Classic Corner: Let’s Scare Jessica to Death

When we talk about the influence of Halloween, it’s important to understand exactly what that means. Even as something of a horror amateur (at least compared to the encyclopedic horror fans I’m lucky enough to read, know, and even edit) I always parroted that conventional wisdom that John Carpenter’s 1978 masterpiece – a film I genuinely consider one of my all-time favorites – had radically altered the horror landscape, its massive commercial success prompting a tidal wave of imitators. Those films, I understood, copied its elegantly simple premise (mysterious, masked killer, plucks off attractive young people one by one), stripped it of its craftsmanship, cranked up the gore, and – for a time, anyway – made a mint, because you could make those movies cheap, and their young target audience went to see them whether they were good or not.

As time has passed, I’ve come to understand this as an oversimplification; some of the ‘80s slasher movies are quite well-crafted, and even many of those that aren’t offer their own kind of sleazy pleasures. But what I never truly understood, as an A/B/C cause-and-effect situation, is what was lost in horror cinema when the slasher took over. That loss has been clarified, for this viewer anyway, by the excellent “’70s Horror” program that The Criterion Channel has run this month – a selection filled with films where scares and even shocks are secondary to mood, tension, and emotional unease.

Take, for example, John D. Hancock’s 1971 psychological thriller “Let’s Scare Jessica to Death.” This viewer had heard the title over the years, and had always assumed it to be some kind of slasher-adjacent something-or-other – something akin to all those ‘80s prank-gone-awry movies, perhaps. And its opening scene seems to confirm that suspicion – a solitary figure, alone in a boat on a lake, a tableau not unlike an early “Friday the 13th” movie. But the mood is immediately somber, mournful even, and the woman’s voice-over is hesitant and frightened: “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.”

Hancock will return to this moment at the end of the picture; for now, we get an old-school ripple effect, and he takes us back to what led the woman in the boat to that moment. This is Jessica (Zohra Lampert), and she’s fresh out of the mental hospital, but feeling good about it: “For the first time in months I’m free,” she says. “Forget the doctors. Forget that place. I’m okay now. I’ll start over.” But she sounds like she’s talking herself into it, and it turns out she is; Jessica is haunted by nightmare visions and creepy whispers, as well as her own, self-flagellating internal monologues. She sees and hears these things, and reminds herself, “Don’t tell them. Act normal… They won’t believe you.”

The “they” in question are her husband Duncan (Barton Heyman) and their friend Woody (Kevin O’Connor); we meet them en route to their new home out in nowheresville, Connecticut, which will theoretically provide a more calming environment for Jessica than their previous home of New York City. But when they arrive at “the old Bishop place,” they find Emily (Mariclare Costello), a free-spirited young woman who has been helping herself to a bedroom. “We must have scared you as much as you scared us,” chuckles Jessica, ever accommodating. This is where it’s worth reiterating that Let’s Scare Jessica to Death was released in 1971, the post-Manson world, in which a hippie squatter in an Army jacket was as terrifying as a man in a hockey mask a decade later. But Jessica et. al. apparently subscribe to a pre-Manson spirit, welcoming her to stay for dinner and then (even though she suggests a post-meal séance, an 86-able offense if there ever was one) to stay in the house for a while.

Unsurprisingly this doesn’t turn out to be the greatest idea. Free Love-era sexual dynamics abound, as Emily makes like the girl in The Lickerish Quartet, and Jessica starts eyeballing the pictures in the attic. She learns the story of Abigail Bishop, the young woman who once inhabited the house and drowned in the lake it faces; “Legend is that she’s still alive, is a vampire,” explains the local antique shop owner. “Roams the country!” Is Jessica seeing her in the woods? Does she see her body in the bottom of the lake? Is that who’s whispering “Come to me” into her ear?

These supernatural overtones are what give the picture its genre bona fides, but the real subject of Let’s Scare Jessica to Death is the degree to which women are expected to go along with pretty much anything, to be polite. Jessica’s husband and buddy infantilize her, they barely conceal their efforts to seduce this woman who’s crashing her recovery, and all Jessica can do in response is smile painfully and take it. She’s cheerful, trying so hard to be upbeat, but her running monologue betrays the trouble she’s having, the degree to which she’s trying to cope, trying to keep it together, and slowly losing her tenuous grip. The voices are relentless – “You want to die, go on, you want to die” – and in that pushiness, and the degree to which Hancock puts you in her head to hear it, the film admirably nails a very specific kind of unrelenting mental illness.

And thus much of the picture’s effectiveness is due to the skill of Lampert’s performance, which, in its own quiet way, deserves comparison with Gena Rowlands’s work in A Woman Under the Influence. In fact, the generally grounded and lived-in performances, coupled with the no-frills, naturalistic style, recall the general aesthetic and approach of Cassavetes’s ‘70s films, and it works; they play it so straight that the horror, when it comes, is more harrowing.

But there are all kinds of ‘70s horror movies in the Criterion Channel’s selections that work in similar ways – where the filmmakers aren’t aiming for the momentary jolt of a “scare,” but a 90-minute experience of discomfort and terror. When a contemporary film (your Hereditarys or The Witches) attempts something like this, it’s hailed as a ground-breaking game-changer, which has less to do with the (typically) high quality of those films than the extent to which our understanding and definition of horror has been limited, if not broken entirely. But there are all kinds of horror to explore onscreen, and as Let’s Scare Jessica to Death exquisitely reminds us, not all of them are external in origin.  

Jason Bailey is a film critic and historian, and the author of five books. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Playlist, Vanity Fair, Vulture, Rolling Stone, Slate, and more. He is the co-host of the podcast "A Very Good Year."

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