John Hancock gave me nightmares. And I’m not the only one. Tons of us who caught Let’s Scare Jessica To
Death on the ABC Movie of the Week or at theaters in the 1970’s have uneasy memories of a pale lady, a white
wedding gown and a lake on a grey afternoon. Though Hancock has directed notable pictures like Prancer, Bang
the Drum Slowly and worked on prestigious TV shows like Hill Street Blues he is most remembered for his
atmospheric tale of a young woman struggling to overcome unearthly evil and her own mental illness.
Let’s Scare Jessica To Death will be screened in 35mm as part of the Music Box Massacre and the screening will
be followed by a Q & A with John Hancock.
D: Have you done many convention or festival appearances?
JH: It’s fun to scare people. I haven’t done tons of Horror Event appearances but it is fun to scare people. I’ve
always loved that kind of thing. When I was a kid I loved Hitchcock, zombie pictures….
D: Your co-writer on Jessica had actually written some Alfred Hitchcock Presents teleplays.
JH: I didn’t know that. How interesting. Jessica had those sorts of roots. I thought a lot about The Turn of the
Screw and the idea that this woman didn’t know whether any of this was actually happening or not. I was living in
a place called Sneedon’s Landing at the time and working on it at night in my study and it really got under my
skin. The parts that scared me turned out to be the parts that scared the audience and I was very pleased with
D: That’s the amazing thing about Jessica, how influential it’s been while remaining in relative obscurity. I’ve
always wondered if that wonderful image of Jessica floating in the boat was borrowed by the makers of Friday the
13th for the end of their film.
JH: I’ve never thought of that.
D: People talk about the 70’s now as the Golden age of Horror but Jessica came out before any of the films
people commonly refer to.
JH: We were early. Jessica came after a trip to San Francisco and a lot of my acting company were really into
acid trips and the whole hog farm thing. I really got sick of it. I was in my thirties by now and I was a little bit
beyond that whole lifestyle. I think I had the sense too of an era starting to pass away, Altamont and all that.
There’s a lot of the death of the hippie movement and the counterculture in Jessica.
There hadn’t been a really successful scary adult picture in a long time when Jessica opened thing and it opened
really big in New York and made a lot of things possible for me.
D: Were you actively involved with the scoring of the film? Jessica has a really unusual score for the time.
JH: Yeah I was. Orville Stoeber is a composer I’ve worked with a lot and we did that together. Orville was the
composer but I had some ideas.
D: What about the casting of Zohra Lampert? She had such unusual presence for a lead.
JH: Zohra was somebody I took out for awhile. She was on Broadway in this play Chuck Grodin had directed and
it was obvious she was a tremendous actress. But she was also in Splendor in The Grass where she winds up
marrying Warren Beatty and runs a pizza parlor. The real reason I hired her was I loved the way she slammed the
pizza oven door! Another picture that really influenced me was Robert Wise’ The Haunting with Julie Harris. It
made me just love the idea of a neurotic female lead.
I was so excited to hear the film was coming out on DVD. It’s been almost impossible to find even VHS copies for
awhile. I had heard a rumor that Robert Evans was going to remake it, you know, just grab the title and make an
unrelated picture and that worried me some. I’d hate to see something like that happen.
D:You know Let’s Scare Jessica To Death gave me the single worst nightmares of my entire life.
JH: Well…that’s great!! I was very serious about scaring you. The exhibitors, the Moss’, who had always stood in
the back of their theaters and watched their audiences had great sense about what would scare people and what
would send them out to buy popcorn. They wanted some things in that I didn’t really think belonged but in
retrospect…. one thing they wanted was a séance and it turned out to be a great sequence even though I was
initially against it. The same thing with the little girl who runs around the graveyard.
Another aspect though that definitely came from me and that I’ve always loved about Jessica is that the picture
was set on an apple farm. That’s something you see in a lot of my films. It’s something I’ve always come back to.
When I was born my parents bought an apple farm. I remember the shed full of equipment and watching my
father spray the apples with pesticides. I didn’t realize until the picture was done but Jessica offered sort of a
childs view of a visit to a scary farm.
There were other elements that came from my life. My mother was a redhead like Mariclare Costello who plays
Emily and my father really did play bass and lugged the thing around in this huge coffin like box.
D: So much of your career has focused on the dark aspects of the human journey. Even your family Christmas
film Prancer had a pretty dark side? Why?
JH: I suppose I have a pretty dark mixed view of things. I’m a pretty workmanlike director but to some degree I get
pretty lost inside the wonder of what I’m writing. It varies from project to project and I’m not a real technical
director but for instance right now I’m working on a project about the Rosenbergs that’s pretty dark tragic stuff.
Ethel Rosenberg’s brother talking about what it felt like to send his sister to the chair to save his wife.
On the lighter side my wife has just written a naughty play a comedy called Bohemian Nights about a man who
watches his wife make love to other guys and tends to get caught. Even that’s kind of dark I guess.
I’ll probably always re-visit the horror genre. I just did a picture that I like a lot called Suspended Animation that
kind of like Deliverance meets snowmobiles! And there’s a local serial killer from Laporte, Indiana where I’m
based named Belle Gunnis who made sausage out some unfortunate Norwegians. She’d wander into town here
wearing their boots and selling sausage! We didn’t want to do that so soon after Suspended Animation but it will
make a wonderful movie.
D: Do you see much of cast members from your films? I mean you’ve worked with some incredible people over
the years; Robert Deniro, Zohra, Nick Nolte, Michael Moriarty, Seymour Cassel?
JH: I haven’t seen Zohra in a long time. I’d love to see Zohra. Both Barton who played Jessica’s husband and
Kevin who played Woody have both died. Mariclare still works occasionally and I know she’s married to Allan
Arbus who plays a lot of villains and was Diane Arbus’ husband.
About ten years ago some producer came to my wife and I and wanted us to write a screenplay about Diane
Arbus. I mentioned it to a friend of mine and he said, “Jewish girl photographs freaks and kills self- sounds very
D: Well Jessica wouldn’t be very commercial by today’s standards. Do you struggle with that now? In choosing
the projects you write or work on?
JH: I struggle with that all the time. Being based in Laporte makes it a little easier to raise money because I don’t
deal with the constant “Who’s in it, who’s in it?” kind of questioning. The names that I can afford in the budgets I
have are in that direct to video circle and that’s almost the kiss of death. Why pay money for a name? Some of
those guys are wonderful actors and I’d hire them in a second if they were right for the part. “How do I sell it?” I
got so sick of hearing that.
D: I see so many movies where the thing that got it made in the first place is the same thing ruins it- actors who
aren’t right for the part. I was watching Jessica the other day and one of my friends said that Woody reminded
him of Mike Schank from American movie. It ruined the whole screening because he was completely right. We
giggled through the whole thing whenever Woodie was on screen and made jokes about him snorting the
pesticides and stuff. And yet you could never think of another actor in that role.
JH: Kevin was a star off broadway.
D: Do you run into a lot of fans?
JH: More for Prancer than anything else. Especially around here in Laporte. I’ve been in the papers a lot. And
people like you whose life I ruined by giving you nightmares.
D: If you had to pick one thing about Jessica that has given it legs what would it be?
JH: I think Jessica is connected to a real dread in life. When Jessica runs away from Emily at the lake and the
graverubbings in Jessica’s room starts to whisper to her and you have a sense that the bad thing has made it’s
way into that locked room and that Jessica can’t get away…. I think that’s the scariest thing. I don’t have what you
call a spiritual point of view about these things but I sure wish I could do a commentary on the film sometime. I am
so happy to see Jessica be rediscovered.
INTERVIEW WITH DIRECTOR JOHN HANCOCK