5/1/09

Mental Health Awareness Month: Let's Scare Jessica To Death

Welcome to a whole new month on the Lair, and you know what that means… a whole new Feature Friday. I was looking around for a theme for this month, and that’s when I discovered May was Mental Health Awareness Month. Now how could I resist something like that? With the wide array of cult films that feature the mentally unbalanced, unhinged, and unstoppable persons, this month’s feature practically writes itself. 

Keeping with the theme of yesterday’s film, The Innocents, today I’m bringing you another tale where the main character might be in the midst of a supernatural crisis or she might just be on a return trip to the loony bin. Either way it sure is fun to mess with crazy people so come on everyone….


Let’s Scare Jessica to Death (1971) starring Zorah Lampert, Barton Heyman, Kevin O’Connor, and Mariclaire Costello. Directed by John D. Hancock.

Fresh out of a mental hospital, Jessica (Lampert), her husband Duncan (Heyman), and their friend Woody (O’Connor) set out for a house Duncan has bought on an island in Connecticut. The trio seeks the peace and quiet of county life and intends to work the apple orchard adjoining the property. However Jessica secretly has fears that she is not completely recovered, and she is also quite startled when the group finds a strange hippy chick named Emily in the house and she claims to have been squatting there, and since Woody is quite taken by Emily, they invite her to stay. Soon Jessica begins to see and hear strange things, and she is unsettled by Emily’s strange behavior. Yet she is unsure if there is something going on or if she is losing her mind… that is until the dead body shows up. 

The Bugg Rating 

It was purely by coincidence that today’s film and yesterdays, The Innocents, ended up with a similar thematic thread, and much like the Deborah Kerr flick, you won’t find  definitive answers about the goings on in Let’s Scare Jessica To Death. While it’s not as rich a ground for debate as the last scenes of The Innocents, LSJTD contains an eerie denouement that is both satisfying and deeply puzzling. However to get there you’re going to have to be patient.

Let’s Scare Jessica to Death has one of the slowest burns in film history, but thankfully due to the cinematography of Robert Baldwin, who would go on to do the same duties in the Frank Henenlotter flicks Frankenhooker and Basket Case 2, the film remains interesting throughout due to it’s visual flair. With strange camera angles and some deft use of shadows, Baldwin creates an atmosphere that is genuinely spooky. When coupled with the Orville Stoeber’s subtle and moody score, electronic punctuations from Walter Sear‘s Moog, and atmospheric creeks and groans that only a creepy old house could expel, and the visual and auditory become and integral part of this flick.  

I wish I could laud the cast as much as the crew, but sadly most of them fail to impress. Barton Heyman, as Jessica’s husband, never manages to convey that he is nearing the end of his rope with her insanity until he is already there. If you accept there’s something supernatural going on, then it’s easier to understand some of his character’s action, but otherwise Duncan just comes off like an ass. Heymen would go on to further genre film fame though as Dr. Klein in The Excorcist and in his last role he delivered the titular line in Sean Penn’s Dead Man Walking. I wish I had gotten to see more of Kevin O’Connor’s Woody, but sadly he is given little to do other than rock a massive head of hair with a giant ‘stache to match. It seems odd to me that O’Conner, here the very picture of a hairy hippy, would play Bogart in a TV film only nine years later. 

The ladies of the film do fare somewhat better. Mariclare Costello does a fine job as Emily, the spooky hippy chick who Jessica believes to be behind the supernatural goings on. If I were to meet Emily somewhere, I would give this chick a wide berth. She easily transitions from meekly mysterious to bold baddie quite well, and I was impressed with how she embodied menace with only subtle changes in expression. Her performance is all about the eyes, and Costello makes you believe there is more behind her baby blues than she is telling. Costello also has a further history of genre work and years later would appear as Senator Cunningham in Buckaroo Banzai. I was also thrilled to see Gretchen Corbett, who played Beth Davenport the secretary/gal pal of Jim Rockford on The Rockford Files. She has a tiny, but important, part as a mute who further complicates Jessica’s shattering world. 

Speaking of Jessica, I have to say one of the things that unsettled me personally about Zorah Lampert. There was something in her frame, smile, and haircut that sparked memories of my mother in her younger years. Obviously this won’t affect your average viewer, but I will have to admit it added something a bit extra for me. Now with that away, let me say that Lampert is the best thing about the film. Like Deborah Kerr’s tortured Miss Giddons in The Innocents, Jessica is the main focus of the film, and with her performance Lampert must make us believe her sanity may well be teetering on the edge. I think she achieves this rather will without resorting to hackneyed clichĂ©s. Similarly to the performance of Costello, Lampert lets her eyes tell her story. In many scenes, the audience is privy to the interlocking of Jessica’s mind, and watching Lampert convey the inner turmoil while maintaining a social mask is her greatest accomplishment. 

Director John D. Hancock has made very few films, but is a shame that the most recognizable of them would be the Christmas dreck Prancer. Let’s Scare Jessica to Death might have a tragic title which fails to give an accurate representation of what the film is about (I much prefer the Canadian moniker, The Secret Beneath the Lake), a uneven cast, and a slow burn which remains almost bloodless, but what it does boast is gangbuster performances from the female leads, inventive music and sound, and a incredible style to the camera work. I had heard of this film for years, and I’m glad I finally got a chance to see it. If you haven’t checked this one out, then give it a watch. If you don’t like it, feel free to call me crazy!

Bugg Rating
Sadly them bastards over at YouTube only have this trailer in a form where I can’t embed it. Let me just say that when you choose to disable embedding you make the baby Jesus and penguins and all the worlds polar bears cry. With that being said you can head over to the Tube and see it here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UqMJkUPRQj8 

I hope you enjoyed the first week of Mental Health Awareness Month, and I hope you folks come back and join me for the rest of the films I have lined up. You can also look forward to a new monthly feature coming up on the Lair as well as another film review from the Lair Ladies. Plus this month B.L.O.G Thursdays will take a look at that hardest of transitions, the porn actress going mainstream. So come back to check all that out and of course more Terrifying Tuesdays, rare flicks rising up from The Tomb of Forgotten Film, and random goodies from out the Grab Bag. So until next week, here’s a little tune that will hopefully improve all out mental heath. 


7 comments:

  1. I saw this a while back. Its definitely an acquired taste, but I dug it a lot. To some people, I know it can be boring, but it kept my attention just fine the whole time. For the most part, there isn't really much in the way of anything actually happening, but the mood is just so palpable and strange that its entrancing. Good flick. For some reason, I really like the scene where they try to sell antiques.

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  2. I liked the movie a lot myself and for me anyway it had this strange Lovecraftian kind of vibe. The scenes in town made me think of THE SHADOW OVER INNSMOUTH.

    Great article.

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  3. Thanks for the comments William and Al. I have to agree with you William I also like the scene where they sell antiques, and Al it does have a Lovecraftian vibe which did not occur to me until you mentioned it. Good call! Thanks guys.

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  4. I remember watching this one on an old video tape I rented a long time ago. The picture an audio quality were not that great, but I remember being impressed at how atmospheric this movie was. I really need to watch it again to refresh my memory...hopefully it's on DVD. Great feature you have going this month. Love the Ozzy bit. Both mental health and metal health are equally important.

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  5. the sneering (homo-phobic) snobMay 2, 2009 at 8:29 PM

    zorah lampert used to drive me wild when i used to see her on television back in the 70`s she was such a gorgeous chick, thats why it was extra interesting for me when you said she reminded you of your mother in her younger days, she must`ve been a hot chick as well. I hope one of the films you will be reveiwing with regards to the subject of mental illness will be john carpenters "IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS" which is in my opinion the greatest film ever made on the subject, (yes, thats right, even greater than "PSYCHO"). By the way, just for the record, ozzy osbourne is a load of old rubbish.

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  6. Actually, PRANCER is pretty good. Have you seen it, or were you just making an ass-umption? I liked the director's BANG THE DRUM SLOWLY and WEEDS as well but haven't checked out SUSPENDED ANIMATION.

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  7. I have indeed seen Prancer. In fact, I think a couple of times. While I think it is horrid, during the Christmas season I am a sucker for holiday themed movies and find myself much more forgiving. It is only in the aftermath that I shake my head and wonder what I just sat through. However, I have not seen any of the other works you mentioned.

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