Sometimes seeing the undead makes you go crazy, sometimes going crazy makes you see the undead, and sometimes it’s hard to tell which is which. 1971 brought another story of this kind called Let’s Scare Jessica to Death, a film that was consciously influenced by The Turn of the Screw and The Haunting—the film version of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. With an oddly tranquil score and lovely, autumnal New England locations, it’s a pleasant ride with more of an undertone of melancholy than paranoia.
A group of three friends who own a hearse with the word “love” discreetly painted on the driver’s side door come to a small town where they’ve purchased an old farm house. Critical reactions quoted on Wikipedia, and even a quote from the director, say the film was commenting on the death of hippie culture. This certainly seems a potent symbol for it.
The three friends include husband and wife, Duncan (Barton Heyman) and Jessica (Zohra Lampert), and their friend, Woody (Kevin O’Connor). When they find a young woman named Emily (Mariclare Costello) squatting in the house, they decide to let her stay and the four of them become an improbably 1970s looking group, even for the ‘70s.
Jessica’s history of mental problems and hallucinations is hinted at and her vulnerability is emphasised by the disturbing skinniness of actress Zohra Lampert. She seems like she might literally fall apart at any moment and the film’s high contrast lighting emphasises every crevice on her body, making her seem bonier still.
Yet I wouldn’t be so sure she’s crazy when it looks like the town’s residents, and her friends, become victims of a vampire. There’s an old photograph in a bizarre frame that returns to the attic after Duncan sells it to a local antique dealer. The woman in the photograph looks precisely like Emily, something only Jessica seems to notice.
The title of the film suggests a plot where people are deliberately trying to drive Jessica out of her wits, like so many gaslight films before this one, but the film actually goes somewhere more ambiguous. It’s a nice, mellow piece of horror.
Let’s Scare Jessica to Death is available on The Criterion Channel.