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Let's Scare Jessica to Death
DirectorJohn D. Hancock
Release Date(s)1971 (August 27, 2013)
Studio(s)Paramount (Warner Archive)
The unreliable narrator has been a mainstay of horror fiction since the genre’s very beginnings. Writers like Poe and Lovecraft were masters at using the device. They realized there’s very little that’s scarier than the slowly dawning realization that the person you’ve been talking to is completely insane.
Movies have had a harder time with the unreliable narrator. A lot of filmmakers will try to make the audience wonder if something really supernatural is going on or if it’s all in the main character’s head. But very few actually commit to the idea, usually copping out with some big effect that makes it obvious to everybody that it really is paranormal activity. The underrated Let’s Scare Jessica to Death is one of the few movies to successfully play the is-it-or-isn’t-it-real game.
Zohra Lampert plays Jessica, recently released from an extended stay in a mental hospital following a nervous breakdown. To help in her recovery, her husband Duncan (Barton Heyman) quits his job as a prominent musician in New York, spends their life savings on an old country farm and relocates with the intention of starting an apple-growing business with his friend Woody (Kevin O’Connor). But as soon as they arrive, Jessica starts seeing things and hearing voices again. Complicating matters further, their new home already has a tenant: a squatter named Emily (Mariclare Costello) who bears an uncanny resemblance to a girl who died there generations ago.
Director John Hancock makes great use of the foggy New England landscape and autumnal colors. The movie is filled with a sense of foreboding and doom from the onset with several macabre details thrown in for good measure. Jessica and Duncan drive an old hearse. Jessica’s favorite hobby is making gravestone rubbings. The extremely unfriendly locals are all mysteriously bandaged or infirm. All of these details contribute to the movie’s weird, otherworldly feel.
But the key to Jessica’s success is Zohra Lampert’s remarkable performance. Lampert spends much of the movie with a forced grin on her face that often seems totally inappropriate. Eventually, you realize that the smile is a façade that says, “I’m normal, I’m happy, everything’s fine.” Of course, none of that is remotely true. The movie relies heavily on Jessica’s voice-over, something that would ordinarily drive me crazy but here it works. That’s because she isn’t narrating her story. We’re hearing her own inner monologue, seamlessly woven in with the voices in her head. It’s unsettling and only deepens the gap between reality and Jessica’s fractured psyche.
Originally released on DVD by Paramount back in 2006, Jessica is now back in print on MOD from Warner Archive. The disc is identical to the previous release with a very good 16x9 enhanced widescreen picture and acceptable mono sound. There are no extra features, not even a trailer. Too bad. It’d be nice to learn a bit about the movie’s origins.
Let’s Scare Jessica to Death isn’t a perfect movie although it certainly deserves its cult reputation. It’s a moody, atmospheric thriller that knows the value of restraint. In the world of Oktoberfest, that is indeed a rare and precious commodity.
- Dr. Adam Jahnke
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