Director – John D. Hancock
Cast – Zohra Lampert, Barton Heyman, Kevin O’Connor, Gretchen Corbett, Alan Manson, Mariclare Costello
Release Year – 1971
Reviewed by John of the Dead
I had always wanted to get my hands on this popular 1971 cult classic simply because of its awesome title. While this title does come off slightly misleading in some aspects, Let’s Scare Jessica To Death is a mostly-positive entry into the psychological horror sub-genre that gives us some creepy scenes and a unique tale in this directoral debut from John D. Hancock.
The recently institutionalized Jessica moves out to the country with her boyfriend and a friend in order to re-establish her life outside of the institution. Immediately after moving into the home she is bombarded by strange voices and visions, leading her to believe the house is haunted. With those closest to her believing that she is returning to her mental incapacity, Jessica must figure out what she is experiencing is real, or if she is losing her mind again.
I was not 100% familiar with the film’s plot, only reading it once when I first heard of this film several years ago. Naturally, going into this watch I was expecting to see some sort of slasher-esque effort involving an individual or individuals trying to kill Jessica, but naturally that is not the case and I went into this expecting a different experience. One thing that I did get that I expected to receive was a 70s horror film with that “dated” feel that I love to watch, and I thank John D. Hancock for that.
From the get-go Hancock sets up great atmosphere with the film’s beautiful country setting, a tranquil area with autumn leaves, a lake, and a comfortable country home. All of this atmosphere helps us identify with the comfort that Jessica is seeking as she tries to rebuild herself, and this beautiful setting helps provide great conflict when the horror kicks in. His cinematography is satisfyingly grainy, and while I did not personally enjoy his musical score it was appropriate at the right times and aided the film in its horror and atmosphere. While I did not expect to come across good acting performances, I must state that the execution of the film’s actors was so-so, with some moments of brilliance involving Jessica but also some scenes with her that I found downright annoying. We get a few positive creepy scenes here and there, but nothing overly scary despite the film’s appropriate atmosphere for good scares.
The storyline moves at a slow pace, which really surprised me given the film comes in at 89 minutes. Normally when we get a slow watch it runs at least 100 minutes, so for a sub-90 minute film to develop slowly and drag at times it really makes for a physically uncomfortable watch. I enjoyed the idea of a former mental patient trying to re-adjust back into the world and picking a solemn yet potentially spooky setting to do so, but sadly the film’s setting was not used to full potential. The lake and woods were used positively, but the biggest selling point is the home that Jessica feels to be haunted, and the home was not used as well as it could have been given it would come with creepy shadowy atmosphere thanks to Hancock’s direction. We are kept in the dark over Jessica’s true mental condition for the majority of the film, which eventually results in an awesome and shocking climax that makes sense of the matter, and puts an end to this flawed but mostly-positive early 70s horror film.
Overall, Let’s Scare Jessica To Death does not merely provide an awesome title but gives us a unique storyline delving into the psychological horror sub-genre with a side of supernatural horror as well. John D. Hancock’s direction is OK, with most of his positives coming in the form of his awesome atmosphere, and while the story moves too slow for a film of this type it does result in a satisfying climax/experience.