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July 28, 2011

Midnight Movie of the Week #82 - Let's Scare Jessica to Death

Don't you kind of wonder if someone was intoxicated when this film's title was first spoken?  Like, it's late Friday night/early Saturday morning, a bunch of dudes are enjoying the late '60s a little too much, and one of them - after a peaceful exchange with his "spiritual advisor" - muses "Hey man....shit....well....I don't know man, let's do somethin'.  Let's Scare Jessica to Death, man!"  Then, hijinks ensue.  At least that's how I imagine it.

That said, let's do this review proper....ahem.....OK.
Do you ever watch someone's face when they're in an awkward situation?  Heck, it doesn't have to even be an awkward situation, just watch their face in any situation - a social setting, a private conversation, the workplace, whatever.  You don't have to stare and be a creeper about it, just keep an eye out for it sometime.  If you do, you'll probably notice that a person's face often gives their first reaction to any situation.  The lips form different shapes, the eyes move from side to side as needed, they might even bring a hand to their face or tilt their head when necessary.  It's a pretty simple way to get a bead on what's going on inside someone's mind.  Doesn't mean you'll be right, but it's interesting nonetheless.

(Oh, and while you're watching their face....remember that someone else is probably watching yours!)
I mention this because Let's Scare Jessica to Death is made up of about 60% face watching.  Jessica, played by Zorha Lampert, is a young woman who's just been released from a mental facility and promptly leaves the city - in a hearse - with her husband and a friend.  The trio plan to live in an old abandoned lakeside house that her husband has purchased, because apparently that seems like the safest thing to do when you've just left a mental placement.  I'm not sure who Jessica's doctors/case managers were, but I think it's safe to say they suck at discharge planning.
With Jessica living in a new place - and with a new homeless hippie friend living their too - her face quickly goes from content to confused.  And we watch it.  All. The. Time.  The movie seems resigned to just linger on Jessica's face as the conversations and events around her are unfolding, allowing Lampert to present a manic distress that comes from being in a new place with a seemingly new life and new expectations of what life is to her.  But, as her inner monologue tells us repeatedly, it seems things aren't as simple as the others seem to think they are. 
For starters, everyone up in the house decides it's a good idea to talk about morbid stuff.  I mean, The first night in the house ends in a seance.  I mean, before they get to the house they stop in a cemetery so Jessica can get some etchings of headstones for her walls.  Heck, even old pictures become discussions of how the people who lived in the house died, and Jessica's mind - and face - continues to race.
Then the real stuff starts to happen.  Well, we're not sure if it's real, but it's the stuff that horror fans want to see.  A mysterious woman appears in an old dress, Jessica begins to hear voices, and a dead and bloodied fisherman shows up in the woods outside the house.  And, as Jessica starts to slip even deeper and deeper into confusion, one of the creepier scenes ever filmed occurs as the woman in white rises up out of the water and comes into contact with Jessica, leading to a frantic, muddled final act that leaves the viewer wondering exactly what the hell just happened.  Some viewers will probably find this a bit maddening - but hey, so did Jessica.
From start to finish, Let's Scare Jessica to Death is quite simply a haunting film.  I mean that literally, because the opening shot of the film  (pictured above) is one of the more breathtaking things I've ever seen.  It's a simple nature shot that could even be stock footage, but it just seems quietly ominous as is.  The sun is setting, the mist is clouding our vision, and everything seems a bit too still.  It really sets the pace for the rest of the film, in which the visuals and sounds - including a musical score that perfectly adapts to Jessica's fluid mental state - are slowly allowed to become stable on screen so we can form an attachment to them.  It's a film that's surprisingly confident in the viewer's ability to get involved with the characters' plight through slow reveals, which is greatly appreciated.  (In that regard, Let's Scare Jessica to Death is basically the opposite of the modern horror hit (which torques me off) Insidious.)
Lampert is certainly key to the film's success in drawing our attention, and she seems to relish the chance to be a crazy lady on screen.  There aren't many - if any - moments in the film when she breaks from Jessica's disturbed state, and her devotion to the role makes me think she must have been committed. (Har har, bad puns!)  The other cast members, particularly Mariclare Costello as the hippie-turned-object-of-confusion, do a fine job supporting her, but there's no mistaking that this is Jessica's movie, and that none outside of her and her face are the star.
So, we've got a movie that's 60% a frantic face which is complemented by creepy old houses, misty lakes, ghost and vampire implications, and one dude with an awesome mustache.  What's not to love about that?  I say nothing.  Let's Scare Jessica to Death is one of the most unique horror films I've seen and - despite the fact it turns 40 next weekend - the meat and potatoes of the film's message haven't aged a bit. (The clothing and hairstyles, on the other hand, have aged quite a bit.)  Though we get a deep look into Jessica's mind, we're never really sure what to believe about the film.  But we do know that it's not ending till Jessica's scared enough that there will be death....and that's really all we need, isn't it?  Go find this one, and don't forget to watch those faces!
Just because I'm from Iowa and my blog needs more tractors.


JohnBem said...

Jessica looks great, Mike. The trailer alone is very creepy, particularly the ghostly apparition whispering "you're home now." That is not at all what you want to hear when you're in a graveyard.

Chad Helder said...

As I was reading your review, I was reminded of how many various elements go into making this such an awesome horror movie. So subtle, but really very complex and mysterious. I seriously love this movie. Most of all, the psychological texture is so sophisticated. Creepiest internal monologue ever.

Enbrethiliel said...


I don't mind "retro" aesthetics as long as the "meat and potatoes" of the message (as you say) is still good to eat. =)

The gorgeous sunset reminds me of the moment that convinced me to go on with the Friday the 13th franchise despite being sadly underwhelmed by most of the first movie: the few breathtakingly beautiful views of Crystal Lake on the morning after the massacre. That must be the most artistic the franchise has ever got--and is a great metaphor for the darkness and malice that lurks under the most serene surfaces.

Giovanni Susina said...

A terrific film that I plan on writing about someday. Other than being scared to death it seems that Jessica really gets the shit end of the stick in the situation she's in, such as her husband seemingly falling for the transient hippie chick. I thought this film was a little slow but the ambiance was terrific and I've had an obsession with it ever since I first saw it a few years ago. The gothic and macabre image of the mysterious woman emerging from the water in a white dress has been permanently stuck in my mind. By the way your write up was enjoyable and I am glad to see it get a positive analysis.