In the history of cinema it is a known fact that the producers and director of a film all have their own opinions about what
a finished film’s title should be. Movies generally use a shooting title which can end up being used as a work’s final title.
Even the film’s own writer invariably believes that it is his/her title that should be used with consideration given to no one
else. One can only wonder how E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL would have fared at the box office had it been
marketed under the original title of A BOY’S LIKE, or if anyone would have com e out to see Harrison Ford battle replicas
in the jaw-breaking DO ANDROIDS DREAM OF ELECTRIC SHEEP? Instead of the more intriguing BLADE RUNNER?
THE SATANISTS was one of the original titles considered for the film that would eventually be called LET’S SCARE
JESSICA TO DEATH, a beautifully understated piece of film making from October of 1970, directed by John D. Hancock
who is best known for BANG THE DRUM SLOWLY. The Seventies are a by-gone era which followed the end of the studio
system of contracts and obligations wherein originality of thought and style permitted novice and seasoned film makers
the freedom to make the kinds of films that they wanted to make for distribution through major studios. LET’S SCARE
JESSICA TO DEATH was the title coined by executives at Paramount Pictures, and it worked beautifully . Evocative of
the creepiness of Herk Harvey’s CARNIVAL OF SOULS with a thematic touch befitting of an episode of Rod Serling’s
THE TWILIGHT ZONE, JESSICA is a film that is bathed in moments of eeriness and supernatural detachment thanks to
writer Lee Kalcheim. Jessica (Zohra Lampert) has recently been released from a sanitarium and is preparing for a quiet
but charmed life in the country with her husband Duncan (Barton Heyman) and their friend Woody (Kevin O’Connor).
On their way, they stop at a cemetery where Jessica takes imprints of the images of the headstones on tracing paper.
Her interest in death is regarded with bemusement by Duncan and Woody who, ironically, drives a hearse. Jessica
catches a glimpse of a young blonde woman in the cemetery, and blames this sighting on her mental instability.
When they arrive at their new house, which is immense and sports a turret, Jessica believes that she sees a woman in a
rocking chair on the steps, but again feels mentally unbalanced. As they enter the house, a woman is at the top of the
stairs, but this time all three of them see her. Emily (Mariclare Costello) is an itinerant musician who befriends the new
homeowners and encourages them to perform a séance during which Jessica begins to hear voices in her head. They
encourage Emily to stay and she is thrilled.
On their way into town Jessica notices a lot of people with bandages around their necks. At a local antique store, they
speak with the owner who realizes that they are Living in the house that used to belong to Abigail Bishop, a woman who
drowned in the lake near the house 90 years earlier. Disturbed by this information, Jessica begins to experience things
that make her question her sanity again. The blonde girl appears from the cemetery again, and the antique store owner
inexplicably meets a violent death. Things go from bad to worse but to reveal anymore details would ruin a unique film
Inspired by THE TURN OF THE SCREW by Henry James (which itself inspired the wonderful Jack Clayton adaptation
THE INNOCENTS with Deborah Kerr) JESSICA thrives on moments where the audience is forced to ask themselves if
what is happening is really happening, or if it’s only happening in Jessica’s mind. The film benefits from a slow and
deliberate build up of mood and atmosphere. Orville Stoeber provides a wonderfully creepy score which, like Stephen
Lawrence’s brilliant music for Alfred Sole’s masterful ALICE, SWEET ALICE, is unfortunately not available on a
soundtrack album. Cinematographer Robert M. Baldwin bathes the film frame in beautiful autumn foliage and employs
the use of slow camera moves to enhance the film’s overall mood.
If you haven’t seen LET’S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH in a long time, you should consider catching up with it again as it
is now available on DVD and sports a decent transfer. If haven’t seen the film yet, you owe it to yourself to view a truly
creepy exercise in cinematic restraint. LET’S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH is one of the genre’s true low-budget gems. -