After spending six months in a mental institution, tormented twenty-something Jessica (Zohra Lampert) journeys with her husband Duncan (Barton Heyman) and friend Woody (Kevin O’Connor) to their newly purchased farmhouse in the reticent village of Brookfield. Upon arrival they discover a strange young woman called Emily (Mariclare Costello) living in the property. Emily appears pleasant at first, so the couple let her stay, but strange events start occurring that make Jessica once again question her sanity and suspect their new friend might not be as innocent as she first appeared.
In 1971, when horror cinema was mostly dominated by latter-day Hammer and gregarious b movies, this creepy skin-crawler emerged, almost unnoticed amongst the more gaudy shockers of the time. Lets Scare Jessica To Death signified the momentary downfall of extrovert b-movies/ Hammer horrors and, along with Rosemary’s Baby (which arrived a few years earlier), signified a revolutionary change in the horror genre. But why have so few people heard of it? Arriving alongside the likes of Twins of Evil, Countess Dracula, Bay of Blood and Hands of the Ripper, LSJTD failed to make much of a mark upon its initial release but is now more comparable to the opulent works that followed it. Paving the way for the likes of The Wicker Man, The Exorcist, Don’t Look Now and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: films that went on to redefine the genre, and are not just synonymous with the time.
Yet in spite all of it’s idiosyncrasies and progressive characteristics, LSJTD is (in terms of quality) not remotely in the same league as the aforementioned masterpieces. The film succeeds in subverting sub-genres with mysterious, brooding visuals, ingenious sound design, an experimental score and suggestive scares but the story is slow and production careless and cheap (continuity goofs are visible throughout). Jessica and the supporting characters come across as plausible creations and while they don’t adhere, or act as prototypes, to any of the genre stereotypes, they are not very interesting or adequately performed (Barton Heyman, who plays Jessica’s husband Duncan, went on to star as Dr Klein in The Exorcist). But thanks to Writer/ Director John D Hancock (who went on to helm episodes of The Twilight Zone in the 1980s), LSJTD still feels radical in its ability to unnerve and discombobulate by disregarding tent-pole methods and summoning new techniques to unsettle. Opting to inch under the skin of the viewer and fetter their nerves, instead of startling via cheap theatrics and boo jumps.
1971 also saw the release of gaudy Italian exploitation films from Dario Argento (The Cat o’ Nine Tails) and Jess Franco (Vampyros Lesbos) which are more widely lauded than LSJTD, even though they were equally alienating. These films failed to permeate the mainstream as much as the style of horror that LSJTD pre-empted, but have generated a wider fan-base over the years. This just goes to illustrate that being brave and outlandish may initially estrange but can make a film more timeless, memorable and distinctive than those that simply adhere to convention. LSJTD has still, to this day, never received a UK DVD release which is a lot to do with why it remains so ambiguous. Stephen King cites it as one of his favourite horror films and despite being far from classic, LSJTD boasts many intriguing facets and avant-garde traits that still strike as unusual and ground-breaking, even by today’s standards. Many of these more alien traits were previously evident in European horror film-making (particularly early Polanski), but were unique to mainstream American audiences at the time.
Serene, slow-burning drama loosens leisurely throughout the set up and second act within sedate, rustic surroundings while subtle cracks appear from the outset in the shape of soft whispers (the voice in Jessica’s head). A piercing, portentous wind accompanies a ghostly figure that haunts the backdrop (or is it in Jessica’s mind?) providing further unease. While added agitation is evoked via an excellent experimental score by Orville Stoeber, who went on to provide music for Freddy’s Nightmares (and appear in Mousehunt). Stoeber’s incredible music (like the film) incorporates a wide variety of sounds, styles and instruments. Ominous piano, guitar/ mandarin and warbling synths meld, often tunelessly, to frighten at frequently inappropriate times, creating an apt sense of foreboding disorientation throughout. Also, like the score, the story unfurls unconventionally, in a manner that’s more eerie and seditious than simply punctuating the plot with excessive gore or scare jolts.
Scenes featuring Jessica in a boat, on a cove, basked in golden sunlight provide a context that make the disturbing elements even more unsettling. Weird visions of a girl in a white dress parading through a graveyard and at the bottom of a lake, distress, as do those featuring Jessica etching gravestones, conducting séances and openly inviting spirits into her new home (something the mentally unhinged should probably avoid). All these sequences are not odd within the context of a horror film from any era, yet LSJTD still feels distinctive due to its ingenious tactics, traits and subtle scares. For a while LSJTD feels almost genreless. The story and style saunter lost like Jessica’s mind, but its slow transition into horror is carefully orchestrated and so seamless, you almost won’t notice it. Eventually events divert the narrative into darker terrain until by the end you realise what it is you have been watching, and it is in those strange moments of transition between styles, where Jessica finds its strength.
LSJTD is a flawed one of a kind, especially when looking at some of the other horrors released in 1971. The story works well with and within a combination of sub-genres: psycho thriller, haunted house film, vampire movie and LSJTD’s inspiration is evident on more recent, highly regarded works. The 70s proto-mumblecore/ soap opera aura and uncanny ambience can be felt in the likes of Let The Right One In and We Are Still Here. But unfortunately, for all that it sabotages, distorts and encourages, LSJTD is often mired by a dawdling narrative and hotchpotch production. A horror that places emphasis on its characters over theatrics is often a rare and reputable beast, but the characters in this case aren’t sufficiently crafted and developed enough in terms of writing and performances. Yet LSJTD still features and retains so many groundbreaking facets and John D Hancock’s film deserves a wider audience to experience its unique, oblique horror and the films it went on to inspire.
Words: Dan Goodwin