I am very picky with my horror movies, especially when it comes to revisiting them throughout the years. But one film that’s always gotten under my skin is the Connecticut-set chiller Let’s Scare Jessica to Death, from eclectic filmmaker John D. Hancock (Bang the Drum Slowly, the underrated Nick Nolte prison drama Weeds), which was released in August of 1971 and made terrific use of the unique locale and rural setting. Centering on a woman named Jessica (Zohra Lampert) who has just been freshly released from a stint at a mental institution, the narrative charts her attempts at regaining control of her life, and returning to a fully functional state of mind. Jessica and her husband and friend decide to take residence in a farm-style country house, but upon arrival, they uncover someone (or something…?) potentially deadly, which results in Jessica becoming unhinged again. Will she spiral back into total madness, or can she be saved? Operating simultaneously as a freaky psychological thriller and eerie pseudo-vampire story, Let’s Scare Jessica to Death remains unnerving precisely because it’s multiple things all at once, while Lampert’s performance has the instant ability to gain your sympathy and suspicions in equal measure. I’m a big fan of movies that mix tones and do things differently, and that’s why I think I’ve responded to this particular film throughout the years.
Hancock and his co-writer Lee Kalcheim (working under respective pseudonyms of Ralph Rose and Norman Jonas) were able to craftily layer their story in multiple levels of ominous behavior, and instead of being totally upfront with every single plot move and story development, they allowed the viewer to make some guesses as to where things will end up, but in the end, if you’ve not seen this movie, the art of the surprise is likely inevitable. Lampert’s performance steals the entire show, as she was able to project fear and emotional hostility to an alarming degree. The eerie cinematography by Robert Baldwin (McBain, Frankenhooker) suggests casual menace at almost every turn, relying on terrific camera angles and smart blocking, and when combined with the sharp editing by Murray Solomon and the ominous, early-synth score by Orville Stoeber (Weeds, Hancock’s 2015 indie The Looking Glass), the film feels even more impressive considering its extremely low budget and probable fast production schedule. But when a film in this genre works as well as this one does, it becomes a genre mainstay, as Let’s Scare Jessica to Death has become. The film conveys an incredible sense of time and place, with the carefully chosen locations continually subverting expectations, and when the narrative gets down and dirty, it suggests bits and pieces from future works like Carrie and many other films that have come to define the genre.