Random Film of the Week (Too): Let’s Scare Jessica to Death

Let's Scare Jessica to Death Poster While I was too young to see this one in a theater during its initial run, I do recall the poster giving me the creeps whenever I saw it in a subway station back then. When it turned up on TV a few years later as an ABC Sunday Night Movie, I can recall watching it and being to scared to stick around for the ending, but not being able to move from my spot in front of the TV. I don’t recall whether or not I slept that night, but I think I was not good for much for a few days afterward.

Anyway, this severely underrated 1971 horror flick is worth tracking down for anyone who has a thing for slow burners with a tense psychological edge and two actresses that give excellent performances in a taught genre sleeper that absolutely deserves a great deal more respect these days…

Zohra Lampert plays Jessica, a woman who, with her husband Duncan (Barton Heyman) and a friend (Kevin O’Connor), drive up from New York City to the home they’ve bought in a sleepy Connecticut village. The couple is leaving the big city thanks to Jessica’s mental breakdown which led to a stay in a mental institution. The quiet town and small orchard next to the house is supposed to mark a lifestyle change for the couple (that friend is tagging along to help them move in and do some farm work), but there’s a different plan on the menu. The couple find the house occupied by a squatter named Emily (Mariclare Costello), but instead of showing her the door, after a bit of thought Jessica takes a liking to the soft-spoken girl and asks her to stay for a meal and one last night’s sleep.

This of course, turns out to be not the best idea in the world when the girl turns out to be a lot less uninhibited in a few very evil ways. As Jessica starts having strange things happen to and around her, she finds herself trapped with her thoughts because it could be her mind playing tricks on her and if it’s not, her husband more likely than not won’t believe her stories about a girl in an old dress that only she can see appearing and disappearing or Emily’s behavior making her uncomfortable. Although Jess and Duncan do eventually have a run-in with the girl in the old white dress, she’s mute and scampers off as Emily appears

The new citizens aren’t very welcome in the town proper either, as the pack of old geezers there don’t seem to take too kindly to the converted hearse they drive around in. That’s not the sole reason for the dirty looks and not-so-neighborly attitudes, but you’ll want to stick around and see what happens as the film progresses. You’ll probably be thinking “ghosts!” or “zombies!” based on some clues and behaviors of certain characters, but the answer is a bit more complex, as Emily turns out to be a vampire who does more than merely bite her victims.

What works here is the dynamic between Lampert and Costello’s characters. Jessica’s state of mind comes into question right from the start and Lampert both underplays and overplays her emotional state to great effect. Emily’s wide eyes, strange smile, flaming red hair and pale skin give her away almost immediately as sinister under her skin and she ends up much more than the traditional film “vampire” you’d expect thanks to the plot dipping a toe into the supernatural and swirling it around. This isn’t a gore-fest at all (although a mole gets it but good in one scene), but a film where atmosphere and mood go a long way and get under your skin right from the beginning.

Between Jessica’s penchant for tombstone rubbings (which get used in a pretty creepy scene where they seem to be talking to her) and Emily’s increasingly unsettling behavior, the film builds and builds its level of tension to the point where you’re about to scream because you KNOW something’s going to happen. And yet, the film is quite sly about handing you an easy set of answers as the really small body count rises. Still, by the time you get to the finale (which is where the movie actually begins), you’ll probably have more questions to ask, but your shaking bones will be too cold for you to do more than let out the tiniest of breaths as the credits roll…

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