An old friend introduced me to Let's Scare Jessica to Death a few years back and I'm forever grateful. It's so hard to sift through the plethora of low budget 70's and 80's horror films to find the real gems, and this one is certainly a gem. We re-watched it last night (thank you Netflix) and although (like a lot of horror movies) it had slightly less impact on second viewing, it still stands up as an odd, interesting and?special movie.
A husband, his wife and their good friend are heading north to a new start far away from the city after purchasing “the old Bishop house” . What they're fleeing seems to be the wife Jessica's inner demons. There's an implied stay at a hospital, former uncontrollable fears, and possible hallucinations (or are they?!), and all those pesky little voices in her head. Almost a constant in the soundtrack, the whispery voices tell her to look at the “Blood, blood, it's blood, Jessica!” during a meal or warn her not to tell the men about the visions she's having, “They'll think you're crazy”.
There's a genuine creepiness throughout the movie and, before long, you'll wonder if you're seeing the world through the eyes or Jessica or if things in this town truly are very, very wrong. For example: the local yokels, all old men covered with suspicious bandages, are more than unfriendly, they harass the newcomers subtly, like a gang of angry teens, messing with their car and refusing to back down from blocking their way. This scene, and many others like it, are what make the film so great.
There's a near constant dread that manifests itself in unusual ways and yet through it all, you're not sure if Jessica is just insane and none of it is real. Of course, the fear of insanity is just as real as the fear of a local vampire, townie conspiracies, or any of the other visions and stories that Jessica believes. The movie shares that “may or may not be” horror with one of my favorite movies of all time, Martin, where a young man, who is most certainly killing women, may or may not be a vampire.
The center of the movie is the extraordinary performance by Zohra Lampert as Jessica. Never has a frail and possibly insane woman been portrayed better. The performance, which hits pitch perfect notes of eccentricity and vulnerability, made me wonder if director John D. Hancock (Bang the Drum Slowly) just lucked out an exploited a genuinely crazy lady to act like herself (she's not in too much else, though she was nominated for a Tony twice and won an Emmy for an episode of Kojak)
The movie looks great, all haze and saturation and it's shot more artily than you'd expect, it seems that Rosemary's Baby had a positive influence. It's a horror movie on the subtle brink of insanity that takes itself seriously despite a low budget; though some folks may consider it little more than standard issue 70's “cheese”. I truly believe that in some alternate world, this could be considered a horror classic great–but I'm also aware that some of you may watch this and think that I'm just as insane as Jessica. (Or am I?!)