FINAL GIRL explores the slasher flicks of the '70s and '80s...and all the other horror movies I feel like talking about, too. This is life on the EDGE, so beware yon spoilers!

Oct 18, 2006

Day 17- amen

Wow, my bitching and complaining yesterday must’ve shaken something loose. Someone out in the ether heard my plaintive cries…maybe it was Jesus, or Superman, or Charles Nelson Reilly. Maybe the box of Lady Clairol Ultra Blue I opened was a magical box, or maybe my newly-dyed hair has simply given me a fresh outlook on things. Whatever it is, my spirits were lifted because…yea, I say unto thee, I have seen a good movie, and its name is Let’s Scare Jessica to Death. I’ve been wanting to see this 1971 movie FOREVER, and thanks to the recent DVD release I finally managed to check out this classic supernatural horror flick for myself. It was worth the wait, kids.

Zohra Lampert stars as the titular Jessica, looking to make a fresh start after a recent nervous breakdown. Along with her husband Duncan (Barton Heyman) and their friend Woody (Kevin O’Connor), Jessica seeks a new life on a small secluded island on a lake in Connecticut. Upon their arrival at their new home (“the old Bishop place”), Jessica and Co. find the mysterious Emily (Mariclare Costello), a beautiful hippy squatter, inside. Yes, there is such a thing.

Before long, Jessica begins hearing voices and seeing mysterious figures draped in white- has she truly recovered from her illness, or is there really something sinister going on in this idyllic small town?

Let’s Scare Jessica to Death opens with what is ultimately the last shot of the film- Jessica alone, adrift on the lake in a rowboat. In voiceover, she says:
I sit here and I can’t believe it happened. And yet, I have to believe it. Dreams or nightmares, madness or sanity. I don’t know which is which.
By the movie’s end, we’re not sure if the events that have transpired actually happened or if it was all a product of Jessica’s damaged mind…the movie raises more questions than it answers, and we’re left wondering what to think. This lack of clarity helps create an uneasy feeling in the audience, which is the whole point of this flick- to make you feel unsettled. And you know? It really works.

Director John Hancock masterfully uses visuals and sound to create a movie that feels like a dream- Jessica is about mood, not plot. There are whispered words, there are noises, there are figures lurking in the corners, just out of focus. Along with the stellar soundtrack, these elements all combine to make one creepy film. Creepy is really the only way I can describe it, and there simply aren’t enough creepy movies out there. It’s a vampire movie without the fangs and the capes. It’s a gothic movie without the puffy shirts and the castles. And the lady in the water here is much more frightening than anything M Night Shamalamadingdong could conjure up.

A huge factor in the success of this film is the performance by Zohra Lampert. She’s simply astounding in the title role, by turns sweet, charming, terrified, and tortured. It’s a multi-layered performance of a caliber you don’t often find in horror films- nuanced and mature . I wanted to give the poor thing a hug.

I realize I maybe haven’t told you anything concrete about this film- it’s really one you should experience without knowing much about it first. However, I can’t say I’d recommend this film to hardcore fans of modern horror- Let’s Scare Jessica to Death is not a linear film that spoon-feeds the audience. It’s not flashy and it’s not full of action and jump cuts and gore. It’s a subtle film, one that aims to hypnotize rather than dazzle. It’s about mood and style and the unexplained and imagination and the mind…and if your tastes in horror run more towards the sensational action-packed or exploitation flicks, you’re going to be bored. Fans of Hostel, move along…there’s nothing to see here.

They really don’t make ‘em like this anymore. I was mesmerized, and I give it 9 out of 10 magic boxes of hair dye.

15 comments:

Amanda By Night said...

Let's Scare Jessica to Death is simply one of the best scary movies I've ever seen. You're right about Zorah Lampert. From the very first frame you just are drawn into her. Very few actors of any caliber can do that. She's so beautiful and sad in such an indescribable way.

I've seen this movie twice and it stayed with me for days afterwards. You're right, they sure don't make 'em like they used to.

star said...

I was pretty excited to see this, too, finally, and it lived up to all I'd heard. I was a little disappointed that the super awesome original artwork had been replaced by the current dvd, which was clearly meant to capitalize on those recent bad possession movies.

There's an interesting interview with John Hancock, where he says he would have liked to have done a commentary. Darn:

brian said...

I love love love love love this flick!... when I saw that they were finally re-releasing it on DVD, I placed my pre-order post-haste (that's 3 words in one sentence with hyphens!)... anyhoo. Atmosphere! It's a lost art.... kinda like "shoot the duck" at the skating rink.

cattleworks said...

Yeah! (That's an annoyed "Yeah!")
The original artwork IS TONS better...

Stacie Ponder said...

Thanks for the link, star! You're right about the cover- it looks a little Emily Rose. I was pretty bummed to discover that the DVD is bare-bones, nothing more than the movie! I do so love a commentary track. Maybe we'll get a 'special edition' in a year...

"Shoot the duck". Man, there's lots of rollerskating references in my life lately; maybe I should go.

theron said...

I tells ya, in the 70s, they really knew to scare people. These days, film makers seem to overlook the one most important intangible in effective horror - mood. No amount of fake blood or CGI can make up for not having established the right mood at the beginning of the film. See? Having less options forces you to make the most of what you have. In art, that's usually a good thing...less is more. I guess I'm gettin' cranky.

digitaldd said...

Great movie when I first saw it on a well worn vhs tape back in the mid 80s, nice to see its been given a DVD treatment. Any good extras?

I was hoping this would have been included on the Horrorfest NYC film list, as it would be nice to see on a big screen. http://www.nychorrorfest.com/ Yes I will be busy this weekend... ;)

Craig Moorhead said...

This is so totally in my Netflix queueueue as of right now.

cattleworks said...

Theron:
I agree with you about mood.
And behind the scenes MISERY!
Is it my imagination or all the classic horror films were a total bitch to make--
THE EXORCIST, TCM, um... others...

Stacie Ponder said...

I hope you dig it, Craig- I'd love to hear your thoughts on it!

digitald- nope, not a single extra, sadly enough.

theron and cattle...preach on, brothers. Cranky old horror fans unite!

digitaldd said...

Stacie: maybe Anchor Bay will re-release the disc with some good extras they have a tendancy to do that after all.

melizer said...

If I'm not mistaken, I believe Gretchen Corbett was the winner of the 1971 Sheri Moon Zombie Looky-Likey Contest.

Anonymous said...

When I was doing research on LaFanu's "Carmilla", I kept coming across "LSJTD" and so I started researching Jessica... (Though it isn't acknowledged in the credits, Emily and Mircalla Karnstein seem to be the same creature.) Well, anyhoo, the point of this post is... Every reviewer says, "If you're a fan of modern horror, you may not like this movie..." and then said reviewers end up praising this movie. How about, instead of referring to this movie as "Horror Movie" we simply call it a "Good Movie - Period"? Because I can't recall seeing a "good" horror movie in many MANY years! (I recommend some of the Hammer movies, Black Sabbath, The Night Gallery tv series, Trilogy of Terror, the Amicus Anthology movies with the original Tales from the Crypt, Halloween(1978), Tombs of the Blind Dead, Deep Red, Dead of Night, and The Brood - true scares over "peek-a-boo" and gore everytime.)

Brett Gerry said...

An excellent film that really shows how powerful some folklore can be. My review here: http://bit.ly/bRofGr

Art Almquist said...

I had seen this gem way back in the eighties, but the only thing I remembered was the image of "Emily," in her white dress, rising out of the water. It creeped me out then but I completely forgot the rest of the film - and re-visited it because of your recommendation. Man, am I glad I did. I just finished it five minutes ago so it's continuing its creepifying as I write. Shudder.

You're totally right - it's all about mood and atmosphere and a slow build of tension. At first, I kind of smugly dismissed the musical score - "Oh, that's so charmingly 70s" - but by the end, you bet I was reacting to every THUMP they threw at me.

Lampert is wonderful, as has been said. And Emily rising out of the water in that dress still utterly gives me the heebie-jeebies. A great little film.