LET’S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH (1971)
Director: John Hancock
Paramount

Though the cover of this Paramount DVD release might lead you to believe it’s the latest thriller from M. Night Shyamalan, this is the one and only LET’S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH, the independently made homegrown sleeper horror flick from 1971. I can still recall vividly when this played on primetime on ABC’s “Friday Night Movie” around 1976, with a kid at school warning me not to watch it, making it clear how scary it was. That kid was damn right! JESSICA, with its slow but intense build-up, peculiar cast of characters and a baker’s dozen of disturbing images (albeit with all the network edits) left an impression on the cult film lovers who witnessed early on, or caught up with it in later years.

Soon after being released from a mental institution, Jessica (Zohra Lampert) and her husband Duncan (Barton Heyman) make there way from the city to the country, moving into a large old farm home which they’ve spent every last dime on. Along for the ride is their good friend Woody (Kevin O’Connor), who plans on helping them fix the place up and staying on for a while. As they make their entrance, the trio find a strange but seemingly friendly girl named Emily (Mariclare Costello) squatting on the property. They befriend her, letting her stay in the house, and she later causes sexual tensions between both men, grows weirder by the minute and nearly drowns Jessica in the lake at one point. As Jessica hears strange voices in her head, repeatedly sees the image of a ghost-like girl (Gretchen Corbett) and discovers a murdered corpse under a waterfall which suddenly disappears, her belief that Emily is the menacing spirit of Abigail Bishop -- a bride who had drowned in the lake in 1880 -- is not taken seriously by her companions, and might just all be part of a fresh mental breakdown.

Owing (if not intentionally) to films like CARNIVAL OF SOULS and NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, LET’S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH’s script (written by director Hancock and Lee Kalcheim) tends to toss logic out the window, but at least its imaginative and creates two very intense and indifferent female characters, and the film never piles up the would-be clichés, despite embracing themes of vampirism, ghosts, zombies and haunted houses. The sense of decay and isolation, set in an otherwise rural and appetizingly peaceful Connecticut, creates one of the most haunting backdrops for a film of this sort, as does the farm house which need do nothing more than look crumbled and antique to provide a feeling of unease. Add such subtle touches as our protagonists entering town in a used hearse, a community inhabited by grumpy old men bearing bandages on various parts of their bodies, an understated but undeniably creepy score by Orville Stoeber with bizarre electronic noises by Walter E. Sear and some inventive shocks enhanced by moody cinematography, and you have to wonder why Hancock (BANG THE DRUM SLOWLY, WEEDS) hasn’t revisited the genre since!

An accomplished New York-born stage and screen actress, Zohra Lampert (probably best known to the general public as a onetime Goya TV spokeswoman) gives an exceptional performance as Jessica, the kind not found in your typical horror film. She portrays a fragile, vulnerable character obsessed with death (her hobby is etching old tombstones), who is constantly out to prove to herself (and others around her) that she is sane, or is seen overcoming obstacles to bring out her inner happiness, and the expressiveness that Lampert brings to Jess is further amplified as she constantly talks to herself, as well as narrates the story in flashback. As the mysterious Emily, Mariclare Costello plays the character as a sort of hippy chick who fits in perfectly with the bohemian sensibilities of her friendly but naive hosts. She's a pale-skinned yet fiery redhead who’s attractively offbeat enough to allure men in timeless vamp fashion. The image of an undead Emily rising from a lake is one that will linger in your consciousness for years to come.

Out of print on home video for quite some time, LET’S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH is a title that has been highly demanded on DVD for some time now. Paramount has finally granted our wishes with an anamorphically enhanced widescreen transfer, preserving the film's original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. Obviously struck from the original materials, the image detail is sharp, with colors mostly coming across as bright and vivid. Black levels are deep and well defined, and fleshtones appear natural. Nothing drastic in the form of excessive grain or blemishes: this is an excellent, fresh-looking transfer of a 35-year-old film. The English mono audio is sufficient, with clear dialog and music. Optional English subtitles are also included.

Paramount has released this title as a barebones affair, so there's not even a trailer. I would have loved to hear a commentary with director Hancock or actresses Lampert and Costello (the male leads have since passed on) to get some background on the film. Although it was originally rated PG when it played in theaters, the DVD has been re-rated PG-13 “for terror/violence and some sensuality,” but it’s still pretty tame and more suggestive than sensational. (George R. Reis)

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