The start of the seventies was a very weird time for horror. The peace and love of the hippie generation, the grim violence of Charles Manson and the Vietnam war and,of course, the modernity of Night of the Living Dead were all having their effect on the genre. Whilst Britain and much of Europe were still under the delusion that audiences continued to want gothic horror, America embraced the new approach. It wasn’t until The Exorcist and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre arrived fully formed that the way forward was set, but in the meantime smaller films were making tentative steps towards the modern horror we know and love now. They also had some wild titles, which ranged from the vague Last House on the Left to the bizarre Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things. Let’s scare Jessica To Death certainly had one of the best titles around, but the title is also the best thing about the film.
That’s not to say the film is bad in anyway. Stephen King in Danse Macabre claimed this was one of the best horror movies ever made, and maybe at the time it was, but time has not been that kind to Let’s Scare Jessica to Death.
You can feel the end of an era from the opening of the film. Jessica with her husband Duncan and his best mate Woody are moving away from the wild and crazy life of 1960s New york to the quiet countryside of Connecticut. This is because Jessica has just spent six months in a mental asylum, but it could also be said that she has just spent the last few years as part of the flower power movement. She is fragile from her mental instability, but then when the sixties was ended and the drugs changed so many people were left damaged. Not that this is explicitly stated, I’m just putting together a time and a lifestyle. Its never said how Jessica ended up in an institution but the mood is there: the mood suggesting that the party was over, and there were only ruined lives left behind.
Jessica, Duncan and Woody arrive at their new house to find a homeless girl living there. Unable to cast her out they invite her to stay a while, and over the next hour and a half Jessica gradually starts falling apart through visions, paranoia and jealousy. It doesn’t help that:
1) All the locals are classic cliche old men who hate folks from the city type.
2) Our heroes drive a hurst “‘cus it’s cheaper than a station wagon”, not sure if that’s true but at least you can fit Jessica in the back… where the bodies go!
3) The girl, know only as The Girl, looks uncannily like a photo they find in the attic from 1850.
4) The house is in the middle of nowhere, is surrounded by fog much of the time and is as scary as shit.
Also, Jessica loves to make charcoal rubbings of gravestone and hang them up in her bedroom. This seems somewhat foolish for someone teetering on the brink. I mean, she has voices in her head pretty much all of the time and she’s not sure whether to listen to them or not. Don’t have images of gravestones with crazy monkey faces on them to give a picture to the voices too.
Anyway, the film’s pace isn’t the fastest ever, but it does have a dreamlike quality about it, helped no end by a weird soundtrack from a lunatic, brilliantly called Orville Stoeber. Its less music than an aural soundscape from a bad acid trip. It’s definitely of its time, as if Sid Barrett had been charged with writing The Wicker Man soundtrack, all electronic warbles and clanging chimes.
The acting is also of its time. There’s a free-wheeling casualness about how people chat to each other, breaking into giggles for no reason, or stroking each other’s hair as if the pills have just kicked in. I can’t say that it ever comes as bad acting, more like non acting, as if the performers are just going with the flow of it all. Zohra Lampert has the toughest time of it though, she’s in virtually every shot and has to keep up this natural style while also trying not to fall apart as the visions and mystery intensify. She’s pretty likable in a weird kind of way, which is lucky because Barton Heyman as her husband is a massive dick. It’s not that his acting is bad or anything, its perfectly fine, i actually think I took umbrage to his massive head. Look at it, it’s vast:
Maybe the sideburns are framing his head all wrong but the guy freaked me out every time he was on screen. Also, he’s not a very nice character. What the hell is Jessica doing with him anyway? He’s got no morals at all, flirting with The Girl in front of his wife. Maybe it’s HIM who’s driven Jessica mad with his cold heart and shiny scalp.
The Girl is another matter. Again, she could be a survivor of the sixties, but she is much harder to get a handle on. In some ways she may seem like a free spirited, free loving hippie but Gretchen Corbett invests The Girl with an unknowable quality where she can manipulate the men at one point and seem like Jessica’s best friend the next. But all the time, she can never be fully trusted or fully understood.
This is much like the film itself. While it mostly acts like what is happening to Jessica is real, we are only seeing things from her point of view, and even that is questionable. By the end I felt we had some answers, even if Jessica didn’t. But what I didn’t have was quite the fear factor Stephen King saw back when the movie came out. I’m sure it felt fresh and original at the time, even if the story is in many ways an old fashioned horror tale, but now it feels just a bit old and dated. However, it’s worth a look if you’ve taken some cheap acid and are sitting next to a chap with a massive forehead.