Review Date: October 1, 2006
Released by: Paramount
Release date: 8/29/2006
Region 1, NTSC
Widescreen 1.85:1 | 16x9: Yes
Things changed after The Last House on the Left
. After it horror films were visceral, packed with the intensity and bloodshed that people of the time had been seeing on television as the Vietnam war raged on. Before it, though, was a time of quieter, subtler horror films, where nothing much happened other than a changing of atmosphere. Robert Wise’s incredibly suggestive and subtle The Haunting
remains the mantelpiece for such a horror film, but the little seen but fondly remembered Let’s Scare Jessica to Death
certainly falls into a similar pack. This little 1971 shocker has remained incredibly tough to find on video and even tougher to spot for those who were around when it came out in theaters all those years ago. Paramount, though, after years of petitioning and begging from Jessica’s devout fans, have finally released the film, dolled up with a cover evoking The Exorcism of Emily Rose
(it is no coincidence that one of the main characters also bears the name Emily). The film comes fit for discovery by a new audience, but does Jessica still scare, or will you be bored to death?
“I sit here and I can't believe that it happened. And yet I have to believe it. Dreams or nightmares? Madness or sanity? I don't know which is which.”
The film begins and ends on that line, spoken by the haunted and hurt Jessica (Zohra Lampert
). She was away in a sanitarium for six months, and as a way to escape all the paranoia and claustrophobia of the big city, she, her husband Duncan (Barton Heyman
) and their friend Woody (Kevin O’Connor
) all decide to pack up and move to a new house along the tranquil east coast. The landscape is quiet and beautiful, the bright colors of fall encase the town in a blanket of beauty. Amidst all the beauty however, Jessica continues to be haunted by voices. Whether they are her subconscious or messages from the dead it is unclear to both her and the audience. She tells her husband she sees people lurking in her house and floating dead in the nearby pond, but his weary disregard continues to grow.
Things complicate themselves when a reclusive girl turns up in their new house. “I thought this place was abandoned”, says Emily (Mariclare Costello
), who had decided to make it her home. With a hospitable hippie mentality (the hearse they drive has “Love” written on the door), Jessica and the group decide to let Emily stay with them. Jessica initially thinks the invite to be a new way to make friends, but quickly finds it only contributes further to her mental degradation. Emily flirts first with Woody, but then sets her targets on Duncan – who, in light of Jessica’s insanity, becomes increasingly open to temptation. Jessica witness the open flirtation and becomes increasingly insecure, and allthewhile the voices in her head get louder and more prominent.
While in the attic, Jessica discovers an old picture of the previous home owners. A father, a mother and a daughter, all captured in front of a patch of trees. The daughter looks off to the right, as if a photo was never timeless enough to withhold her. After taking the picture to an antique dealer, the dealer informs Jessica and her husband that the aloof girl in the photo drowned shortly after the photo was taken. Rumor has it that she still lurks around the town as a vampire, and Jessica swears to have seen her floating in the weeds before, but as the opening monologue questions…”madness or sanity, I don’t know which.”
There are elusive films, and then there is Let’s Scare Jessica to Death
. By foregrounding the narrative entirely in the first person through Jessica, the film never reveals anything more than is revealed to the titular protagonist. She hasn’t a clue what is going on and the audience is always in the same boat (literally, at the end). The film is gutsy in the way it never strays from the subtle insanity of its main character, torturing the audience with voices and incoherent sightings. Even The Haunting
¸ as subtle as it is, offered the catharsis of confronting the ghosts and coming to terms with the forces in the house. Jessica
by comparison though, never builds to any sort of climax. The plot develops somewhat, but the action never rises. It is an 88-minute bought of insanity, a burn as slow as the tide in Jessica’s quiet little lake.
In concept, what director John Hancock has constructed is an incredibly subjective and elusive film. A film that begs not to be understood and instead to beg the audience to question their own ability to reason and understand their surroundings. In the way the film just sort of lingers without happening, it almost forces the audience to look in on themselves, like a metaphysical lake where one’s reflection says more about the person than the person itself. Yet, in execution, Hancock falters with his actors, with Lampert’s central performance even more claustrophobic than her own character. In a close-up she is crying, but in the medium shot she is smiling. In one scene she is happy, and the next she is befit by sadness, even though nothing on screen has happened. For a film so anchored in with its main character, when the performance is as inconsistent as Lampert’s there is really nothing left to latch on to.
Coming out the same year was Robert Altman’s superior Images
, which tackled vastly similar subject matter with much more poise and craft. It too was foregrounded in the wavering sanity of a central female protagonist alone in a wooded rural area and doubting the devotion of her husband. Susannah York though, in the main role, could handle such a subjective and emotional undertaking. Lampert, while effective in many scenes, seems ill prepared for the fragmented discontinuous shooting schedules that come with making movies.
The film is slow, and deliberately so, but the payoffs are so scattered and subtle that the film is a bunch of little tingles instead of climaxing with a big O. Hancock would go on to master the craft of elusive, unassuming cinema with his apprenticeship at Paramount, after following up the film with the similarly unsatisfying early De Niro vehicle, Bang the Drum Slowly
. But where Bang the Drum just sort of piddled in studio mediocrity, Let’s Scare Jessica to Death at least clung to some sort of experimental independence. The sound design by Orville Stoeber, consisting of early synthesizer chords and atmospheric echoing and distorting of dialogue and sound effects, is easily one of the most unshakable and unnerving soundtracks to grace the understated side of horror.
Let’s Scare Jessica to Death
, while a mixed bag of slow stagnancy and amateur performances, has certainly earned its spot on the mantle of cult films. There are few films as elusive and even fewer as subjective, and for the bold the unflinching atmosphere of the film will continue to register as a rare and unique part of horror cinema. I’m on the fence here, questioning the good and the bad of the film as much as Jessica does her madness and her sanity. The intent of the film may be more effective than the finished product, but there are still many aspects of the film that linger. Consider this review mixed, but the film has lingered on in my mind, just as it continues to do with the many cult fans who will stand by the film like vampires to a virgin.
Paramount has been out of the count for sometime after taking last year off from any sort of horror releases, but with Let’s Scare Jessica to Death they remind us just how important they are to have around. Their transfer here of the film, anamorphic and in 1.85:1, looks absolutely splendid. Colors, such an integral part of the film’s fall atmosphere, register with incredible vibrancy, as the greens of the grass and yellows of the leaves just pop right from the screen. Grain is surprisingly kept to a minimal as well, which is probably the most impressive feat of the disc. There are a few times later in the film that the elements used show their age with some color fading and scratches, but they are intermittent and short-lived. For the most part this transfer is pristine, and for a film with a life as elusive as the story, this transfer really is a wonderful revelation.
If ever I wanted to hear a 5.1 remix, this was it. Orville Stoeber’s sound design packs an amazing punch in the English mono included here, but just imagine the kind of enveloping power it would have in 5.1. Alas, it was not meant to be, but this mono track does the film just fine, and is free of any hissing or distortion.
Remember the days when Paramount was releasing the latter Friday the 13th
entries sans supplements? Well, those days are back. Considering the cult following, it would have been nice to see a commentary or at least an interview with John Hancock or Zhora Lampert. When the film thrives on its ambiguity though, perhaps any discussion of the film would ruin the mystique.
Let’s Scare Jessica to Death
is slow, subjective, and almost without any sort of concrete resolve. It is often frustrating to watch, with amateur performances only adding to the monotony of the film’s lack of plotting. Yet, the sound design creates an incredibly atmospheric mood, and John Hancock’s direction remains one of the most elusive and subtle to ever grace horror. As a narrative experiment it certainly lingers, even if it isn’t entirely successful. Paramount’s handling of the visual transfer, though, is a complete success. The bizarre sound design comes through very well on this mix too. There isn’t a single extra on this disc, but for those seeking out the underbelly of cult cinema, this elusive little ditty will certainly leave you with plenty to contemplate, good and bad.
Movie - C+
Image Quality - A-
Sound - B
Supplements - N/A
- Running time - 1 hour 28 minutes
- Rated PG-13
- 1 Disc
- Chapter Stops
- English mono
- English subtitles