November 2, 2017
The seventies were one of the coolest decades in horror history. There were slashers, occult movies, vampire flicks, psychological thrillers, and old-fashioned ghost stories. And sometimes, as in the 1971 classic Let’s Scare Jessica to Death, there’s a lot of subgenre overlap.
Let’s Scare Jessica to Death is about a woman, of course named Jessica (The Exorcist III’s Zohra Lambert), who leaves the bustling chaos of New York City after a stint in a mental institution. Along with her husband Duncan (The Exorcist’s Barton Heyman) and their friend Woody (Kevin O’Connor from Special Effects), Jessica purchases a beautiful lake house on a farm in New England. When they arrive, they discover a young woman named Emily (Mariclare Costello from Nightmares) squatting there. She’s friendly enough, so Jessica and the gang agree to let her stay, but as they are clearing out the house, they discover it has a dark past in which a girl named Abigail Bishop drowned in the lake and now is rumored to roam the countryside as a vampire, looking for victims. To make matters worse, Jessica keeps seeing the vision of an enigmatic mute girl (Gretchen Corbett from Jaws of Satan) wandering the property who seems to be trying to tell her something. And then, of course, there’s the distinct possibility that Jessica is still crazy and everything is just in her head.
Just like seemingly every movie that has a female vampire (The Vampire Lovers, Blood and Roses), Let’s Scare Jessica to Death gives a story credit to “Carmilla” by Sheridan Le Fanu. Although the screenplay is credited to Norman Jonas and Ralph Rose, it was actually written by Lee Kalcheim (Blood of the Iron Maiden) and John Hancock (Bang the Drum Slowly, Suspended Animation), with Hancock also directing (under his real name). Let’s Scare Jessica to Death has a very drawn out and deliberate pacing similar to what is known by today’s standard as “slow burn.” It’s a mature horror movie, not for amateurs, but packs a real punch for those viewers who are patient enough to stick with it.
There’s a fun mish-mash of horror happening in Let’s Scare Jessica to Death. On the surface, it’s a ghost story along the lines of Burnt Offerings and The Haunting of Julia. But Jessica’s history of mental illness steers the films into psychological thriller territory à la Don’t Look Now and Magic. Once the bodies start piling up, it’s reminiscent of a slasher movie like Halloween or Black Christmas. There’s the quirky vampire aspect that is right out of Martin or Salem’s Lot. When the rest of the town gets involved, the Stepford-esque crowd scenes echo The Wicker Man or The Sentinel. And finally, because there’s a Sheridan Le Fanu/Camilla influence, there’s a slight lesbian experimentation angle along the lines of The Haunting or The Vampire Lovers that is explored between Jessica and Emily. There’s a little of everything in Let’s Scare Jessica to Death.
Let’s Scare Jessica to Death was shot on location in New England by cinematographer Robert M. Baldwin (Frankenhooker, Basket Case 2). The authentic location plays an additional character in the movie, not only the house, but the attached farm and the adjacent lake as well. When the film crew first arrived at the farm, a passing storm covered the property in fog, so Baldwin and his team quickly captured all of the establishing shots of the house right then as it was shrouded in mist, an effect which adds to the mansion’s mystique. All of the photography has a soft focus look to it, giving it a very “seventies” vibe which plays well to the ambiguity of the events – is it real, or does the whole movie occur within the clouded mind of Jessica? The cinematography doesn’t tip the scales either way.
There are two different facets of the musical score to Let’s Scare Jessica to Death, and both are extremely important to the movie. On the one side, there are a number of simple-yet-ominous instrumental pieces composed by Orville Stoeber (Weeds, The Looking Glass) that include classic instruments like guitars, pianos, and harpsichords. Stoeber also contributes a folk song that is performed by Emily (on guitar and vocals) and Duncan (on cello) in the dining room of the home. The other half of the score is a bunch of spooky synthesizer stuff that is done by Robert Moog disciple Walter E. Sear (Prime Evil, Blood Sisters), eerie soundwave stuff that is a little more horror-centric. Together, the music sounds like a mashup of the soundtracks to The Wicker Man and The Shining.
The sound design of Joe Ryan (The Swap) plays a significant role in the effectiveness of Let’s Scare Jessica to Death as well. Some of it relies on musical jabs, like the spooky Moog stings (“wawawawawaw…”) or the campy punctuating accents (“Hi, I’m Emily” - guitar BRAAANNGGG!). But the biggest contribution of the sound to the overall film is the manufactured paranoia, the squeaks and creaks, the haunting echoes and wind-swept silences, the creepy whispered voices that put the audience right inside of Jessica’s head. In a movie that has the lead character questioning her sanity, Ryan’s sound work goes a long way towards illustrating her insecurity.
Let’s Scare Jessica to Death is one of those movies that everyone has heard of, but many may not have seen. It’s worth checking off the list, because there’s enough going on in the movie to satisfy each and every different type of horror fan.