Let’s Scare Jessica To Death (1971)

I really liked this movie. While imperfect in that inimitable 1970s way, there are so many interesting details to keep you engaged. The title does not fit the story at all, but let’s dig in.

Mariclare Costello as Emily

Jessica (Zohra Lampert) is fragile, she has just had some kind of unspecified mental breakdown. She and her musician husband, Duncan (Barton Heyman), have bought an old farmhouse in a small town with their friend, Woody (Kevin O’Connor). Jessica stops on the way, in their converted hearse, to take etchings of gravestones, where she sees a young woman in white; her inner monologue tells us she is not sure whether the woman was really there. This is a great little scene as it sets up her fixation on death and her mistrust of her own senses. For the rest of the film you can never be sure how much is real or imagined.

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Zohra Lampert as Jessica

Having spent all their money sight unseen, intending to make money off the orchard there, they pull into town and the locals are immediately hostile to their new counter-culture neighbours. When they arrive at the house, they find a squatter, Emily (Mariclare Costello). She plays the lute and is evasive about her background. Being the hip cats that they are, they ask her to stay with them; Woody wants to sleep with her and Jessica is sure that Duncan does too.

On their first day together, they all go to the lake to bathe, and Jessica sees something in the water. She says it touched her and it felt “like some kind of shark or something” (it’s clearly a human body). The effect for the corpse is excellent, just hair floating in the waves and upraised arms. No one else sees it.

The locals’ hostility towards their group is compounded when they try to sell antiques from the house. The antiques dealer in town (not a local) tells them that the daughter of the previous owner, Abigail, drowned in the lake near the house and her unused wedding gown is in the attic. There is also an H.P. Lovecraft angle that all is not right with the locals, who all sport cuts, scars, and bandages. Jessica comes to believe that Emily is some kind of vampire or spirit. To be fair, there’s a sepia photograph in the house that is clearly just her.

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That’s not suspicious at all…

There are more strange little episodes and it becomes clear that Jessica is not well. It can’t help that Emily has sex with Duncan. The best sequence by far is when Emily comes out of the water in Abigail’s wedding dress, telling Jessica to join her. This may be the source of the title, implying that Emily is playing some kind of game, but it really does seem more like Jessica’s (lesbian) fantasy. The end of the film is really messy, and you can’t be sure what’s going on because of Jessica’s mental state, but she might have killed Duncan with a hook?

The great strength of the film is how weird and off-putting Jessica’s performance is. The inner monologue is a clunky device, but the filmmakers sometimes use echo and layer in other voices to create an eerie effect. Jessica performs her mental illness with darting eyes, physical shaking, and at times her voice gets low and strange; she cries seemingly without noticing. As I mentioned, there is an undercurrent of gay panic to the film, as Jessica fixates on Emily with a longing gaze but also rejects Emily’s looks and touch in response. The idea of Emily as a ghost in the lake, waiting to pull her in can be seen as Jessica’s anxiety around her own lesbian desires.

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Like I said, the film is not perfect, but still an interesting watch. I had to buy it on YouTube for 12$ Canadian, but I really don’t mind. I would watch it again. I saw it compared to David Lynch, and while I wouldn’t go that far, it was pretty experimental and engaging.

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