Let's Scare Jessica to Death
|Let's Scare Jessica to Death|
Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||John Hancock|
|Music by||Orville Stoeber|
|Cinematography||Robert M. Baldwin|
|Edited by||Murray Solomon|
The Jessica Company
|Distributed by||Paramount Pictures|
|Box office||$47,651 (opening week)|
Let's Scare Jessica to Death is a 1971 American psychological horror film co-written and directed by John Hancock in his directorial debut, and starring Zohra Lampert, Barton Heyman, Gretchen Corbett, and Mariclare Costello. The film depicts the nightmarish experiences of a psychologically fragile woman who comes to believe that a woman she has let into her home may be a vampire.
Initially conceived by writer Lee Kalcheim as a satirical horror film about a group of hippies preyed upon by a monster in a lake, the screenplay was significantly reworked after director Hancock signed on to the project. Hancock took certain elements from Kalcheim's script, but opted to write a straightforward horror film set at a remote farmhouse. Inspired by the psychological implications of such novels as The Turn of the Screw, and Robert Wise's film The Haunting (1963), Hancock centered the screenplay on a protagonist whose credibility interpreting events could be questioned by the audience. Filming of Let's Scare Jessica to Death took place in various towns and villages in Connecticut, largely in Middlesex County.
Though completed without a distributor, the film was purchased by Paramount Pictures, who gave it a wide release in the United States in late August 1971. The film received middling reviews from critics at the time, with some remarking the atmosphere and performances, while others criticized the sparse and ambiguous narrative. Though criticism of the film has been divided, it went on to attain a cult following, and some film scholars have drawn comparisons to Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu's novel Carmilla (1871). In 2006, the Chicago Film Critics Association pronounced Let's Scare Jessica to Death one of the scariest films ever made.
Jessica has been released from a mental institution to the care of her husband, Duncan, who has given up his job as string bassist for the New York Philharmonic and purchased a rundown farmhouse in upstate New York. When Jessica, Duncan, and their hippie friend Woody arrive, they are surprised to find a mysterious drifter, Emily, already living there. When Emily offers to move on, Jessica invites her to dine with them and stay the night.
The following day, Jessica, seeing how attracted Woody is to Emily, asks Duncan to invite her to stay indefinitely. Jessica begins hearing voices and sees a mysterious blonde girl looking at her from a distance before disappearing. Later, Jessica is grabbed by someone under the water in the cove while she is swimming. Jessica is afraid to talk about these things with Duncan or Woody, for fear that they will think she's relapsing. She also becomes aware that Duncan seems to be attracted to Emily, and that the men in the nearby town, all of whom are bandaged in some way, are hostile towards them.
Duncan and Jessica decide to sell antiques found in the house at a local shop, one of which is a silver-framed portrait of the house's former owners, the Bishop family—father, mother, and daughter Abigail. The antique dealer, Sam Dorker, tells them the story of how Abigail drowned in 1880 just before her wedding day. Legend claims that she is still alive, roving the island as a vampire. Jessica finds the story fascinating, but Duncan, afraid that hearing about such things will upset his wife, cuts Dorker short. Later, as Jessica prepares to make a headstone rubbing on Abigail Bishop's grave, she notices the blonde girl beckoning her to follow. The girl leads Jessica to a cliff, at the bottom of which lies Dorker's bloodied body. By the time Jessica finds Duncan, however, the body is gone. Jessica and Duncan spot the blonde girl standing on the cliff above them, causing Duncan to give chase. When the girl is caught and questioned by the couple, she remains silent and quickly flees when Emily approaches.
That night, Duncan tells Jessica that she needs to return to New York to resume her psychiatric treatment. Jessica forces him to sleep on the couch, where he is seduced by Emily. The next day, Jessica finds the portrait of the Bishop family, which she and Duncan had sold to Dorker the previous day, back in the attic; she observes that Abigail Bishop, as seen on the photo, bears a striking resemblance to Emily. Jessica agrees to go with Emily to swim in the cove. While swimming, Emily vanishes from sight; Jessica hears Emily's voice in her head and watches as Emily emerges from the lake in a wedding gown. Emily attempts to bite her neck, but Jessica flees, locking herself in her bedroom in the house. Hours pass and Jessica leaves to hitch a ride into town. Woody, who has been working in the orchard, returns to the house, where Emily bites his neck.
When Jessica gets into town, she sees Duncan's car and asks about his whereabouts, but no one will speak to her; she then encounters Sam Dorker, and terrified, runs back to the house. She collapses in the orchard and later is found by Duncan, who takes her home. In their bedroom, the couple go to lie down; Jessica notices a cut on Duncan's neck, and Emily then enters the room brandishing a knife, with the townsmen following behind her. Jessica flees the house, knocking over Duncan's bass case, which contains the corpse of the mute blonde woman.
Jessica runs through the orchard and comes across Woody's corpse, his throat slashed. At daybreak, Jessica makes it to the ferry and tries to board, but the ferryman refuses to let her on. She jumps into a nearby rowboat and paddles out into the lake. When a hand reaches into the boat from the water, she stabs the person in the back several times with a pole hook. As the body floats away, she sees that it is Duncan. From the shore, Emily and the townsmen watch her. "I sit here, and I can't believe that it happened," Jessica says to herself in voice-over, "and yet I have to believe it. Nightmares or dreams? Madness or sanity? I don't know which is which."
Some literature and film scholars have drawn comparisons between Let's Scare Jessica to Death and Irish novelist Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu's novel Carmilla (1871), which tells the story of a female vampire. Scholar Nancy West cites the film as one of several examples of horror films of the 1970s that directly lift the premise of the novel and place it in other historical or cultural contexts: "This languid move reimagines Le Fanu's Laura as Jessica... like Carmilla, Emily is a horror of a houseguest, and after both men have been bitten by her, it becomes apparent that Emily is none other than the one-hundred-year-old vampire who in the course of time has attacked all the men in the nearby town... Is Emily an imaginative projection of Jessica's murderous feelings toward her husband? Of Jessica's frustration with a mental condition that has rendered her sadly dependent on men? The film never makes clear."
–Hancock on writing the screenplay
According to Lee Kalcheim, the original script for the film was far different from the completed film. Hired by producer Charles B. Moss, Kalcheim's original screenplay, entitled It Drinks Hippie Blood, followed a group of hippies camping on a cove who are attacked by a creature that lives in the water. Kalcheim described his screenplay as a satire: "John [Hancock] turned-the-screw so to speak making it a serious, darker theme. The simplicity of the film worked perfectly to create a scary mood."
Hancock agreed to direct the film only as long as he was allowed to redraft the screenplay, and proceeded to rework Kalcheim's original script in both tone and thematic content, but retained certain elements at the request of the producers; the mute girl, played by Gretchen Corbett, for example, was a character from Kalcheim's original script that Moss requested Hancock retain in his redraft. The scene in which the group attempt a séance was also requested to be kept in the film by both Kalcheim and the producers. Hancock stated that "the scenes didn't make much sense to me, but the Mosses felt they would be particularly enjoyable and scary. I trusted their instincts because they had a concrete experience of audiences." Kalcheim is credited as a co-writer on the film under the pseudonym Norman Jonas. Certain elements of the film were drawn from Hancock's own life, such as the apple orchard settings and farmhouse, as he had grown up on an apple orchard, as well as Norman's career as a bassist, as Hancock's father was a professional double-bass player.
In writing the role of Jessica, Hancock sought to create a filmic equivalent to the unreliable narrator in literary fiction. Jessica was partly influenced by the governess in Henry James's novella The Turn of the Screw, as well as the character of Eleanor Lance in Robert Wise's film The Haunting (1963). The theme of evil pervading the protagonist's mind was central: "I was alarmed by the notion that you can't defeat or defuse evil—it forever lives inside and all around us—so I worked that fear inside the story," said Hancock.
|Gretchen Corbett||The Girl|
|Alan Mason||Sam Dorker|
|Mariclare Costello||Emily / Abigail Bishop|
Actress Zohra Lampert was cast in the lead role of Jessica, the titular character who finds herself questioning her sanity. She was approached by Hancock, her former boyfriend, while performing in a Broadway production of Mother Courage and Her Children with Anne Bancroft. "I accepted, trusting his judgement," Lampert recalled. "I have a great fondness for John Hancock, and enjoyed working with her very much." Lampert "got lost in her character" as the script resonated with her, and she spent much of her time between takes remaining in character. Mariclare Costello was cast opposite Lampert as the mysterious hippie, Emily. Both Lampert and Costello worked with acting coach Mira Rostova in preparation for their respective roles in the film. To prepare the performers for the tone he hoped to accomplish, Hancock screened several films by Alfred Hitchcock to the cast prior to filming.
Let's Scare Jessica to Death was filmed over a period of 26 days in the fall of 1970, in various towns in Connecticut. Principal photography began in November of that year in Old Saybrook. The exteriors of the house were shot at a farmhouse in Old Saybrook, while the E.E. Dickinson Mansion, located in the village of Essex, was used for the interior shots of the home. While shooting, the cast and crew used multiple rooms in the expansive mansion for dressing rooms and headquarters for the film company.
Additional photography occurred in the villages of Chester, Lyme, and East Haddam. The Chester–Hadlyme Ferry is featured in the film crossing the Connecticut River. Co-producer William Badalato had suggested the location: "My wife and I had a weekend house in Chester, Connecticut. We loved the area and shared our feelings with John [Hancock] and [producer Charles B. Moss Jr.] After a preliminary scout we all agree that this was where Jessica should be filmed."
Badalato recalled of Hancock's direction: "He was always responsible to our budget and was very confident with the actors. He felt close to the material as it spoke to him in some bizarre way. John actually used to take his own pulse while he was shooting and I was completely intrigued by this." Because the film was shot in the fall months, the sequences that were shot in the lake required the actors to swim in very cold water. The scene in which Costello's character emerges from the lake in a wedding dress was filmed in late November on a day in which it had snowed.
Let's Scare Jessica to Death was one of the first horror films to prominently feature a synthesizer in its musical score, which was composed by Orville Stoeber. The song sung by Costello's character was initially going to be dubbed by a professional singer, but Hancock and the producers decided to keep her voice as it was recorded.
Filmed without a distributor, Let's Scare Jessica to Death was sold to Paramount Pictures in early 1971. Frank Yablans, then an executive at Paramount, devised the film's title as they felt Hancock's working title, which was simply Jessica, was not commercially viable. Paramount gave the film a wide theatrical release in the United States. It premiered in New York City on August 27, 1971[a], and opened in Los Angeles, California the following week, on September 1, 1971. Fake plastic vampire fangs were given to patrons at some cinemas in promotion of the film, while a horse-drawn hearse and coffins were parked in front of Manhattan's Criterion Theatre during the film's opening week. During its opening week of August 27–September 1 at the Criterion, the film grossed a total of $47,651.
Upon its release, Stanley Kanfer of Time gave the film a middling review, noting: "With the exception of Zohra Lampert's subtle and knowledgeable performance, no one in the cast has enough substance even to be considered humanoid. And after the first reel, the vampires seem to have lost their bite." Roger Greenspun of The New York Times praised Lampert's performance and called it a "thinking man's vampire movie, probably a secret dream for at least half the world's young filmmakers." Kevin Thomas of the Los Angeles Times remarked the "strong sense of atmosphere" in the film in addition to the four lead performances, who are "likable, believable people," but conceded: "There's no getting around the movie's poorly resolved script. Let's Scare Jessica to Death is a nice try, but doesn't quite make it." The San Francisco Examiner's Stanley Eichelbaum also noted deficiencies in the screenplay, noting that the film "seems improvised and nothing could be worse for this kind of structured suspense thriller. Hancock's direction is ridiculously disjointed and inconsistent." This sentiment was echoed by Kevin Kelly of The Boston Globe, who wrote: "Under the direction of John Hancock, the movie plays havoc with its own sense of horror. While there is a dramatic sequence, there are so many gratuitous inclusion—a coffin-like box for a cello; Jessica's interest in grave rubbings; the hippie hearse; an electrical failure in the house; the eerie strains of a Moog synthesizer—that nothing rings true."
Jack Meredith of the Windsor Star described the film as a "far-out bit of froth" that "nevertheless packs continuing suspense and a what's-going-to-happen-next element that never lets down through about 1½ hours of sustained action." Writing for the Edmonton Journal, Barry Westgate was critical of the film, noting: "Even contrived cinema has to have its share of rhyme or reason, and this effort by John Hancock doesn't have so much as a touch of either." Ann Guarino of the New York Daily News commented on the film's ambiguous plot, writing that it "presents the problem and leaves you to solve it... The film may not take the curl out of your hair, but it will hold your interest even if the title will throw you off—there actually is no plot to scare Jessica." She also praised the performances of Lampert and Costello, as well as those of Heyman and O'Connor, but noted of the latter that their "characters are not well developed by the script." The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Donald Miller wrote that "after the first ten minutes... I thought director John Hancock... was onto something—if not a new genre, then perhaps something as arresting as The Cat People," but felt that it devolved into a "routine vampire romp," though he did praise the cinematography and visuals.
Contemporary critical reviews of the film have been mixed: Film scholar John Stanley gave the film a favorable review in his 1995 book, writing: "Director John Hancock is to be congratulated for a multi-layered horror film with frightening visuals. There isn't much logic to the story, yet the overall effect is unsettling... the film has a dream-like quality." AllMovie deemed it an "eerie low-budget chiller." Film scholar Gary A. Smith remarked Lampert's performance as Jessica as "laid back to the point of somnambulism. Lampert gives a performance so overwrought that it has to rank as one of the most eccentric ever captured on film."
In 2006, Eric Henderson of Slant gave the film an unfavorable review, writing: "A lesbian panic melodrama in New England gothic drag, the only things separating Let's Scare Jessica to Death from its cinematic descendants are its narrative incoherence, its lack of a directorial presence (especially surprising considering the colloquial implications of the director's name), [and] its drab, douche commercial mise-en-scène." Author and independent filmmaker John Kenneth Muir gave the film 3 1/2 out of 4 stars, praising the film's cinematography, "unsettling" mood, and its ability to generate a sense of unease, calling it "very disturbing" and noting its "lovely and poetic" visuals. Film critic Leonard Maltin awarded the film 2 1/2 out of a possible 4 stars, calling it "creepy."
In a 2013 article published by the Film Society of Lincoln Center, Erik Luers wrote of the film: "The technical qualities of Let's Scare Jessica to Death are superb. With gorgeous cinematography and an audio track that takes on a life of its own, each sound and image presents a hazy version of reality. As the plot develops, we learn that the world around Jessica is scarier than anything her mind could concoct." Genre scholar Kim Newman has praised the film, specifically Lampert's performance, which he ranks as equal to those of Gena Rowlands in A Woman Under the Influence (1974), Carrie Snodgress in Diary of a Mad Housewife (1970), Shirley Knight in The Rain People (1969), and Susannah York in Images (1972), all "portrait[s] of a woman in distress."
The film was released on VHS and Beta by Paramount Pictures in 1984, but later went out of print and was difficult to obtain. Paramount released the film on DVD on August 29, 2006, and reissued it on September 15, 2009. Warner Brothers later released the film on August 27, 2013, through its Warner Archive DVD-on-demand service.
Let's Scare Jessica to Death has been named one of the scariest films of all time by several critical publications: In 2006, the Chicago Film Critics Association pronounced Let's Scare Jessica to Death the 87th scariest film ever made. According to Steve Senski of Trailers From Hell, Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling called the film "one of the most frightening films he'd ever seen in his life." Film scholar Kim Newman and author Stephen King have both named the film among their favorite horror films.
Sara Century, writing for Syfy, noted the significance of the film: "While the response is entirely subjective and it isn’t a film for everyone, Jessica did in many ways serve as a forerunner for what would come later, as filmmakers like David Lynch would delve into dreamscapes that refused to sustain themselves explicitly in cohesive narratives. As with many movies, the tone of Jessica is what matters, and that is indeed where it succeeds." In the early 2010s, London's Time Out conducted a poll with several authors, directors, actors and critics who have worked within the horror genre to vote for their top horror films, who ranked the film number 86 in a list of 100 films.
Notes and references
- While the Internet Movie Database has formerly listed the film's release date as August 6, 1971, the American Film Institute notes its release date as August 27, 1971; this coincides with Roger Greenspan's published review in The New York Times, dated August 28, 1971 (see Greenspun, 1971). Aside from the IMDb, no reliable sources corroborate the release date as August 6.
- Doyle 2016, p. 16.
- "Movie Gross: $47,651 in First Week". Fort Lauderdale News. Fort Lauderdale, Florida. October 8, 1971. p. 7F – via Newspapers.com.
- Smith 2017, p. 74.
- West 2013, p. 145.
- Doyle 2016, p. 17.
- "Lee Kalcheim Interview". LetsScareJessicatoDeath.net (Interview). Interviewed by Kalcheim, Lee. 2008. Archived from the original on June 21, 2015. Retrieved July 1, 2016.
- "John D. Hancock Interview". LetsScareJessicatoDeath.net (Interview). Interviewed by Hancock, John. 2009. Archived from the original on June 21, 2015. Retrieved December 26, 2016.
- Konow 2005, p. 52.
- Doyle 2016, p. 18.
- Doyle 2016, p. 20.
- Doyle 2016, p. 19.
- Konow 2005, p. 51.
- Ocker 2010, pp. 125–126.
- "Connecticut Farm House Used as Horror Film Set". Austin American-Statesman. Austin, Texas. September 1, 1971. p. 61 – via Newspapers.com.
- Stannard, Charles (August 22, 2000). "Movies have given towns more than cameo roles". Hartford Connecticut. Hartford, Connecticut. Archived from the original on July 1, 2019.
- "Chester". Hartford Courant. Hartford, Connecticut. August 22, 2000. p. 117 – via Newspapers.com.
- Campopiano, John; Spry, Matt (August 19, 2016). "Hunting and Haunting: The Locations in Let's Scare Jessica to Death – 45 Years Later". Dread Central. Archived from the original on August 26, 2016.
- Doyle 2016, p. 19–20.
- "Remembering Jessica: An Interview with Mariclare Costello". The Terror Trap. July 2011. Archived from the original on December 12, 2013.
- Doyle 2016, p. 22.
- "Let's Scare Jessica to Death". The Internet Movie Database. Archived from the original on December 18, 2010.
- "Let's Scare Jessica to Death". AFI Catalog of Feature Films. American Film Institute. Archived from the original on August 29, 2017.
- Jones, Will (September 20, 1971). "Free vampire teeth". Star Tribune. Minneapolis, Minnesota. p. 22 – via Newspapers.com.
- Kanfer, Stanley (September 20, 1971). "Batgirl". Time: 74.
- Also quoted in Muir 2007, p. 124
- Greenspun, Roger (August 28, 1971). "Screen: Hippie Vampire:' Let's Scare Jessica to Death' Arrives". The New York Times. p. 15.
- Thomas, Kevin (September 2, 1971). "'Scare Jessica' a Film of Intrigue". Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles, California. p. 97 – via Newspapers.com.
- Eichelbaum, Stanley (September 30, 1971). "Ghostly Film-Making Debut". The San Francisco Examiner. San Francisco, California. p. 30 – via Newspapers.com.
- Kelly, Kevin (September 30, 1971). "Spooky harbor, unanswered questions". The Boston Globe. Boston, Massachusetts. p. 35 – via Newspapers.com.
- Meredith, Jack (November 9, 1971). "Supernatural film at Palace". Windsor Star. Windsor, Ontario. p. 33 – via Newspapers.com.
- Westgate, Barry (October 30, 1971). "New shocker fritters its impact". Edmonton Journal. Edmonton, Alberta. p. 11 – via Newspapers.com.
- Guarino, Ann (August 28, 1971). "Chiller Keeps You Guessing". New York Daily News. p. 26 – via Newspapers.com.
- Miller, Donald (September 30, 1971). "'Let's Scare Jessica to Death'". Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. p. 13 – via Newspapers.com.
- Stanley 1995, p. 226.
- Firsching, Robert. "Let's Scare Jessica to Death (1971)". AllMovie. Retrieved August 14, 2012.
- Henderson, Eric (August 27, 2006). "Let's Scare Jessica to Death". Slant. Archived from the original on June 28, 2019.
- Muir 2007, pp. 124–127.
- Maltin 2013, p. 814.
- Luers, Erik (November 1, 2013). "The Doubting of Reality in "Let's Scare Jessica to Death"". Film Society of Lincoln Center. Archived from the original on March 15, 2017.
- Doyle 2016, p. 21.
- Weiner 1991, p. ccclxiv.
- Century, Sara (January 4, 2019). "Deep Cuts: Let's Scare Jessica to Death". Syfy. Archived from the original on January 5, 2019.
- Galbraith, Stuart (October 8, 2006). "Let's Scare Jessica to Death DVD". DVD Talk. Archived from the original on June 28, 2019.
- "Let's Scare Jessica to Death (1971) Releases". AllMovie. Retrieved June 28, 2019.
- Soares, Andre (August 27, 2013). "Chicago Critics' Scariest Films". Alt Film Guide. Archived from the original on November 6, 2015.
- Steve Senski on Let's Scare Jessica to Death. Trailers from Hell. August 15, 2013. Retrieved June 28, 2019 – via YouTube.
- Doyle 2016, pp. 16, 21.
- "The 100 best horror films". Time Out. Archived from the original on December 29, 2015.
- Doyle, Michael (December 2016). The Woman in the Water. Rue Morgue. pp. 16–22. ISSN 1481-1103.
- Konow, David (March 2005). Let's Scare Audiences to Death. Fangoria. pp. 50–54. ISSN 0164-2111.
- Maltin, Leonard (2013). Leonard Maltin's 2014 Movie Guide. New York: Penguin. ISBN 978-0-451-41810-4.
- Muir, John Kenneth (2007). Horror Films of the 1970s. 1. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland. ISBN 978-0-786-43104-5.
- Ocker, J.W. (2010). The New England Grimpendium. Woodstock, Vermont: Countrymen Press. ISBN 978-0-881-50919-9.
- Smith, Gary A. (2017). Vampire Films of the 1970s: Dracula to Blacula and Every Fang Between. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland. ISBN 978-0-786-49779-9.
- Stanley, John (1995). John Stanley's Creature Features Strikes Again Movie Guide. Pacifica, California: Creatures at Large. ISBN 978-0-940-06409-6.
- Weiner, David J. (1991). Videohound's Golden Movie Retriever, 1992. Detroit, Michigan: Visible Ink Press. ISBN 978-0-810-39404-9.
- West, Nancy (2013). "On Celluloid Carmillas". Carmilla: A Critical Edition. Syracuse, New York: Syracuse University Press. ISBN 978-0-815-63311-2.
- Janisse, Keir-La (2012). House of Psychotic Women: An Autobiographical Topography of Female Neurosis in Horror and Exploitation Films. FAB Press. ISBN 978-1-903-25469-1. OCLC 913134518.