Let’s Scare Jessica To Death (1971) | 31 Days of Horror: Oct 21

by Jovial Jay

Maybe some nice flowers or a bottle of wine might be more appropriate.

Let’s Scare Jessica To Death is a haunting tale which will leave you guessing as to the true nature of its reality as it provides a melancholy look at mental health, perception, and point of view.

Before Viewing

It’s hard to tell what this movie is exactly, but from the title and the trailer it appears to be about some people trying to scare Jessica, to death! Is it a fake out film like April Fool’s Day? A number of characters all have cuts on their neck and there’s a ghostly drowned (?) woman trying to bite Jessica. What is going on? Never having seen this i’m intrigued if it’s true horror or just an exploitation film from the 70s.

Presented below is the trailer for the film.

Spoiler Warning - Halloween

Let's Scare Jessica To Death

Let’s Scare Jessica To Death title card.

After Viewing

The film opens with a woman sitting in a rowboat narrating that she can no longer tell madness from sanity or nightmares from dreams. The remainder of the film is a flashback. Jessica (Zohra Lampert), arrives in a small town in Connecticut with her husband Duncan (Barton Heyman) and their friend Woody (Kevin O’Connor). Jessica has recently been released from a doctor’s care for an unknown psychological ailment. She sees a woman in white (Gretchen Corbett) in a graveyard–who disappears just as quickly as she appeared–while making an etching of a headstone, but does not tell the men for fear they’ll think she has relapsed.

Duncan has purchased the old Bishop place with the last of his savings, having quit the New York Philharmonic. Woody is coming to help them work in the orchard. When they arrive at the gothic looking mansion they are startled by finding a young woman in the house. Her name is Emily (Mariclare Costello) and she is squatting in the house, thinking it abandoned. They invite her to stay for dinner. They have a séance later, goofing around, but Jessica is unsure if the voices are in her head or not.

The next day they bathe in the cove and Jessica sees a woman in white underwater and freaks out. Duncan tries to calm her down. Jessica starts to notice that Emily seems attracted to Duncan. Later they pack up things around the house to sell. Duncan and Jessica both agree that Emily should stay with them instead of being taken back to town. In the attic, Jessica discovers an old wedding dress and a framed photo of the Bishop family–mother, father and daughter. The daughter bears a striking resemblance to Emily. She and Duncan go to town to find a place to sell the items and are treated poorly by the townies; all older men with bandages on various parts of their bodies.

Let's Scare Jessica To Death

Duncan and Woody wait for Jessica to finish her rubbing of a tombstone before heading to their new house.

They find an antique store run by Sam Dorker (Alan Manson) who offers to buy the furniture, including the picture. He tells them of the Bishop family, and how their daughter Abigail drowned in the cove 100 years ago. Local legend, he says, even tells that Abigail survived and is a vampire. While making etchings later in the local cemetery, Jessica sees the woman in white again who beckons her to follow. Doing so, Jessica finds the dead body of Sam at the bottom of the dam spillover. When she returns shortly with Duncan the body is missing.

They both see the girl in white and stop her, but she appears to be mute and runs away when Emily shows up. Duncan suggests that they should return to New York so Jessica can see her doctor, which starts an argument forcing Duncan to sleep downstairs. The next morning Jessica finds a dead mole that she had kept as a pet as well as the antique photo, returned, and hanging in the attic. Emily suggests a swim and pushes Jessica into the water playfully. Jessica is freaked out at this, hearing more voices. Emily emerges from the cove languidly wearing a white wedding dress and tries to bite Jessica’s neck.

Jessica runs into town and is accosted by a group of old me with weird gashes on their faces or necks. Unable to find Duncan she runs into the woods and collapses. Awakened later by Duncan, the two return home where she discovers a similar wound on him. Emily and the old men appear in the bedroom and accost her. Jessica runs out of the house finding the bodies of the girl in white and Woody, both with their throats slit. When the ferryman won’t take her to the other side of the river she jumps into a rowboat. A hand reaches up for the side and she beats it with a boat hook, realizing too late it was Duncan. His bloody, and dead body floats in the water  On the far shore Emily, again in the white wedding dress, and the old men from town watch Jessica’s breakdown. The narration and imagery from the first shot repeats.

Don’t tell them. They won’t believe you.” – Jessica, in her head

Let's Scare Jessica To Death

The mysterious girl in white that keeps appearing in the woods.

The first film from director John D. Hancock, Let’s Scare Jessica To Death was released at a time when horror films depicted tangible events and monsters. Vampire, monsters, psychopaths and the like were the stars of the day whether in blockbusters or in low-budget releases. And low-budget films usually focused on more carnal pleasures using nudity and sexuality to sell the violence and gore. But Jessica is an anomaly because it does not focus on any of these things. Surprisingly it’s not an exploitation film, but a low-budget film that presents itself as a straightforward shocker. In the end, the plot and any resolution, remain ambiguous and open to interpretation to the audience.

As described above, Jessica has recently been released from some type of psychiatric hospital, where she stayed for six months. Her narration opens the film and presents the events as they are observed. But her veracity as a reliable narrator comes into question immediately. When she sees something, can the audience be sure it’s something that really can be seen? The woman in white appears to Jessica in the graveyard at the opening of the film. Yet when she looks again the woman is gone. Just a trick of the imagination? Or perhaps a ghost?

That’s just one way to look at the film. Even though the strange events seem to lead to a specific narrative, can it really be happening this way? Is Emily really a 100-plus year old vampire who reportedly drowned in 1880? Did antique dealer Sam really get killed and come back to life? Were the townsfolk all in Jessica’s bedroom as Emily tried to slit her throat? Or is perhaps the tale Jessica is telling getting twisted by her perceptions and previous ordeals? The constant voices in her head, telling her to not admit what she saw, or begging her to go, to stop, to ignore, maybe these are proof that Jessica is still not well. Maybe no one died in the film. Maybe it’s all in her head.

Let's Scare Jessica To Death

Jessica questioning why the girl keeps following her. Is she crazy?

And yet again, there are a number of reasons that the situations may be taken at face value. It may be not the face value that there is a young female vampire wandering the woods of Connecticut holding a number of old townies in her sway. But the title may provide another reading. What if Jessica really had been committed and was moving into the country with her husband and friend? Some ex-hippies that still were bonded together. But imagine that Emily is not a squatter/vampiress in the house. Instead she’s the mistress of Duncan who he has set up an elaborate ruse in order to get rid of his wife, and make her feel like she’s crazy. Jessica sees what appears to be Emily kissing Duncan in the car, albeit from the attic window, and not clearly. The townies already were not fans of theirs, and all Duncan would need is to include Sam in his plan (to play dead and also return the portrait after the sale). Unfortunately the finale is where it backfires as Jessica relapses and kills Duncan when he’s trying to get to her in the boat. Other than that, their plan to scare Jessica to death may have worked.

The film’s dreamlike state enhances the aspect of ambiguity and creates an atmosphere of paranoia and manic anxiety. It’s hard to accept the reality of the world after watching the entire film. During this viewing I got vibes of later horror films such as The Blair Witch Project (the feeling of the small town and the possibly haunted woods), Rosemary’s Baby (the potential that Jessica is being gaslighted), and The Haunting (where a psychologically frail woman is put in harm’s way). Whether you choose to believe in the depicted incidents or an alternate explanation, Let’s Scare Jessica to Death is an amazing horror film since it allows for those interpretations.

Let's Scare Jessica To Death

Real of imaginary. Emily who looks like a dead woman or maybe the dead woman herself confronts Jessica on the beach.

Assorted Musings

  • Barton Heyman appeared in The Exorcist as Regan’s doctor, while Zohra Lampert would appear in Exorcist III.
  • Mariclare Costello, who also appears in the horror anthology Nightmares, has a look similar to Beverly D’Angelo, who made her debut in the 1977 horror film The Sentinel.
  • Kevin O’Connor has a bit part in the three-quel It’s Alive III: Island of the Alive.

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