Released in 1971, a year before Robert Altman's Images, John Hancock's (seriously) Let's Scare Jessica To Death is an anomalous landmark in the horror canon.
Based on Gothic horror author Sheridan Le Fanu's work "Carmilla", and starring TV (and later the underrated Exorcist III) vet Zohra Lampert, LSJTD has a simple plot: Jessica has recently spent six months under psychiatric care/evaluation in New York for an unknown "illness", and now, supposedly cured, is moving out to the country upstate, along with her husband Duncan and their good friend Woody. They are going to live in an old farmhouse and work the adjoining orchard, get back to the land, for the good of Jessica's mental state. When they arrive in town, they are greeted less than hospitably by some old men, but things cheer up as they arrive at the house. However, they soon find they are not alone here; living in the home is a woman, Emily, who has been squatting there for some time. She is very friendly though, and all four of the characters get along quite well. After a little bit of familiarizing, and a fledgling romance with Woody, Emily is asked to stay with the trio. And that's pretty much it. But as the story unfolds, we see that Jessica is indeed not well - she hears voices, her paranoia grows, and a mysterious girl in white appears at random times, seemingly to warn Jessica of something.
As Jessica's mind begins to fragment, Emily wedges herself between Jessica and Duncan, even treating the latter to some late night carnality one midnight. And as things fall apart, Jessica starts to wonder if she is in fact mad, or if something more sinister is at play. Even the somewhat revelatory ending is still left open to interpretation precisely because of Jessica's mental state. "Dreams or nightmares? Madness or sanity?", she asks herself in the film's bookending scene.
The score is excellent; throbbing electronic pulses mix with pastoral, folky acoustic guitar, and provide an aural backdrop for the dual sides of Jessica.
All actors are quietly superb in their roles, and the film has that early '70s no-nonsense, matter-of-fact realism that was prevalent in almost all dramas then, and is sorely missing from much of today's cinema. Lampert, especially, is wonderfully cast in a difficult role - she comes off at times lucid, at times shattered, simple; at times radiant, at times haggard.
The ambiguity of the film is its great strength and has given it its staying power, I believe. We are never told one way or the other whether or not Jessica has completely slipped into a fantasy world facilitated by a broken mind, or if in fact the demons that haunt her are real. Laced with an undercurrent of dark sexuality and misogyny, LSJTD belies its often unadorned exterior. I've watched this three times in the last year and a half or so, and find something new with each viewing. We feel the very real sense that Jessica's fragile mental state could at any moment teeter slightly, plunging her into madness forever.
Another thing that puzzles me about the film is its title, specifically the "Let's" part. "Let's" meaning "let us"...so who are the "us"? The creepy old men in town? Duncan, Woody, and Emily, playing some cruel and elaborate prank on Jessica? Or are they the whispers inside Jessica's head, conspiring to remove her from this world once and for all? Hmmm, certainly something to ponder...
Highly recommended viewing for this time of year, or anytime, for that matter - a worthwhile watch, all these years later.