Cast & Crew
Recently released from a mental hospital after a nervous breakdown, Jessica is happy to be reunited with her husband Duncan. Having left his position as a bassist for the Philharmonic, Duncan has used their life savings to purchase a Connecticut farmhouse and orchard for them to begin a new life. The nonconformist couple journeys there in their hearse with their friend Woody, who has volunteered to help revive the orchard. When Jessica, an avid collector of tombstone pencil rubbings, insists that they stop at a cemetery along the way, she sees an ethereal girl standing on a nearby hill and hears voices whispering to her. Concerned that the others will believe her madness has returned, Jessica does not tell Duncan or Woody. As they pass through the town, Jessica notices that the elderly townsmen are wrapped in bandages and behave with hostility, but trying to sustain her optimism, she insists that they are just reticent about newcomers. Arriving at the one-hundred-year-old Bishop family farmhouse, Jessica and Duncan see a mysterious figure of a woman inside. Upon entering, they startle the woman, bohemian itinerant Emily, and after apologizing for scaring her, they invite her to stay the night upon learning that she has no other home. After dinner, as Emily plays the lute while Duncan accompanies her on bass, Jessica notices her husband's attraction to the striking and mysterious woman. Later, Emily invites them to hold a séance and asks for the spirits of those who have died in the house to give them a sign. Although Duncan and Woody notice nothing strange, Jessica hears moaning and bells ringing. After Jessica and Duncan retire for the evening, Woody makes a pass at Emily, who shyly demurs. The next day, Jessica notices that Emily is flirting with Duncan. While taking a swim later, Jessica sees a pale body float to the surface and touch her, causing her to scream hysterically. Duncan and Woody try to reassure her that there is nothing in the water, but Jessica realizes that they are convinced she has gone mad again. That afternoon as they search the house for antiques to sell, Jessica finds the Bishop family portrait in the attic and puts on an old wedding dress that she has also found. After packing the portrait in the hearse, a sympathetic Jessica suggests that Emily remain at the house for a while. In town, Duncan and Jessica sell the antiques to ex-New Yorker Sam Dorker, who is at first reluctant to buy the Bishop family heirlooms, believing them to be haunted. He explains that Abigail Bishop drowned in 1880 just before her wedding and locals claim that she now roams the countryside as a vampire. Fearing that the story will disturb his wife's fragile constitution, Duncan cuts the conversation short and drives Jessica home. During a walk on the farm later, Jessica finds a mole and sends Duncan to the house for a box to keep it as a pet. She then follows the ethereal girl, who has reappeared, into the woods where she finds Dorker's body at the bottom of a small waterfall, but when she returns to the site with Duncan, the body is missing. Seeing the girl again, Duncan and Jessica interrogate her, but the girl is mute and soon runs away. Over dinner that night, Jessica hears a voice that claims Duncan no longer belongs to her. Resigned to letting her husband pursue his attraction to Emily, Jessica leaves the table; however, Woody reminds Duncan that his duty is to his wife. In bed that night, when Duncan tells her that she should return to New York to see her doctor, a sobbing Jessica suggests that he leave her. Frustrated, Duncan refuses to comfort her and a quarrel ensues. Meanwhile downstairs, Emily kills the pet mole. Minutes later, as Duncan is drifting off to sleep on the living room sofa, Emily entices him to have sex with her. The next morning, Jessica is terror-stricken upon finding the bloody mole and further upset that Duncan, Woody and Emily lack any empathy. After seeing Emily kiss Duncan as he leaves for town, Jessica climbs to the attic where she finds that the Bishop family portrait has mysteriously returned. When Emily enters soon after, Jessica remarks that she bears a striking resemblance to Abigail in the photo. As a ghostly female voice continues to torment Jessica, enticing Jessica to follow her, Emily suggests they take a swim in the lake. When Emily tries to drown Jessica, Jessica scrambles to the shore, narrowly escaping death. She is then terrified to see Emily walking from the water wearing Abigail's wedding dress. After Emily tries to bite Jessica's neck, Jessica flees to the house and barricades herself in the bedroom to await Duncan's return. When Duncan fails to return by late afternoon, a desperate Jessica flags down a truck for a lift to town. Meanwhile, Woody returns to the house after a day of spraying the orchard and finds Emily, who easily seduces him, despite his suspicion that she is trouble. Upon arriving in town, Jessica notices that the elderly men all have gashes on their necks and arms and are staring at her with vacant, hungry looks. Fearing for her life, she runs into the woods and collapses from exhaustion. Duncan finds her there that night, drives her back home and guides her into bed, where Jessica sees a gash in his neck. Suddenly Emily and dozens of hungry elderly men converge on Jessica to suck her blood. Breaking loose, Jessica escapes into the orchard and tries to alert Woody of the danger, but finds he is already dead, his neck slit open by a huge gash. Jessica races to the lake ferry to escape, but the operator refuses to give her a ride. Stealing a boat, Jessica rows into the water, where Duncan's submerged body reaches up with his hand to grasp the boat. Unaware that the hand belongs to Duncan, Jessica beats the body repeatedly with a fishing gaff, until it floats to the surface dead. She then realizes it is Duncan. Turning to face the shore, Jessica sees Emily and her elderly vampire men on the shore and wonders to herself whether the ghastly incidents are real or only figments of her imagination.
Charles B. Moss Jr.
Melvin D. Noped
Let's Scare Jessica to Death
Recalling the atmospheric thrillers of Val Lewton and moody one-offs like Carnival of Souls (1962), Let's Scare Jessica to Death is a visually elegant and erratic exercise in gothic Americana, a rural ghost story set in contemporary times but with strong ties to the haunted past. As the movie opens, Jessica (Zohra Lampert), has just been released from a mental institution following a nervous breakdown, and is traveling with her husband Duncan (Barton Heyman) and their friend Woody (Kevin O'Connor) to a new home in the country. Leaving behind an urban life in New York City, the threesome have decided to make a go of it in the country and turn the farmland into a commercial orchard. Yet right from the beginning, Jessica is apprehensive. The townspeople are openly hostile to them and they have a surprise in store - a strange hippie girl named Emily (Mariclare Costello) has taken up residence in their new home which is rumored to be haunted. Accepted as a kindred spirit, Emily is invited to stay but the whispering voices in Jessica's head return and with them a sense of mounting terror.
The movie's dreamlike mood is sustained from the opening frame to the last with the heroine's voiceover confession delivered from a drifting canoe in the middle of a lake: "I sit here and I can't believe that it happened. And yet I have to believe it. Dreams or nightmares? Madness or sanity? I don't know which is which." The viewer doesn't know either since the movie, the directorial debut of John D. Hancock (Bang the Drum Slowly, 1973), is told from Jessica's point of view which accounts for the movie's seemingly illogical and haphazard narrative arc. One of the strengths of Let's Scare Jessica to Death is Zohra Lampert's nervous, emotionally fragile performance as the bedeviled heroine. Though better known as a stage and television actress, Lampert did manage to make strong impressions in the crime dramaPay or Die (1960) and Elia Kazan's Splendor in the Grass (1961) but sadly, her opportunities in this medium were limited. Like Lampert, Mariclare Costello, who is creepy and compelling as the mysterious Emily (a character inspired by Sheridan Le Fanu's story "Camilla"), also made few film appearances and has spent most of her career working in television.
Shot on location in Chester, Essex and Old Saybrook, Connecticut, Let's Scare Jessica to Death is enhanced by the lush cinematography of Robert M. Baldwin which conveys a sense of menace amid the bucolic surroundings, particularly in the sequences set on the lake where something sinister lurks just beneath the water. Still, many reviewers faulted the film for an inconsistent tone and an absurd, overplayed climax which refused to bring closure to the story. Roger Greenspun of The New York Times wrote, "...the film's setting, along the Connecticut River below Hadlyme, are among the other pleasures of Let's Scare Jessica to Death, which brings a rather discerning sense of place and season to its woods and its waters and the stairs and corridors of its ramshackle house. But toward its genre it develops rather less feeling, and after an initial homage to the traditional coffin crossing the water (in fact, a bass-violin case in the back of the couple's hearse-station wagon being ferried over the river) and a momentary camera angle out of Dreyer's great Vampyr , it tends to lose much sense of what kind of movie it is...You may not think it possible for a movie like this to say that at a certain point it ceases to make sense, but that is really what happens to Let's Scare Jessica to Death within a half hour of its beginning."
It is true some horror aficionados will side with Greenspun's criticisms but others may find the film a haunting mood piece which casts its strange spell without resorting, for the most part, to cheap shock tactics. At one point, there were even plans to remake Let's Scare Jessica to Death in 2001 with Robert Evans serving as the producer and Teddy Tenenbaum as the screenwriter (he worked on the TV series Stephen King's Dead Zone in 2003). Nothing came of it but Hollywood could do worse than remake this underrated, low-budget sleeper from 1971.
Producer: Charles B. Moss, Jr.
Director: John Hancock
Screenplay: John D. Hancock (as Ralph Rose), Lee Kalcheim (as Norman Jonas); Sheridan Le Fanu (story, uncredited)
Cinematography: Bob Baldwin
Music: Orville Stoeber
Film Editing: Murray Solomon
Cast: Zohra Lampert (Jessica), Barton Heyman (Duncan), Kevin O'Connor (Woody), Gretchen Corbett (The Girl), Alan Manson (Sam Dorker), Mariclare Costello (Emily).
by Jeff Stafford
Let's Scare Jessica to Death
Zohra Lampert, as the character "Jessica," provides voice-over narration throughout the film, describing her fear that her madness will return. The voices she hears in her head are heard throughout the film as well. Let's Scare Jessica to Death was the first feature-length film for producer Charles B. Moss, Jr. and director John Hancock. According to the Variety review, the film was shot on location in Chester, Essex and Old Saybrook, CT.
In 2001, Paramount Pictures began plans for a remake of Let's Scare Jessica to Death with Robert Evans as producer and Teddy Tenenbaum rewriting the script; however, as of 2006, the production had not been made.
Released in United States Winter January 1, 1971
Released in United States Winter January 1, 1971