Movie: Let’s Scare Jessica to Death (1971)

A hearse pulls up to the cemetery and the back door opens.  A woman in her 20’s bursts out.  Her long legs stumble just a bit as she walks, like those documentaries showing baby antelopes taking their first steps.  Soon, she is enthusiastically doing a rubbing of a tombstone.

The actress is Zohra Lampert, and her character has just been released from an institution.  Lampert bears more than a passing resemblance to Paula Prentiss and possesses the same type of demeanor. She’s intelligent but a bit child-like, and smiles or laughs at inappropriate times.  You feel her happiness could tip over into mania at any moment.  You feel like you want to protect her, but you also make a mental note to hide the knives.  Also, like Prentiss, her voice has an odd timbre which is uniquely interesting while being a tad creepy.

We don’t know why Lampert was in the hospital, but she has to check herself when she sees a barefoot blonde girl in the cemetery.  I normally loathe narration, but it is well-used here, as Lampert repeatedly tells herself, “Don’t say anything.  Nobody will believe you.”

Moving on from the cemetery, she and her husband (Barton Heyman) go to the old country house they just bought and which they have only started moving into.  They have brought along a friend (Kevin O’Connor) who is deciding whether or not to stay.

On arriving at the house, they find a mysterious stranger, a young woman (Mariclare Costello) who claims she is a squatter.  Lampert takes pity on her and invites Costello to stay.  Soon, Costello is putting the moves on the husband and this only exacerbates Lampert’s condition.

Despite being a Paramount release, this has all the elements one would expect from a low-to-mid budget from the early 70’s.  I don’t mean that in a bad way, as I like the look and atmosphere of that era.

It is largely competently made.  A lot of the voicework was done through ADR, which is another staple of this type of picture.  Still, it results in an uncanny effect when used for four old guys hanging around outside a paint store. Each of them is heard on the soundtrack though their mouths aren’t moving.  It’s like four ventriloquists without a dummy.  Also, it will turn out these four are the oldest young hooligans ever.

I won’t say anything more about the plot, except it doesn’t bear close inspection.  It almost feels like the remnants of several scripts were smushed together until it made something somewhat coherent.  That sounds like I’m damning the film, but I am very accepting of this, another common aspect of that era’s supernatural thrillers. 

There are many people who love Let’s Scare Jessica to Death.  I don’t think I will ever be one of them, yet I still greatly appreciate this entry in the canon of early 70’s horror.  Apparently, give me a strong lead performance, a score of warm synth tones and lots of film grain, and I’ll happily watch anything.

Dir: John D. Hancock

Starring Zohra Lampert, Barton Heyman, Kevin O’Connor

Watched on Shout Factory blu-ray