It’s never a good sign when you find yourself fast-forwarding through a movie out of a double-sided necessity to simply finish the thing and get to the good stuff much quicker. I rarely do this; if I’ve made effort enough to start watching a film, no matter how awful it is, I might as well hang tight. A similar reasoning behind not walking out of movies I’ve paid $12 to see theaters; to date, I’ve only prematurely exited stage right three times (Freddy Got Fingered, Corky Romano, and P2), and I wasn’t proud of myself in any of the cases. Why I actually dropped bucks on the first two, I’ll never know.
Early last week, during my daily ritual of scouring through various horror websites in hopes of stumbling across some old forgotten gem that Netflix can so kindly bless me with, the title Let’s Scare Jessica to Death surfaced somewhere, though I’m remiss to recall which URL exactly. Doesn’t matter, really; I’m thinking it was somehow in relation to Ti West’s new The House of the Devil, which I have a screener DVD of, that I watched, and love(d) every second (but more on that film later this week). Back to Let’s Scare Jessica to Death, a wonderfully-intriguing name for a film, and when I noticed that it was made in 1971, I was even more compelled. Obscure ’70s horror hardly ever disappoints, case in point Race with the Devil. Without even reading as much as a two-sentence synopsis, I bumped Jessica to the top of my Netflix.
I’m currently wiping the final splothces of pie off of my cheeks. Continued after the jump:
Where to begin. That’s the problem here, frankly—–Let’s Scare Jessica to Death never really begins itself. A total non-starter, loaded with forced atmosphere and building dread that erupts into nonsensical hysterics before giving up and ending. It’s as if director/co-writer John D. Hancock and company realized that his and Lee Kalchiem’s lifeless script was careening into a black hole of pure pointlessness, so they abruptly abandoned ship and headed to the nearest bar. Whiskey shots all around.
The shred of plot that the film tampers with centers on the titular “Jessica” (played by Zohra Lampert, who smiles way too much when trying to look “off-balanced”), who was recently discharged from a mental institution after a nervous breakdown. Her husband, “Duncan” (who looks a helluva lot like “Delbert Grady” from Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining), buys a farmhouse in a backwoods hickville and moves himself, Jessica, and their friend “Woody” (who has a truly serious ’70s mustache going) into it, hoping to start over and bring Jessica back to comfortable sanity. When they arrive at the spot, though, they meet a cute redhead drifter, “Emma,” who’s been living in the house, thinking it was abandoned. They invite her to stay, and that’s when the non-fun begins.
There’s some business about the former owners of the farmhouse having a daughter who drowned in the nearby lake, but whose body was never found. Local legend says that she was a vampire, an old wives’ tale shared by the crotchety, unwelcoming townsfolk, all elderly men with missing teeth and—-one would imagine—–fondness for banjos and Bill Monroe’s music. The possibility of a supernatural vampirella fucks with Jessica’s head, naturally, and a unrelentingly dull hour’s worth of film culminates in what I’m guessing is a vampire film ultimately, but with some of the tamest neck-biting this side of Twilight.
It seems that Let’s Scare Jessica to Death has earned itself a good deal of nostalgic reverence, yet I couldn’t even begin to wonder why. It’d hurt my head like a too-small batting helmet. If the script had been streamlined a few times by outside eyes not attached to Hancock’s head, this could’ve been a crafty subpar chiller in the same boat as Burnt Offerings. At best, Let’s Scare Jessica to Death is a unique entry into the vampire film canon, one that finds a somewhat-clever way into the mythology; it just never starts its engine once that new route becomes visible. More thought was seemingly put into the film’s random title (it has nothing to do with anything on screen) than into the story itself. A sluggish first act, a second with potential, and then a final third leaking with holes and question marks.
Okay, so [Spoilers, like it matters; none of you will ever see this, anyway] Emma is the vampire daughter; that much is obvious 20 minutes in. And she turns the husband into one and kills your boy Woody. And the old dudes in town are all Emma/Abigail’s undead slaves, right? So then who the hell is the young mute girl? Why does she even exist? Why does Emma/Abigail just walk away from Jessica in the last scene? She spent all this time and bloody trouble trying to send Jessica deeper into insanity, and then she pulls the plug and drifts off. Refund, please.
I love cerebral horror like none other, the slow burns of Session 9 and patient creeps of Rosemary’s Baby. I swear by Roman Polanski’s Repulsion, a film that spouts the kind of off-edge macabre Let’s Scare Jessica to Death aims to nail, but its hammer bypasses by feet. The effort to put in-the-head horror to the forefront is appreciated, but not enjoyed here.
The film opens and closes with this self-questioning Jessica voiceover: “Nightmares or dreams; madness or sanity. I don’t know which is which.” The team behind Let’s Scare Jessica to Death must’ve thought they had a much smarter film on their hands. Allow me to update that dialogue into a more realistic present…… “Time-killer or brain-number; insomnia-medication or ball-dropper. I don’t know which this dismissible film is.” Try all of the above.
Don’t let this trailer fool you; it makes the film look a thousand times better and more coherent than it actually is…..