Sunday, October 28, 2018


I remember having had a dismissive reaction to Let’s Scare Jessica to Death when ads for the low-budget feature began appearing in the newspaper during the summer of 1971. I was never much into horror in those days, my tendency to take them too seriously spoiling all the intended fun of being scared, so the somewhat jocular tone of the title only cemented my resolve to leave the film alone. 
My older sister, a horror enthusiast and the only one of us kids to make it through the broadcast TV premiere of Psycho in 1967, went to see “Jessica” and had raved about it, but I couldn’t be swayed. Jump ahead to the late-‘70s.
Films like Brian De Palma’s Carrie (1976) and John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) had turned me into, if not exactly a bonafide horror hound, then certainly an individual more appreciative of the genre and its power to do more than simply offer up the odd shiver and gasp. By this time I'd also come to be aware of actress Zohra Lampert via her appealing but brief appearance as Warren Beatty's make-do wife in Elia Kazan's Splendor in the Grass. A unique and talented two-time Tony Award nominee with an Actor’s Studio pedigree, Lampert was so unlike the type of actress one usually finds in horror movies, I was intrigued.
Happily, by this time Let’s Scare Jessica to Death had become something of a late-night staple on late-night TV and local Creature Features-style programs.

Let's Scare Jessica to Death's eventual status as a cult film grew out of these wee-small-hours-of-the-morning broadcasts, but as far as I was concerned, if there was ever a film one should not be introduced to via the accompaniment of frequent commercial interruptions; intrusive, mood-killing host segments; and the murky dimness of pre-HD TV, it’s Let’s Scare Jessica to Death. Already dealt a death blow with a grossly misleading shocker title that sets the viewer up for deathly scares that never materialize, the addition of commercials and comedy bumpers completely blows Let’s Scare Jessica to Death's deliberate pacing and low-simmer disquietude straight to hell. The first time I saw it, Let's Scare Jessica to Death felt like the slowest, darkest (as in underlit), least-eventful horror film I’d ever seen. I only made it through about 30 minutes before I grew impatient with waiting for something to happen. Nearly 30 years would pass before we’d meet again and I'd come to realize that when it comes to certain films, patience is definitely a virtue.  
Zohra Lampert as Jessica
Barton Heyman as Duncan
Mariclare Costello as Emily
Kevin O'Connor as Woody

Following the death of her father, New Yorker Jessica (who appears to be a folk artist of some sort) suffers a nervous breakdown and is institutionalized for six months. Upon her release, Jessica's husband Duncan quits his job as cellist for the New York Philharmonic, and in the interest of starting a new life, sinks all of their savings into the purchase of a 19th Century farmhouse and apple orchard in a remote rural section of Connecticut. With the help of their family friend, Woody, Jessica and Duncan embark on their pilgrimage, Jessica (whom it’s alluded has had no say or hand in the selection of the house) expending considerable energy in trying to convince them...and herself...that all is “fine” and that the ever-escalating doubts she harbors about the state of her sanity are baseless. But they aren't.
Almost immediately upon arrival, Jessica begins hearing voices and experiencing what she believes to be hallucinations, but she's afraid to voice her concerns. Not an easy task, given that their new home looks like it was once owned by The Munsters and that its history is attached to a macabre local vampire legend. Adding further fuel to Jessica's mental health fires, the nearby town is totally devoid of women and populated exclusively by bandaged, oddly antagonistic, old men. 
Upon moving in, Jessica discovers their new home to be occupied by a beautiful hippie interloper ("squatter" is such an inelegant word, don’t you find?) named Emily, whom she invites to stay, much to the barely-contained delight of both Duncan and Woody. Unfortunately, this act of hippie-era generosity sets into motion a series of events which exposes the new tenants to a deadly, ages-old supernatural threat, and stoke the fires of madness leading to Jessica’s mental and emotional disintegration.
Gretchen Corbett as The Girl in White

It was 2010 before I ever sat down and watched Let’s Scare Jessica to Death in its entirety. By which time the middling state of contemporary horror films had given me an appreciation of the very things I once hadn't cared for in this movie back when I first saw it in 1978. In fact, its depiction of post-60s hippiedom is so evocative that I really wish I had seen it during its initial 1971 release. It perfectly captures the feel of what I recall about ‘70s-era Berkeley: a time when many of the privileged Bay Area hippies grew tired of playing at being poor and either resettled, en masse, in Mill Valley or seized up bought up all the old Victorian houses around Berkeley and renovated them. Most of these post-'60s hippies looked a great deal like the cast of this movie. 
But I digress.  

Let’s Scare Jessica to Death is largely a mood piece vampire film, another in the 1970s female vampire movie trend (Daughters of Darkness, The Velvet Vampire) which cribbed liberally from the 1872 Gothic novel Carmilla by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu that predated Bram Stoker’s Dracula by 26 years. Although it has a couple of scenes that made me start and got the hairs on my neck to stand up, it’s principally one of those horror movies I’d categorize as disturbing. It’s get-under-your-skin creepy rather than jump out of your seat scary. A genuinely unsettling horror movie that works on a number of levels, all playing to things like paranoia, the fluidity of reality, and the human capacity to make the ordinary look sinister if we try hard enough. 
Relatable Horror
Let's Scare Jessica to Death plays on everyday fears: shadowy hallways, whispered voices, and unexplained noises. In this instance, the dreaded "Something's grabbed my leg!!"  terror of every outdoor swimmer.

To its benefit, Let’s Scare Jessica to Death tries to do something different with the tropes of the vampire genre; giving a nod to tradition here and there (whether treated reverentially or casually, impending death remains a constant presence), but deviating from the expected in interesting ways. For instance, I like how the vampire, a bride who drowned just before her wedding 100 years ago, doesn’t have fangs, wears white, and, in lieu of biting a victim's neck as a means of blood extraction, uses the knife intended for her wedding cake.

Because the film is largely concerned with creating a haunting mood of menace and dread, not a lot of what occurs actually adds up logically. But the central conceit of presenting the film from Jessica’s subjective, arguably splintered, point of view, allows for narrative murkiness to work in the film’s favor.
Flirting with Death
They drive around in a hearse, her husband's cello case looks like a coffin, and
Jessica's hobby is visiting graveyards to make tombstone rubbings

The strength of Zohra Lampert’s performance is so persuasive that I tend to (mistakenly) regard Let’s Scare Jessica to Death as a character-based horror film. It’s not, its characters are sketchily written at best, and while uniformly good, few of the other actors register beyond par-for-the-course for the exploitation horror genre. Mariclare Costello brings an assured, assertive quality to a character meant to be enigmatic. The likable Kevin O’Connor (who portrayed Humphrey Bogart in the truly dreadful 1980 TV-movie, Bogie) falls victim to tonsorial trendiness: little in the way of a performance is allowed to emerge from behind those huge sideburns, that enormous mane of styled ‘70s hair, and his Ned Flanders mustache.
I quite like Barton Heyman (who some might remember as the physician subjecting poor Linda Blair to all those tests in The Exorcist), as the overconcerned husband. He has several moments where he conveys a protective fear and resigned sympathy for Jessica that makes you wish his role were better written.
But the film is unimaginable without the superb Zohra Lampert. Her Jessica is a Master Class in how an inventive, skilled actor can put ten times more onscreen than is found on the written page. With almost nothing to work with beyond “neurotic,” Lampert (Warren Beatty’s shy bride in 1961’s Splendor in the Grass) sidesteps the clichés of the “woman in peril” and makes Jessica a complex, richly realized, wholly unique (and heartbreaking) character you can’t take your eyes off of. 

Beyond the compelling vulnerability Zohra Lampert brings to the character of Jessica, I find myself most drawn to Let’s Scare Jessica to Death’s sustained atmosphere of dreamlike creepiness. How it's achieved is clearly deliberate in some instances: the unsettlingly calm shots of the misty cove and surrounding forest; the angled, shadowy claustrophobia of the farmhouse. In others, it’s just as obviously the result of happy accidents: the film’s low-rent production values lend the film a turbid, documentary quality that makes every shot look, to borrow a quote from MST3K, “Like someone’s last known photograph.” 

Another asset, one that’s proved instrumental to Let’s Scare Jessica to Death's cult reputation, is its one-size-fits-all ambiguity. Presented with the prospect that all the events we witness are filtered through Jessica's neurotic gaze, the film opens itself up to myriad interpretations.
Lesbian Panic
One theory posits that the film is a hallucinatory delusion born of Jessica's
friendly/fearful attraction to the sensual Emily

In making his directorial debut, John D. Hancock (Bang the Drum Slowly - 1973) has cited Henry James' The Turn of the Screw as a direct influence, yet he also readily admits that several of the most tantalizingly obtuse elements in the film aren’t exactly pertinent pieces of an intricately thought-out puzzle. If the séance sequence and the appearance of the mysterious girl in white seem to make no sense and appear to have no connection to the plot, it’s for good reason: both were included at the suggestion of an exhibitor and the insistence of the producer, respectively.
Feminist Revenge
Another theory sees the film through the prism of Jessica's response to her father's death and 
repressed feelings of hostility/resentment toward her disloyal and infantilizing husband. 

Such is the interactive magic and power of movies, apropos of the horror genre, especially. If you succeed in engaging the audience on a visceral level, to reach them through means of visual theory and emotional engagement, then their imaginations will always work to fill in the plot holes and gaps of logic. For me, Let's Scare Jessica to Death isn't a horror film that works in spite of it not making much sense, it works specifically because it doesn't make much sense. 

The Madwoman in the Attic
Let's Scare Jessica to Death shares with other atmospheric Gothics like The Innocents, Rosemary's Baby, and The Haunting, a heroine who's questionable sanity brands her an unreliable narrator. Ironically, by fade-out, most of these films tend to end on a note of "I Believe the Woman."

Something occurred to me while watching (as much as I could stomach) the horrorshow that was the 2018 SCOTUS hearings. It occurred to me that one of the things which has come to most characterize the current American socio-political climate has been the emergent spectacle of the hysterical male. They’ve always been around, these bastions of toxic/fragile masculinity, but never before has there been such a public parade of wild-eyed, blubbering, irrational, excitable, over-emotional (largely white and heterosexual) men, frothing at the mouth over an incapability of aligning an antiquated, deluded self-image to an evolving reality.
Eve Was Weak
Jessica is about to pick an apple from their recently sprayed orchard
 before Duncan warns her that it's poison
When explored in films at all, the phenomenon of the hysterical male is featured most often in the context of the paranoid thriller: films where a disbelieved male (whom the audience knows is actually right) fights a corrupt system. But given their visible abundance in real-life, it's surprising to think how seldom the hysterical male appears in horror films.
Given that masculinity is a social construct only slightly less sturdy than the membrane lining an eggshell, it would seem a natural vulnerability topic for the horror genre; but Gothic tradition has long deemed the psychotic woman to be the defining trope of helplessness. When the psychotic man appears in horror, instead of being depicted as a victim or weak figure (which likely wouldn't sit too well with the genre's sizable male fanbase) his hysteria is inevitably framed in terms of his being an agent of violence or figure of fear.  
"It's OK Jess, I saw it, too."
Encouraged by her mental illness not to trust her own perceptions, Jessica frequently looks to the men in her life to validate her reality. A fine dramatic conceit for a horror film, but one which also reflects a very real (and tiresome) social mindset 

The theme of feminine fragility is a common one in horror films, and Let’s Scare Jessica to Death is no exception when it comes to Jessica’s tenuous grip on reality being both the focus of the film’s dramatic tension and the source of the audience’s emotional involvement. Jessica screams, shrieks, and wails while the men remain at a stoic, emotional remove. Even when she voices perfectly reasonable concerns regarding the strange behavior of the townsfolk or the appearance of the girl in white, the men’s uncurious and dismissive reactions reinforce the genre’s need to render unreliable a woman’s account of her own experience. In horror, women are emotional, the men are rational and sound.
Screams, whispers, and odd noises punctuate the sound design of Let's Scare Jessica to Death.
Another major asset is composer Orville Stoeber's bloodcurdling score.

Standing in contrast to Gothic traditionalism and the theme of "the disbelieved woman" is the gender-based disruption introduced by the character of Emily. In horror films, a female vampire is depicted in ways not dissimilar to that of the femme fatale in film noir. Her power lies in her awareness of men's vulnerability to her sexual allure. She has both agency and control over her fate because men are such easy prey. 
The horror film to explore the terrors of male fragility is perhaps yet to be made, but in having Jessica’s non-stop self-regulating offset by the consequences Duncan and Woody pay for their smug male self-assurance, Let’s Scare Jessica to Death is spared from being just another Madwoman in the Attic horror Gothic.

There's a good reason why the female performances in Let's Scare Jessica to Death register so strongly.  Zohra Lampert and Mariclare Costello were both members of the prestigious Repertory Theater of Lincoln Center. In 1964 they appeared together in the debut American production of Arthur Miller's After The Fall which also featured Jason Robards and Faye Dunaway.

In 1980 Mariclare Costello appeared as Mary Tyler Moore's 
sister-in-law Audrey in the film Ordinary People

I sit here and I can’t believe that it happened. And yet I have to believe it.
 Dreams or nightmares…madness or sanity. I don’t know which is which. 

Copyright © Ken Anderson


  1. Hi Ken!
    I was a huge horror fan when I was growing up and not surprisingly I always taken with those which focused on traumatized/sensitive/vulnerable women haunted by…something. So when I first saw this in ’71 on a double bill with Rosemary’s Baby it blew me away. I couldn’t quite articulate to my 14-year-old “buddies” why. Or why I’d already seen Rosemary’s Baby about ten times. And I couldn’t tell them that I felt every bit the outsider as Jessica. I completely agree, though, that its effectiveness is in its not making much sense. It’s as schizophrenic as Jessica. That she ends up so isolated, alone, not to be believed and literally adrift makes this a really sad and tragic horror movie for me.

    I’m so glad you gave this another try, and thanks again for an insightful read! Max

    1. Hey, Max!
      I think you may have told me, but I had no idea (or forgot) we were both fans of "Rosemary's Baby" at precisely the same age and time. Even down to seeing it multiple times on its release!
      Of course, I now wish I’d had your experience of seeing “Jessica" when it came out (what a double bill!) I'm certain I would have enjoyed it as you did.
      It sounds as though the film appealed to you on both a genre and character level. Such empathy with the suffering and emotional life of characters onscreen is a wonderful quality in an adolescent. I've always been a bit freaked out by teens (even when I was one) who enjoy the bloodletting and mayhem of horror movies, but never feel anything for the characters.
      I'm glad I finally settled down to watch it, and just the other day I watched it again with my partner who had never seen it. He had some splendid observations about it, the result being that it felt like I was watching the film through fresh eyes.
      Reading your comments has a similar affect; I like that your words chiefly refer to your empathy and identification with aspects of the character. No wonder this has been called a thinking person's horror film. Thanks for sharing with us, Max!

  2. Goya o-boya, did they playing Zhora' Goya bean commercials on the west coast? That and Splendor in the Grass were her claim to fame for me. I saw this movie at the drive-in, wow was it really 1971? (I thought I was older). I remember the house and the gravestone rubbings. Living one state over in central NY it was a carbon copy of summer in my home town. Thanks for jogging my memory about this one.

    1. Yes! We had Zohra's Goya Beans commercials here! They ran constantly on TV during the early 80s, around the time I kind of rediscovered her in those Robert Hays TV movies based on "The Girl the Gold Watch and Everything."
      She is such a unique talent, I think those ads brought her the broadest visibility of her entire career. Odd that they are so indelible in my mind. I revisited a few on YouTube and find my memory recorded and locked them away very accurately. I wonder if she boosted their sales. She always made me feel like I wanted to rush out of the house that very minute and stock up on Goya beans. That slogan you began your comment with was so well known (and giggled about).
      Love that you saw this in a Drive-In, an environment that seems to make creepy movies even creepier (all that surrounding outdoor darkness, the semi-fuzzy image, the terrible sound, the cold from needing to keep that window cracked just a bit for that speaker...). Pretty nice that you have a memory of the area where this was filmed. It's so evocatively rendered, I feel I could recognize it were I ever to visit there.
      Thanks for sharing your JESSICA memories, loulou!

  3. I ought to give this another try. Get this, I rented it waaayyyy back in the '80s because I had discovered "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?," "Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte," "Die! Die! My Darling," "Berserk!" and others in the psycho-biddy genre of horror. I had no clue on earth who Zohra Lampert was, but I thought it was someone like Pola Negri or the kind, so I was all settled in for another wrinkled old-time star wreaking havoc. I was so disappointed I think I checked out before it was over. Perhaps seeing it with informed eyes (and in its proper format and condition) I will enjoy it now! Thanks.

    1. Hi Poseidon
      You have described (perfectly, I might add) precisely my mindset when LET'S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH was shown on TV in the late '70s and I couldn't make it through more than 30 minutes.
      The title fits precisely in with the whole grande dame guignol genre (remember the 1972 episode of THE SIXTH SENSE titled "Dear Joan: We're Going to Scare Yo to Death"?) and your reasoning that an exotic-sounding name like Zohra belonged to the world of old Hollywood is spot-on.
      I think studios and marketing departments don't always realize how a "grabby" title may spark a lot of initial interest, but if it sets the viewer up for a very different kind of film than the one delivered, it can prove to be a serious detriment.
      I, too, was disappointed the first time I saw the movie, feeling the film hadn't met certain expectations I'm not at all sure would have been there without that chiller diller title. Your comment gave me a good laugh because I can well imagine your "WTF?" reaction to getting a leisurely, hippified mood-piece when expecting an over-the-top 70s sample of hag-horror.
      Thanks for an enjoyable comment, Poseidon!

  4. I'm glad someone mentioned the beans already.

    I remember this as an effective little piece, one of those movies where you're not quite sure what's going on and where it's going to go. The almost home-movie quality of the photography adds to this unease. Luckily, they hit upon an intriguing title that kept it in people's minds (though I used to get it confused with "The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave").

    There seems to be no end to these horror movies where a woman who seems to have a precarious grip on holding it together gets dragged to a new location and left by herself most of the time. There's got to be a few theses on this theme out there.

    Have you ever watched "Messiah of Evil"? It's a low-budget horror by Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz ("American Graffiti," "Howard the Duck") that has a similar tone.

    1. Hi MDG
      Truth be told, given their association with our leading lady, I'm starting to think not including a link to one of Zohra Lampert's Goya Beans commercials in the "Bonus Material" section was a huge oversight!
      I agree that the film's major strength is the tone of unease and not being sure where all of it's headed. I think the title is a bit of a plus/minus situation: It's eye-catching and memorable in a marketing way (perhaps the only way that counts to the producers), but I know I'm not the only one who found himself initially let down by the film because of the unmet expectations set up exclusively by that title.
      And indeed, I think there ARE a few pieces (and even a book that might use the title "The Madwoman in the Attic") examining the trope horror/suspense films about mentally fragile women in peril. It was practically the cornerstone to every suspense-based 70s TV movie-of-the-week.
      And while I only just saw "The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave" this year (that title is a good double-bill fit with JESSICA), I've never seen "Messiah of Evil"--but a quick Google search reveals a tantalizingly D-list cast (Michael Greer!), so I may have to give it a look.
      Thanks for bringing it to my attention, and especially for commenting, MDG!

  5. Like many others here, I gave this multiple tries but I still can get through it without some fast-forwarding... It’s just those male characters, so weak and yet so horrible to Jessica. The whole thing is too agonising for me.

    So kudos for pointing out the hysterical nature of straight men, especially in 2018, which hadn’t occurred to me: you pointed that out so clearly, it all started to make sense.

    1. Hi mangrove
      There are so many revisionist and interesting things being done in the horror genre, that perhaps, like GET OUT explored horror from the perspective of the threat whites pose to blacks, some filmmaker will explore the terror that drives the fragile illusion of heterosexual "masculinity."
      It's always intrigued me how all you need to do to strike terror into the heart of a great many men is allude that something they do, engage in, or possess is vaguely "feminine." And how masculinity can be so easily threatened that even murderous rage becomes justified (Lord help a woman laughing at male impotence- as in LOOKING FOR MR GOODBAR).
      Horror is such a male-driven genre (adolescent) I can see why there hasn't been much exploration of the hysterical male, but who knows? 2018 gave us hysterical men carrying torches on the streets and screaming in courtrooms...pop culture must inevitably respond.

      Anyhow, I totally understand why you would find JESSICA agonizing, especially given that Lampert imbues her character with so much humanity she makes you feel for her isolated predicament. I feel the same about THE STEPFORD WIVES (Jessica's husband and Katharine's Ross' husband look eerily similar).
      From listening to commentary about the making of JESSICA, it's clear no one gave a thought to any of the things we're referencing. But I like when genre films (largely from the efforts of the actors, in this case Zohra Lampert) become more than what they intended to be. Even if that means they can't fully be enjoyed as escapist genre entertainment because they've made us feel something about a character.
      Thanks for sharing your thoughtful point of view, mangrove!

    2. Be careful what you wish for Ken!

      Given its track record, I'm betting Hollywood will soon offer us up a "hysterical male" in the form of some put-upon incel flying under the radar as anything but a misogynist. Some tacky feel-good heteorsexist epic for the both the fellas and the gals...a manipulative tale about the redemption and return of "classical" masculinity. (I get my Ryans confused, but the cross-eyed one from Canada might be able to bluff his way out of terminal blandness when the yawns turn to snoring LOL)

      But some serious thanks for spotlighting one of my favorites: I've loved Zohra Lampert forever but I'm damned if I can recall anything at all she was in. I guess that's star-power,

      Rick - The Aberrant Homosexualist

  6. Hi Rick
    Ha! What came to mind with your description of a Hollywood take on the "hysterical Male" is the subgenre Michael Douglas trafficked in for a while. Kind of an "Angry White Male" genre of films built around you basic, average straight guy who suddenly finds himself characterized as the villain by mean-'ol feminist and PC-culture.
    No, we've had THAT hysterical male a lot.

    What we need (even if I have to write it myself) is a film that delves into that fear-based black void lying BEHIND a generations-old old construct of masculinity defined by little more than pointing to women and saying "I'm everything opposite of that!"
    I don't visualize it as punitive (but certainly to unsettle and definitely not to make anyone feel good) just an honest look at how delicate masculinity really is and why naked, pusillanimous fear is at the heart of so much of what we think of as manly.

    By the way, I can't keep my Canadian Reynolds' straight either (Reynolds and Gosling...any difference?)

    Lastly, I think most people are in your camp, not being able to name a film Zohra Lampert appeared in. I've never seen her onstage, but wonder if she's equally as affecting. I recently watched her in John Cassavetes' "Opening Night" she's so good and somewhat wasted in a small role, but it was great seeing her all the same.
    Terrific hearing from you, Rick. And here's to hoping the hysterical male becomes a Hollywood trope that expands beyond Shaggy in those Scoody Doo movies.

  7. Well you should write that yourself a crusty old NYer might say: "If you see a job that need doing, that's your next job"!

    Indeed blind fear fuels much of masculinity as we know it, and that stands in direct opposition to a strength-based ethos like loving, surefooted confidence. You're so on-the-money in fingering the fragility of masculinity: it's best viewed (to my mind) as not a patriarchy, but a competitive hierarchy propped up by subordinates and complicity. And there’s always the danger of re-purposing the “hysteria” motif/trope to actually serve nobody but those who’d seek to perpetuate hierarchy i.e. the “hysterical male” as damsel-in-distress, co-opted to reinforce preservation of the status quo.

    I'm pulling my hair out trying to think why Zohra Lampert is so familiar yet I still can't pin her down to any role at all. I do tend think of her along with interesting Cassavetes-type people like Gena Rowlands so maybe that’s it.

    As always, keep up the great work - comment responses included!

  8. Replies
    1. Seems I'm discovering this little film is a favorite of many!

  9. Wow another great essay Ken and I’m happy to see that you have reviewed a particular favorite of mine. The film was shown quite often on a local Miami station when I was in high school so I was able to see it many times as I was growing up. The shot of Emily rising from the water in her wedding dress really used to creep me out; usually I’d watch the film anticipating this “money shot” and it never failed to move me. I think Costello is great here, creating a memorable and frightening character. I like in her opening scene when she says “I’m Emily” and the shot is held a moment too long, just enough to make her nodding face seem sinister. There’s a good interview with Costello on the site Terror Trap where she talks about the making of the film and interestingly says that she replaced another actress who was not working out as the shooting began. But the film does really belong to Zohra Lampert. She displays such sensitivity it’s almost heartbreaking and I often wonder why she didn’t have a greater career. I did find her Emmy winning turn from “Kojak” on Hulu and again she was just terrific in her episode. Keep up the good work. Rich

  10. Hi Rich
    The word "cult favorite" gets attached to a great many films, but I think JESSICA earns the title honestly. You, like several other here, seem to have discovered on TV while most of the world ignored it. I still find myself surprised by how many people regard this as one of their favorites.
    I like the observations you made about Costello's performance. Her character itself is eerie enough, but she is very good at creating a sort of ambiguous menace. At times she seems an ally to Jessica, drawing her out to be comfortable speaking about ghosts and the supernatural when the men are trying to keep her off the topic; other times Emily comes off as ambiguously menacing.
    Thanks for mentioning the site featuring an interview with the actress. I wonder who the initial actress actress in the role was?
    Also, I wasn't aware that Zohra Lampert had won an Emmy for an episode of "Kojak"! I never watched the show when it was on, but I'd be willing to check out Lampert in anything.
    I thank you for reading this post, and I'm very pleased you enjoyed it. Thank you again for contributing to our comments section. Lots of good info you passed along!

  11. Director John D. Hancock is part of one of my favorite behind-the-scenes factoids: he was the original director of JAWS 2! Chosen because of the "watery horrors" of JESSICA, he was fired after a year or so; Zanuck and Brown apparently didn't think he'd be up to the Hollywood standards of action, FX, budget, deadline, etc. (You may know all this already!)

    One wonders what Hancock's version would have been like: moody, eerie, less adventure-thriller but more singular? There's one or two seconds early in the movie where the shark's fin breaks the surface at dawn or dusk, beyond the waters one can see Amity (it's in the trailer). I recommend the novelization by Hank Searls; he was working from an early script that seems to have contained these quiet but chilling elements.

    Thanks for another great review, Ken, of an underseen film I'm happy to see has been growing in stature over the last few years.

  12. Hi Will
    I'm sure a great many of the readers here are unfamiliar with John D. Hancock's association with JAWS 2, so thanks for mentioning that fascinating little factoid. Something I'd only learned about when researching this piece and coming across an entire website devoted to JESSICA (

    I've only seen JAWS 2 once, way back when it was released, so I don't remember much about it, but it's always intriguing when indie directors work in mainstream films: they either bring their personal stamp of distinction, or they succumb to too many corporate chefs in the kitchen.
    Either way, it's impressive that this small film, with its eerie water scenes, caught the eye of the producers of a sequel to a major studio blockbuster.
    Thank you for adding that bit of info to the comments section. One essay can't include all there is to know about a film, so I value contributions like yours to this comments section. Glad you liked the article! It IS nice that JESSICA has sort of found her audience after all these years!

  13. Something about early 70s horror. Inspired by the creative explosion known as the 1960s, major studios were throwing everything and anything against the ceiling to see what would stick, and it was the same with horror. You really got some pretty wild originals back then, in everything from low budget exploitation to the final detritus of Hammer and Amicus. Before everything went back to formula and endless sequels with the coming of the slasher film.

    Think about it: HORROR EXPRESS. THE CREEPING FLESH. DEATHDREAM. THE BROTHERHOOD OF SATAN. LEMORA: LADY DRACULA. PSYCHOMANIA. THE BLOOD ON SATAN'S CLAW. SILENT NIGHT, BLOODY NIGHT. CHILDREN SHOULDN'T PLAY WITH DEAD THINGS (the very first gay-camp zombie movie!). DR. JEKYLL AND SISTER HYDE. SISTERS. GRAVE OF THE VAMPIRE. Both films entitled CARNIVAL OF BLOOD, 1970 and 1973. GANJA AND HESS. THE CRAZIES. Add in Andy Milligan, Eddie Romero, Al Adamson, Warhol's Dracula and Frankenstein, plus Dario Argento at the beginning of his career and Mario Bava at the end of his, and, in the words of Pauline Kael, "One couldn't ask for more from ANY art, popular or otherwise."

    LET'S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH is, well, just about the cream of the crop here, in my opinion. Ken, you and the commentators have done such a beautiful job, I can barely add anything. Just a few thoughts:

    I believe it is a favorite of Michael Musto, the former Village Voice columnist. At least he used to mention it in La Dolce Musto from time to time.

    When I read that great biography of Diane Arbus a few years ago, I was amazed to learn that her ex-husband Allan Arbus had been romantically involved with both Zohra Lampert and Mariclare Costello! But I was also COMPLETELY AND UTTERLY OUTRAGED THAT THE BIOGRAPHER NEVER SO MUCH AS MENTIONED JESSICA NOT EVEN ONCE...

    Twenty years ago, when I was detoxing from alcohol after eight long years in the New York City Police department, I had a pretty young nurse caring for me named Jessica. She told me that the movie had scared the crap out of her, and I kept doing that whispered voice, "Jessica, Jessica" until I nearly drove her up the wall of the nurse's station...

    And the night I got the DT's is a bit of a blur, but I do remember this sweet nurse Jessica looking scared to death, feeding me handfuls of Librium and taking my blood pressure over and over again since it was through the roof, and practically begging me to go lay down in my room. When I finally did, I looked at the ceiling and said my first prayer in sobriety, "God, please, just take me already". I said goodbye to police work a few months later, and a final goodbye to drinking a few years after that, and even though I never saw her again after rehab, I never forgot Jessica...

    1. Hello Rick
      Amazing comment submitted!
      I’m generally not much of a horror fan, but I do like what was going on with some ‘70s horror films for the reasons you cite. Before the desire to seize upon formulas and create franchises, there were a lot of nutty horror films that sought to unsettle and disturb along with supplying scares. Body count horror is senseless to me, but I do enjoy films like many of those you listed (especially the giallo genre, which has seriously seized my imagination of late).

      That’s a rather fascinating factoid about Diane Arbus’ ex and the female cast of JESSICA!
      More fascinating than movie trivia is the story of your 8 years working in the NYPD! On the scale of horrors I can’t imagine where such a thing would rate.
      I found your detox story and the nurse named Jessica very moving and harrowing. I ofttimes discover in individuals who respond to film on very deep, emotive level, a strong sensitivity and awareness of the human condition. The thing that makes so many of those kinds of film enthusiasts who also seek out poetry, literature, and music.
      In this comment and others you’ve made on different posts, I appreciate your capacity to find the euphoric, almost spiritual joy that the arts can inspire, while clearly being acquainted with life’s dark and too-often sad side.

      In trusting in our little community here and feeling safe to sharing your thoughts and such personal information in the context of a horror film that has a gentle, almost elegiac beauty about it, I can only say thank you for adding so much to this post and the conversation here. It honors both you and the film.

  14. This movie was shot in the towns of Old Saybrook, Essex, East Haddam and Chester, Connecticut. I've lived in this area since 1980. The old victorian house still stands and its just as run down and creepy. Amazing it wasn't torn down years ago. Its across the street from a bunch of car dealerships and literally yards away from I-95. Its also about 4 and a half miles from the Old Katharine Hepburn estate at Fenwick on Long Island Sound.

    1. Thanks for the great location info! I'm very surprised (and glad) to know that house is still standing after all these years.

  15. Hi Ken-
    The Criterion Channel is featuring "Jessica" as part of its 70's horror selections this month, so I decided to give it a revisit.
    Certain films from that decade are very much enhanced by their low budget, grainy and 'natural' essence. The original "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" is the epitome of that; "Jessica" is another one where the moody vibe that results from the lack of glossy, upscale production is very much a positive.
    As you so astutely state (as usual), the film is very much centered by Zhora Lampert's fearless performance, truly giving the viewers a fully-realized character...all the more astounding considering how little the script gives her to work with (and certainly more than a low budget film of this ilk usually gets/deserves). She elevates the entire proceedings. Sadly, I didn't see her Goya commercials while growing up. Lol. But I am curious to see more of her limited filmography. It's fascinating how much intertwined history Lampert and Costello have.
    The structure of "Jessica" reminds me slightly of another subgenre of horror film that was popular in the 70s: the satanic cult film, where the lead character(s) find themselves in an isolated spot that they have difficulty leaving, much of the time unable to escape no matter how many attempts are made.
    It's interesting to learn the house used for the exterior is still standing (for now). It's a shame it's being left to decay, but perhaps fitting for its part in the "Jessica" lore.
    Thank you for not only adding to much to the dialog about the film itself, but also expanding on the whole masculinity/male fragility culture as well. Not enough discussion occurs around that topic; heaven forbid people are forced to reconsider long-standing social tropes.

    1. Hello, Pete
      If your revisit of this film was like mine, it was one that really hit home the difference HD enhancement makes for some of those dimly-lit, low-budget features of the 1979s.
      You're right in noting how JESSICA fits into that era's preoccupation with religious offshoot of the whole thing hippie communes, the exploration of religious alternatives, and of course the satanic thing. Movies about devil-worshippers and Satanic cults were as prevalent then as superhero movies are now.
      Glad to hear you enjoyed Zhora Lampert's performance as much as I did.
      If you seek out any of her films, one you might like is John Cassavetes' OPENING NIGHT. Her role isn't large, but she's awfully good.
      A perfect October movie for you to visit. You must be loving The Criterion Channel...seems like you watch a new film every couple of days.
      Appreciate your kind comments about this post. And especially for bringing us into your own experience of the film. Thanks, Pete!