Let’s Scare Jessica to Death (1971)

Let’s Scare Jessica to Death (1971)

“Nightmares or dreams? Madness or sanity? I don’t know which is which!”

A recently institutionalized woman (Zohra Lampert) moves with her husband (Barton Heyman) and their friend (Kevin O’Connor) to an abandoned farm in the country, where they encounter a mysterious red-headed hippie (Mariclare Costello) living on the property. They invite Emily (Costello) to stay with them, but Jessica (Lampert) becomes unnerved when she discovers that Emily bears an uncanny resemblance to a long-dead previous owner…

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Horror Films
  • Mental Illness
  • “No One Believes Me!”

The intriguing title of this atmospheric horror film leads one to believe that gaslighting may be its primary theme, but this isn’t necessarily the case — instead, the film keeps us in continual suspense about who or what is responsible for Jessica’s renewed sense of fear and paranoia. Is she going mad again, or are the bloody corpses she sees cropping up on her property actually real? And why do certain town members — many of whom are inexplicably gruff and cold — have mysterious scars on their necks? Zohra Lampert is well-cast as the perennially nervous, child-like Jessica, who wants desperately to be “well” again but can’t help fearing for her sanity; equally effective — though we only gradually understand why — is Costello, giving an appropriately understated and mysterious performance. While it’s not must-see for all film fanatics, fans of horror suspense films will likely be curious to check this sleeper out. Click here to see a website devoted to the film.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Zohra Lampert’s sensitive — albeit occasionally overly twitchy — performance as Jessica
  • Mariclare Costello as Emily
  • An atmospheric, effectively creepy ambiance

Must See?
No, but it will likely be of interest for fans of the genre. Listed as a Sleeper and a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.


One thought on “Let’s Scare Jessica to Death (1971)

  1. Ultimately a must – it seems too unique for ffs to not track down. It may not seem like much as it gets started – and it may also appear a bit old-fashioned in terms of what’s been done with horror since the early ’70s.

    Still, the film rewards with lots of small touches. (My favorite of these, perhaps, comes when the gravestone impressions Jessica hangs on a wall are blown gently but eerily in the night wind, as if by a spirit’s breath.) Writer/director John Hancock would follow up this film with the sensitive baseball flick ‘Bang the Drum Slowly’ – and that element of sensitivity is the added plus here as well.

    Lampert’s character bears some resemblance to Julie Harris’ in ‘The Haunting’, esp. the dual aspect that she is being ‘called’ and coming unhinged. But, as much as I like Harris as an actress in general, I find her descent into madness less compelling than Lampert’s. She has more to play. Having just come out of ‘observation’, Lampert has to constantly watch herself and her behavior – I actually find it chilling when she internally reminds herself to “say nothing” and “act normal”.

    ‘…Jessica…’ is an odd blend of horror tale, insanity portrait and vision of an after-life that magnifies erotic yearning. With this much going on, suspension of disbelief becomes mandatory. At times the film seems to not make sense on its own terms. But it does – it’s just that the terms are a bit schizo.

    Yet all is revealed in time, and revealed well.

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