Sunday, October 30, 2016

31 Days of Horror- Day 30: Let’s Scare Jessica to Death (1971)

(dir. John D. Hancock)

Paramount Pictures
*First time viewing

Jessica, recently released from a mental institution, moves to an island farmhouse with her husband and their mutual friend, only to find a mysterious woman already occupying the house…and perhaps the very town itself.

Let’s Scare Jessica to Death is a frayed nerved ending of a film and I loved every minute of it. Despite a title reminiscent of a C-level 80s slasher movie, Hancock’s film is a haunting portrait of mental illness with a supernatural tinge. In many ways, it can be seen as the forebearer to the indie horror circuit today with their focus on interpersonal relationships, subdued horror, sense of dread, and ambiguity. Hancock’s film is far ahead of its time and completely unlike its contemporaries, so much so that it’s almost jarring how modern it feels in the midst of its early 70s trappings. Like David Robert Mitchell or Jennifer Kent, Hancock was not a horror director and Let’s Scare Jessica to Death was his only film in the genre. As a result, this film’s horror is unique and powerful, driven by a specific vision instead of catering to a demand or fad.

Zohra Lampert’s performance as Jessica is remarkable (she’s also very reminiscent of Rebecca Hall). The film juxtaposes her inner monologues with her reaction and actions, making for moments of ominous tension. She smiles and laughs while inside she wonders if the others around her see what she sees, if she’s going mad, and if her husband is still in love with her or the strange woman, Emily, that they’ve allowed to reside with them. Stephen King has cited this film as one of his favorites and the contrast between what is said and what is thought is featured prominently through Jack Torrance’s characterization in The Shining. Mariclare Costello is equally captivating as Emily, the woman who plays with the emotions of the house’s occupants and who may also be a vampire of sorts. What’s so great about Let’s Scare Jessica to Death is that so much of the horror could be real or a result of Jessica’s failing mental health, giving every action an extra layer of meaning. The film plays up these moments with jarring moments of music and extreme close-ups that create disorienting effect similar to what Jessica herself must be experiencing. Let’s Scare Jessica to Death isn’t just a film where the story is fascinating but where the production is equally attention-grabbing. The film’s sad, haunting beauty allows for a horror that’s deeply human.

Scare Factor: 4/5 Let’s Scare Jessica to Death is quiet, unnerving horror that feels extremely modern in its vision and lasting effect. It’s perfectly situated to become a new favorite of mine and hopefully a film that will increase in viewership.

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