Though not quite a lost classic, Let's Scare Jessica to Death (1971) is an impressively creepy little horror film, quite good for such a modestly budgeted work with no stars. Its origins are unclear, but it looks like an independent production acquired for release through Paramount. Its small cast of mainly theater types and relative neophyte filmmakers were almost all in their early-30s, and most would go on to mainstream if not especially stellar careers in Hollywood. The film is intelligently made, closer in tone to Don't Look Now and The Wicker Man than the usual horror thriller from the early seventies, and it wisely sticks to the kind of material doable within its budgetary limitations.
The picture also doesn't play down to its audience by allowing its backstory, characters, and plot to unfold gradually so that part of the fun watching it is figuring out what's going on and to whom and why. Jessica (Zohra Lampert), an ordinary young woman in her early 30s, has recently been released from some kind of mental hospital to spouse Duncan's (Barton Heyman) care after six months of treatment. As the film opens the couple has left the Big City behind, Duncan sinking his savings into an old farmhouse in rural Connecticut where he plans to grow apples. Joining them is Duncan's best friend, Woody (Kevin O'Connor, not to be confused with genre director Kevin Connor), who's undecided about whether he wants to stay with the couple in their big house and help out on the farm.
Before they even reach their new home, there are ambiguous signs that all is not well. Jessica spots the willowy figure of a woman in white (Gretchen Corbett, later Beth the lawyer on The Rockford Files) who may or may not be a ghost, while the old fogies that populate their newly-adopted small town are anything but friendly to the cheese-and-wine-type young upstarts. Jessica, already beginning to think that she may be starting to hallucinate again, is startled to find someone already in the empty farmhouse, but Duncan and Woody see her, too. She turns out to be Emily (Mariclare Costello), a free-spirited squatter. Feeling sorry for her, Jessica invites her to join them for dinner and stay the night. That night, Jessica senses that Woody is attracted to the apparently homeless woman.
This invitation eventually is extended indefinitely, despite the fact that Emily is overly-affectionate toward Duncan and he does little to dissuade her. Meanwhile, Jessica's shaky confidence about her mental state rapidly disintegrates.
That's the set-up - to reveal more would spoil the film's surprises except to say that attentive viewers will be able to spot pointed clues throughout: John D. Hancock (who also directed) and Lee Kalcheim's script subtly foreshadows what's to come.
Overall in fact Let's Scare Jessica to Death is a lot subtler than its title (imposed upon it by Paramount?) would suggest. The creepy old men in the nearby village reminded this reviewer of Philip Kaufman's suggestive approach to the body-snatched San Franciscans in his wonderfully paranoia-fed Invasion of the Body Snatchers remake, while the scenes at the farmhouse are directed in the less-is-more style of the Val Lewton-produced horror films for RKO in the '40s, with some ideas lifted perhaps directly from Lewton-protegee Robert Wise's The Haunting (1963).
In all departments the film is above average. Orville Stoeber's (Weeds) low-key score is orchestrated in such a way as to avoid genre cliches, and Robert M. Baldwin's (The Exterminator) cinematography is exceptionally good for a low-budget film - it's appropriately dream-like, at types almost hypnotic. (The story is told by Jessica in flashbacks, with her seated in a rowboat, her back to the camera - an opening amusingly almost identical to Fred Zinnemann's Julia, filmed six years later.)
The performances are naturalistic and serve the film well. Star Zohra Lampert had been around since the late-1950s and flirted with character stardom after a few showy parts in movies like Splendor in the Grass and TV shows like The Defenders and Naked City but never quite got the breaks she deserved. (After Jessica, she was memorable as the prostitute who tries to seduce psychologist Bob Hartley on The Bob Newhart Show.) Gretchen Corbett is probably more familiar to audiences for her semi-regular role on The Rockford Files; she makes the most of a non-speaking role.
Video & Audio
Let's Scare Jessica to Death is presented in 16:9 format at 1.77:1, approximating its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The no-frills disc (Play, Set Up, and Scene Selection are the only menu options) offers a strong image with good color and contrast, and virtually no age related wear or damage. Originally rated GP, the film was rated PG-13 but no cuts have been made. The English mono sound is adequate; optional English subtitles are offered, but not French or Spanish. There are no Extra Features.
Let's Scare Jessica to Death demonstrates what can be achieved for very little money. The picture probably cost less than $400,000 to produce but delivers the goods without resorting to cheap shock effects. It's an intelligent little gem.
Film historian Stuart Galbraith IV's most recent essays appear in Criterion's new three-disc Seven Samurai DVD and BCI Eclipse's The Quiet Duel.