The world of horror is vast. With so many films across the spectrum of budget, studio involvement, quality, availability, and, above all else, pure scare-the-living-shit-out-of-you-ness, it helps to have trained professionals parse through some of the older and/or lesser-known offerings. That's where Team Fangrrls comes in with Deep Cuts, our series dedicated to bringing the hidden gems of horror out of the vault and into your nightmares. Today, we're looking at wildly underrated indie and cult classic Let's Scare Jessica to Death.
Initially dismissed as nothing more than a B-grade horror film, Let’s Scare Jessica to Death has developed a cult following over the years. While it was initially intended as a parody of a horror film, it morphed significantly until it became a genuinely creepy, unconventional independent film. Centering on a woman struggling with mental illness as she must struggle to understand what around her is real and what is not, the movie proved to have an influence on arthouse audiences longer than anyone involved seemed to have intended.
For years, Jessica was difficult to find, which helped emphasize its obscurity, but it never entirely disappeared. As it is now much more easily available for rent online, it is long overdue for a moment in the spotlight.
Jessica, her husband Duncan, and their friend Woody arrive at the house in the country Duncan recently purchased only to find a young woman already living there. An aftereffect of the hippie movement, the woman identifies herself as Emily and agrees to move on. Jessica reaches out to her and invites her to stay longer, feeling guilty about kicking her out of the house with no notice. Her husband and Woody both become captivated by Emily, and they all seem to slowly begin pushing Jessica out and bringing Emily in.
All the while, we learn that Jessica had recently lost her father and then endured a stint in a mental hospital before being released into the custody of her husband under the pretense that their move to the country would do her good. She goes swimming but feels someone grabbing her ankle. However, she’s afraid to share her fears with the men in her life due to their constant tiptoeing concern about her mental state.
When Duncan and Jessica take some items from the house to an antique dealer in town to sell due to their uncertain financial state, he discloses the tale of Abigail Bishop, a woman that once lived in their home and drowned the day before her wedding, said to still haunt the countryside as a vengeful vampire. Jessica slowly begins noticing an air of hostility from the locals, as well as suspicious bandages and wounds.
Eventually, Duncan announces to Jessica that he intends to return her to the hospital, and she kicks him out of their bedroom. He sleeps with Emily instead, and the scene slowly descends into chaos the next day when Emily tries to bite Jessica, apparently murders Woody, and turns Duncan into a vampire. It is implied that she is Abigail Bishop and that she has enthralled much of the town. Jessica attempts to escape by rowing out into the middle of a lake. In all matters, she is stuck.
In essence, the beginning of Jessica is exactly the same as the end — Jessica sitting hunched over in a rowboat, dissociating from the trauma in her life and achieving numbness while muttering the words “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.”
Her depression in response to the events that just occurred is understandable, although the audience never knows entirely for certain if Jessica had simply imagined everything any more than Jessica herself does. The blurring of narrative lines and the inconclusiveness gives a profound, despair-inducing downward pull to the film. The best-case scenario is that Jessica had remained lucid throughout, and everyone she had once known is now dead via supernatural means. Either way, she is entirely alone in the world, and her prospects are slim. In the end, it doesn't matter if it was real or not, as the effect on her life will be the same either way.
Jessica has been compared to the story Carmilla, which is considered most notable for inspiring the subgenre commonly known as "lesbian vampires" (a genre that would be more aptly referred to as pansexual vampires in today’s lexicon). While Jessica is comparatively low on queer subtext, the incredibly uncomfortable undertone of a house guest who refuses to leave and seduces the men to gain an edge over the protagonist is communicated very well. Emily is an effective antagonist, with her hungry, overly interested, somehow immoral facial expressions. When interviewed by the website Terror Trap, actor Mariclare Costello said that regardless of subject matter or budget, she and Lampert were trained actors who did their best to truly become the characters, and it shows — they’re fantastic, in difficult roles that lesser actors would surely have fumbled.
Jessica’s struggles are compacted by her dependence on the men in her life. Her relationship with her husband is genuinely fascinating, as he quits his job as a successful musician and moves her to a secluded home where the only friend she has access to is a mutual acquaintance of theirs. As many of us now know, one indicator of an abusive relationship is a partner who fosters dependence from the other person and isolates them, effectively cutting them off from any possibility of a support network. Typically, Jessica blames herself for what Duncan has sacrificed for her and believes it is her own inability to cope that has caused his sexual interest in the young, supposedly free Emily. Her relationship with her father is alluded to as having been incredibly taxing on her psyche, and she clearly blames herself for his death. The one woman in her life uses these insecurities to great effect, appearing as the woman that Jessica believes everyone around her truly wishes her to be.
In her book House of Psychotic Women: An Autobiographical Topography of Female Neurosis in Horror and Exploitation Films, Kier-La Janisse compared her struggles with mental illness with those of the characters in genre films. She makes a comment of the quality of Jessica, and its relevance to her experience, observing that “Jessica’s attempts to rebuild her life failed. The illness was too strong, the ghosts too overbearing. Her guilt over not being able to ‘act normal’ only exacerbated her awkwardness and invited the kind of self-hatred that would unravel her.” Psychotic Women is required reading for horror films of all makes and models, but, like Jessica, it calls in a wider audience with its themes of struggle as related directly to extreme depression and undiagnosed illnesses, and how those things specifically affected the women in her life, herself included. By comparing Jessica’s fears to those of her own mother, Janisse helped to influence a new, modern, more feminist audience to seek Jessica out.
On the other side of the spectrum, criticism of the film has mostly focused on the unclear and somewhat meandering plot, although in the eyes of arthouse audiences that will likely be considered one of its strong points. At the time, there had been little focus from American audiences or film critics on independent, arthouse or horror films, and the phrase “low-budget” was generally associated with an intrinsic lack of artistic value. 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.
The haze that Jessica lives in is communicated perfectly by the natural lighting and overall fogginess of the footage alongside the lack of strong resolution as to what exactly happened to her. Jessica is a classic unreliable narrator, and it makes her a highly intriguing character with little effort. As she wanders through the house, contradicting, argumentative voices hiss and whisper at her, sometimes resembling Emily’s voice, sometimes her own. As the others turn against her, Jessica’s greatest enemy becomes her own self-doubt, which is disarmingly poignant for many women who have spent much of their lives being second-guessed.
Today, a performance like the one actress Zohra Lampert turns out here would lead to a potential career as a genre queen, while in the early ‘70s the film seemed to pass under the radar and her performance was hardly noted for being as interesting as it really was in the reviews. Her take on Jessica communicates the swings between gregariousness and hysteria perfectly, most effectively in moments when she seems to stumble over her own words as they rush to leave her mouth, coming out in a jumble. Jessica laughs and begins again, emphasizing a high-strung need to appear self-effacing and jovial in the face of a terrible struggle. It’s hard to say how Jessica would have come across if not for Lampert’s highly unique performance, but it stands out as particularly captivating.
In the end, Let’s Scare Jessica to Death remains a hidden gem for many of those who have discovered it, often decades after its inauspicious original release. Particularly of interest to horror fans, it has an extra appeal for those who have lived through gaslighting or dealt with mental illness throughout their lives. While generally neglected in overviews of horror films of the '70s, its fanbase and relevance seem only to grow as the years go by.