In the 1971 film, Let’s Scare Jessica To Death, Zohra Lampert played Jessica, a woman who is struggling to remain sane.
As the film begins, Jessica has just been released from a mental institution. As Jessica explains it, she’s been hearing voices ever since her father died. She struggles with depression and sometimes, she gets paranoid. Her husband, Duncan (Barton Heyman), has just purchased a farm in Connecticut, a place where he believes that Jessica can find some peace. Their friend, Woody (Kevin O’Connor), will be moving out to the farm with them. Woody is a bit of a hippie. Some people would say that Jessica and Duncan are hippies as well but honestly, both of them seem to be more like people who desperately want other people to believe that they’re hippies as opposed to genuine members of the counterculture.
Upon arriving at their new farm, Jessica is shocked to discover a woman named Emily (Mariclare Costello) standing in their farmhouse. When the shocked Jessica calls out for Duncan, he immediately assures her, “I see her, too!” Emily explains that she’s spent the last few months living in the deserted farmhouse. Though Emily offers to leave, Jessica insists that Emily have dinner with them and spend the night. When it becomes obvious that Woody likes Emily, Jessica suggests that Emily should be allowed to live with them.
Duncan agrees to let Emily stay and, much like Jessica, you immediately start to wonder about his motives. Is he merely letting Emily stay to keep Woody happy? Or is he agreeing with Jessica because he’s scared that disagreeing with her will cause her have another breakdown? Or is it possible that he’s attracted to Emily himself?
As the days pass, Jessica struggles to adjust to life in the middle of nowhere. The location is beautiful but, because it’s so remote, it’s menacing as well. The people in the nearby town are strangely hostile and they always seem to be wearing bandages on their necks. Jessica starts to hear voices in the distance, taunting her and telling her that she has no place out in the country. Are they real or is it just her imagination? Is Jessica trying so hard to convince everyone that she’s okay that she’s actually pushing herself to a relapse? And what about the mysterious blonde girl that keeps appearing in the distance, watching Jessica but running away whenever Jessica tries to approach her?
And then there’s the picture that Jessica finds in an antique shop. It appears to be a picture of Emily but the shop’s owner assures her that the picture is over 100 years old….
Apparently, the script for Let’s Scare Jessica To Death was originally called It Drinks Hippy Blood and it’s intent was satirical. You wouldn’t be able to guess that from watching Let’s Scare Jessica To Death, which is one of the creepiest and most dream-like horror films that I’ve ever seen. Unfolding at a leisurely pace and featuring hazy but gorgeous cinematography, Let’s Scare Jessica To Death keeps both Jessica and the audience off-balance. You’re never quite sure if Jessica is right about Emily and the town or if she’s relapsed and is drowning in a sea of her own paranoia. Duncan and Woody both treat Jessica as if she might fall apart at any second. At times, Duncan and his constant concern is so suffocating towards her that you feel that, if Emily hadn’t been there waiting for them, Jessica would have had to create her. As frightening as Emily may be, only Emily can set Jessica free from her domineering husband.
More than being just a character study of a woman struggling to remain above water, Let’s Scare Jessica To Death is also a portrait of the death of counterculture idealism. Jessica, Duncan, and Woody appear to have a chance to live the ideal hippy life on their Connecticut farm but that dream collapses under the weight of all the petty human emotions and foibles that they wrongly thought they could escape. Duncan treats Jessica like a child, gaslighting her whenever she questions anything that’s going on. Woody seems like a good guy but he’s so laid back that he refuses to stand against the tide. Jessica is betrayed by everyone around her. In the end, not even the mysterious blonde girl is willing to actually warn Jessica about what’s happening.
Zohra Lampert gives a wonderfully empathetic performance as Jessica and Mariclare Costello and Gretchen Corbett are well cast as the enigmatic strangers that Jessica can’t seem to escape. Let’s Scare Jessica To Death is a creepy and atmospheric dream of dark and disturbing things and it’s definitely one to see.