Let’s Scare Jessica To Death

Beware extremely clean squatters
★★★★
☆☆
Released: 
1971
Director: 
John D. Hancock
Starring: 
Zohra Lampert, Barton Heyman, Kevin O’Connor, Mariclare Costello
The Setup: 
Woman newly-released from insane asylum picks the wrong town and house to live in.
Discussion: 

Fortuitously released on DVD just as I became interested in seeing it, this film is both more and less than it seems. We begin with Zohra Lampert as Jessica, who has just been released from a mental institution, traveling with her husband Duncan and their friend Woody to a new town. They moved out of New York to live there. Jessica is desperately trying to hold her sanity together, and very self-conscious, afraid Duncan or Woody will think she’s losing it again. She wants to “forget the doctors… forget that place… start again.” Now, I thought that this movie was going to be about how the husband and someone else were going to stage a number of fake spooky happenings in order to try to drive Jessica insane, which is the implication delivered by the title, and I thought the hearse that they just happen to drive around in was part of that. Naturally Jessica is in the back. They take her to a cemetery for her to do some grave rubbings before they take her to their new home, which seemed a bit odd, and there she looks up and sees a creepy reddish-blonde girl in a white dress standing staring at her. The first hint I got that Zohra Lampert delivers a wonderful performance here was her expression upon seeing the ‘ghost;’ you can see her running through all the thoughts you’d imagine in that situation: I can’t believe I’m seeing this, maybe I’m not seeing this, I wonder if they see it too, but I’d better not tell them in case it’s not there, they’ll think I am crazy again, maybe I AM crazy again. I love the way she turns around and is about to yell for the guys but thinks better, only a slight “uh” escaping her lips. Of course the girl is gone when she looks back. They go to their new house [creepy], where Jessica sees a similar woman on the porch and later upstairs. Her husband says “I see her, too,” which is a relief to Jessica. They soon discover the woman upstairs and find out her deal.

Her name is Emily, and she is a sort of squatter in the house. She is the cleanest squatter ever, but whatever. Emily has red hair and very pale blue eyes, giving her a very striking look, and you know she’s trouble from the start. Jessica invites her to stay the night. That night at dinner, while the shots are uncomfortably close on the character’s faces, Emily says how she hears voices and suggests they have a séance, which they do. Throughout we have been hearing the internal voices in Jessica’s mind, and by now we have noticed that we have had several visually arresting shots, several of which suggest madness, such as this one, with a stairway to nowhere:

The next day they all go down to the lake. Jessica notices her husband massaging Emily’s neck quite sensually, and she let’s Woody massage hers, but eventually pulls away. She swims, and sees something creepy in the water, but of course it’s not there when Woody goes to look. Somewhere in here Jessica asks Emily to stay, which seems like a massively horrible idea, but whatever. There’s a lot more hints that Duncan is attracted to Emily, and a few mild hints that Jessica is ready to take up with Woody [and I say go for it, baby], but she is too nervous and jumpy.

More weirdness piles up. They find an old photo in the attic of a woman that looks a great deal like Emily. Then they find out that the daughter who lived in the house [that was her in the photo] drowned in the lake [where Jessica saw something] and her body was never found. The local townspeople [all men] are aggressively rude and unhelpful to Jessica and Duncan. Then the creepy girl from the graveyard at the beginning shows up again, and beckons Jessica to follow her. She leads her to the dead body of an antique dealer she met a few hours previously. When Jessica brings Duncan there, the body is gone, and of course he doesn’t believe that the body or the girl was there. Then Jessica says “Duncan—THAT’S HER!” and points to the top of the rock… which was a relief for me, because people thinking someone’s crazy by having things appear and disappear can only be fun for so long. They catch the girl who reveals that she cannot speak. When Emily appears, the girl wrenches free and runs away.

SPOILERS > > >
By now we all pretty much know that Emily is the evil one [of course, we kind of knew from the start]. She kills Jessica’s pet mouse, then comes on to Duncan in the night, then comes after Jessica. After a brief talk in the attic, she says “let’s go for a swim,” and Jessica’s like “Okay, sure!” and then Emily attacks her. Emily’s slow walk out of the water in her wedding dress is one of the visual highlights. She comes after Jessica and tries to bite her neck. Jessica runs off and spends a few anguished hours in her room before she comes out and goes downstairs—right by the conveniently-placed Iron Maiden [not the group]—and gets a ride into town… blah, blah, blah, it goes on, with the climax lasting the entire final 30 minutes of the movie… which is a bit too long. Please note that during this time Jessica gets completely saturated with a few separate coatings of harmful pesticides, and Emily says to her “What have you got to live for? You want to die.”

So it seems that Emily was the woman that drowned on her wedding day, and still haunts the area as sort of a vampire / mermaid-type creature. It seems that the ghostly girl in the graveyard was trying to warn Jessica. The town—who as I have noted, is made up entirely of men, except for the ghostly girl, who is mute—all have scars on their necks, presumably from where she feeds on them. By the end Woody is dead and Duncan has obviously been bitten. It’s unclear whether Emily wants Jessica to die and join her as a vampire, or just get rid of her because she doesn’t like other women around. In any case, it seems that there really are vampires and no one is trying to arrange perfectly normal things to make Jessica go crazy. At the end, Jessica is in a rowboat and accidentally kills her own husband [whatever, he’d already been bitten], but this makes her all devastated and the movie’s over.
< < < SPOILERS END

The more I think about this movie, the less it holds together coherently, but you won’t really mind, because it’s so well-acted, atmospheric and creepily directed. Zohra Lampert, as I said, is excellent at conveying the fragile mental state of Jessica by just trying to be too nice, smiling just a second too long, and her ability to convincingly get across that she can’t believe her eyes. The director gets a lot of mileage out of Mariclaire Costello’s looks, with her white skin, red hair and pale blue eyes. She is often presented wearing red, and her very image is quite spooky. I would lay money that her look was inspired by Edvard Munch’s The Vampire:

The direction and sound design also work overtime to keep things off-kilter. From things like the aforementioned staircase to nowhere and uncomfortable close-ups, we also have grave rubbings spookily billowing in the breeze, uncomfortably-placed farm equipment, and spooky images like Jessica’s legs slowly sliding out of the hearse at the beginning. This seems to be a director who knows the power of an image, and he lets the preternatural spookiness of his images of Emily and the ghostly girl do a lot of the work for him. But let us not forget the sound design, which also shifts things a bit off balance. I was nervous for the entirety of this scene with Woody just driving some farm equipment around, purely because of this light whoomp-whoomp-whoomp that kept sounding in the background.

I only wish it came to more. As I was watching it I was thinking “why isn’t this considered a more major film? The direction is so good and artful,” but then the very ending comes that is not very surprising and isn’t really led up to by much of anything in the movie that came before. Nor does it resolve anything. I thought maybe I just wasn’t getting it, so I was glad to see that no other review I could find had much of a theory either. But it’s definitely still worth watching for the air of mystery and menace it is able to generate and sustain for most of its running time.

Many people on the IMDb describe this movie as boring. I think it’s going to depend on whether you are able to get into character action as opposed to severed-head action. I wasn’t bored for a second, but there are very few attacks and very little gore, more just spooky noises and disturbing dialogue and disorienting images. This is probably best compared to The Haunting [original], as very little happens in it, but it gets a lot of atmosphere and chills from the direction and images alone. And when it’s this good, that can be enough. This is a B+ that could have been an A if only the story had led somewhere.

Should you watch it: 

Yes, but understand that it is slow-moving, based on character and images, and the ending doesn’t give you much resolution.

Comments

Other than the super hot 70s porn-type dudes, I had a hard time sitting through this one. I love slow-moving tension and character development slow-burns but this one was just boring to me. I really, really wanted to like it but ultimately just felt very cold about it. Maybe I should give it another shot after reading this, maybe I'll appreciate it more now :) Thanks Scott!

I felt like the ending had resolution...it seemed like the movie was an emotional story about being seduced by wanting to die. Jessica eventually was able to escape that overwhelming feeling.