LET'S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH (OCTOBER 11TH)
YOU'VE GOT RED ON YOU TAKES PART IN THE 31 DAYS OF HALLOWEEN CHALLENGE; WATCHING ONE HORROR MOVIE A DAY THROUGHOUT OCTOBER. SOME OF THEM OLD, SOME OF THEM NEW, SOME OF THEM HAVE JUST BEEN ON OUR SHELVES FOR YEARS GATHERING DUST, STILL IN CELLOPHANE...
I threw a couple of suggestions out to social media today to help make my decision about what to watch and off the back of a couple of recommendations, I plumped for a film that is considered a bit of a hidden gem amongst some quarters - Let's Scare Jessica to Death (1971).
It's one of those that, at the time, didn't make any great waves among cinemagoers or critics. Audiences in the early 70's were beginning to develop a taste for horror films that offered extreme thrills - more blood, more guts and more controversy. Let's Scare Jessica to Death was never a film that was going to connect with that crowd - but has since achieved a new level of appreciation from modern horror fans.
The film is more or less a modern reimagining of a story that was written 100 years previously by Le Fanu called Camille. In this updated version, A young woman named Jessica has just been released from a mental institution and we join her as she travels with her husband Duncan and their mutual friend Woody to start a new life on an island off Connecticut. Things get off to a rocky start however as they aren't exactly welcomed by the locals and once at their new farmhouse, they discover that a woman called Emily has been squatting there. Despite the fact she's a little weird, they invite her to stay for the evening. However, unbeknownst the rest of the group, Jessica has been seeing and hearing things that suggest that her release from care may have been premature. She initially tries to keep it to herself for fear of worrying the rest of the group but when something tries to grab her during a swim in a nearby lake, she relents. However, will they believe her? And is what she seeing and hearing even real anyway?
I have to say, this is a film that got under my skin a little. It may not be as full-on and severe as a lot of other films from that era of horror, however that's one of the reasons why I liked it. Blood and guts are fun and all but horror that is more understated and subtle, that builds a creeping sense of dread, that's more my bag, generally speaking.
In the opening scene, Jessica charges around a graveyard making gravestone 'rubbings' like an excited child. Her joy is tempered by the sound of voices in her head, quickly followed by the vision of a girl in a night dress. It's unsettling stuff and very well done. In fact, it's these moments where we focus on Jessica's sanity that are the most troubling and effective. The concept of 'losing your mind' is as much of an antagonist as anything else the story presents. 'Don't tell them, act normal' Jessica tells herself. And it's this internal struggle that is really affecting. When she sees something untoward or hears a voice inside her head, she's understandably reluctant to share the news with anyone. Makes sense. The fear or being re-admitted is a very real threat. The slow moving yet purposeful pacing of the story and the murky visuals only add to the atmosphere too. The New England setting is perfect, as is the house within which most of the story plays out. It's an ominous, haunted looking building, reminiscent of another famous haunted house (*cough Amityville)
The actress who plays Jessica (Zohra Lampert) does well too. It can't be easy to play the part of someone who is aware that they could be going mad. She manages to mix an intense fragility with a sense of innocence and joy, which makes her journey even more tough to watch. Mariclare Costello is also quietly effective as the witchy squatter who gradually becomes less mysterious and more sinister as the film goes on. There's something dark about her that you can't quite put your finger on. Thankfully we do find out her secret (in a frenetic final act) but again, by the end, you still aren't 100% sure if what you have witnessed has actually happened.
This ending will undoubtedly have deflated some viewers however it's quite a fitting end to such an ambiguously unsettling movie. I have since gone over certain scenes and parts of the story in my head to try and reach my own conclusion as to what really happened - but I haven't settled on anything yet. However, I'm fine with that.