I have read, a poll was taken among those who make their living in the horror field and Jessica ranks at number 86. Not bad for a film that no one seemed to care about.
The film took 25 days to film and had numerous titles such as Jessica and the Satanists. From what screenwriter Lee Kalcheim said it was originally written as a satire. Director John Hancock turned it into a serious horror film, prompting the writer to change his credit, using his father’s name instead. The house that was used is still standing and according to Hancock he spotted while driving to his house not too far from it. Producer Charles Moss was inspired by stories told to him about a local who had, in World War one, had cracked a code flashed a German U-boat in the Boston harbor. Before the authorities could investigate, the man flashing had been murdered. The idea of the town being hostile to strangers inspired the storyline.
I remember the first time I saw this movie on TV. In the daytime no doubt. One of those sick days I took from school. It scared the crap out of me. For weeks I couldn’t forget this film. It disappeared for a few years, only to resurface during my teen tears on late night TV. It hadn’t lost one pinch of the feeling of dread then. I hadn’t thought of it for years until one day in the library, I found the DVD of it (released 2006). It seems Paramount hadn’t forgotten it either.
Mark Slade, HMS
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