Tuesday, January 21, 2020

LET'S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH (1971) Blu-ray Review

Let’s Scare Jessica to Death (1971) d. John D. Hancock (USA) (88 min)

Following her release from a sanitarium, emotionally sensitive Jessica (Zohra Lampert) leaves NYC with her classical musician husband Duncan (Barton Heywood) and their like-minded hippie friend Woody (Kevin O’Connor) to find peace and quiet working an apple orchard in Connecticut. But when they encounter a strange, beautiful squatter, Emily (Mariclare Costello), residing in the farmhouse, Jessica’s unstable world begins to crumble. And, like our heroine, the viewer is never quite sure what is reality or nightmare, madness or sanity….

This brilliant low-budget psychological chiller combines elements of ghosts, vampires, and zombies, yet manages to find its own uniquely eerie voice. Filmed in and around Haddam and Chester, Connecticut, over the course of 25 chilly October and November days on a budget of only $250,000, Jessica ultimately brought in $20 million during its 1971 summer theatrical release. It was later discovered by many more viewers (including this one) over the years via television screenings and VHS rentals, building a small but dedicated fan base along the way.

TV screenwriter Lee Kalcheim’s original script was envisioned as a parody of scary movies with a legitimate monster running amok. But Hancock approached the material with a serious bent, incorporating elements from his own childhood (apple orchard, gravestone rubbing, his father’s huge coffin-like bass case). For a number of reasons, Hancock ultimately chose to be credited as “Ralph Rose” for his screenwriting efforts while Kalcheim also elected for a pseudonymous credit, that of “Norman Jonas.”

Inspired by Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, Hancock allows us to enter Jessica’s fragile mind through effective use of self-doubting voice-over (“Don’t tell them, they won’t believe you,”) as well as an ongoing chorus of entreating, berating, and haunting inner voices. The evocative score by Orville Stoeber (aided immeasurably by Walter Sear’s electronic synthesizer) remains one of the best of the early ’70s, augmenting Hancock’s unsettling atmosphere.

Lampert (Exorcist III) offers a gutsy, raw, heartbreaking performance as a woman fighting fiercely for her sanity, and Heywood (The Exorcist) is quite good as her husband, sincere and loving while deeply frustrated by Jessica’s deteriorating mental state. As their faithful companion Woody, Kevin O’Connor (Special Effects) provides a warm, steadfast presence, while Costello (Nightmares) captures just the right tone as Emily, the mysterious, sexy stranger that forever changes their lives.

An underrated gem, deserving of multiple viewings, and now finally available from Shout! Factory on Blu-ray with a long-overdue commentary track from Hancock among its other supplemental features. (Yes, you can finally pitch that bare-bones Paramount DVD from 2006.) Rather than trying to shock or startle, Jessica insinuates on a deeper level, creating a spell that lingers without flashy effects or gore, boasting a wealth of subtle, memorable sequences and surprises around every corner.


NEW Audio commentary with director John Hancock and producer Bill Badalato

NEW “Art Saved My Life” with composer Orville Stoeber (16 min)

NEW “Scare Tactics: Reflections on a Seventies Horror Classic” with author/film Historian Kim Newman (24 min)

NEW "She Walks These Hills – The Film’s Locations Then And Now" (7 min)

Theatrical Trailer

TV Spot

Radio Spot

Still Gallery

Let’s Scare Jessica to Death will be available on Blu-ray on January 28, 2020 from Shout! Factory and I available for pre-order HERE:



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