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.
|Zohra Lampert as Jessica|
|Barton Heyman as Duncan|
|Mariclare Costello as Emily|
|Kevin O'Connor as Woody|
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.
|Gretchen Corbett as The Girl in White|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.
|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
One theory posits that the film is a hallucinatory delusion born of Jessica's
friendly/fearful attraction to the sensual Emily
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.
|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."
|Eve Was Weak|
Jessica is about to pick an apple from their recently sprayed orchard
before Duncan warns her that it's poison
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.
|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.
|In 1980 Mariclare Costello appeared as Mary Tyler Moore's |
sister-in-law Audrey in the film Ordinary People