Saturday, October 23, 2010

31 days, 31 faves: Let's Scare Jessica to Death

When Let's Scare Jessica To Death (1971) starts, it honestly seems like a made for television movie. Its obvious low budget roots and voice overs by Jessica (Zohra Lampert) almost seem like a "movie-of-the-week". But not so fast...

Set to stay at an isolated old farmhouse after a six month stay at a mental institution, Jessica just wants to get on with her life. Her hubby and a family friend have come with her, and on the way there they stop at a nearby graveyard so she can do some tombstone tracings. (Curious hobby, but what the heck.) As she does the transfer, she looks up and sees a young woman, dressed in a short white dress. When she motions to tell the others, naturally the woman disappears. She hears a bit of whispering in the back of her head (or is it?) but tells herself she's fine. As a slight fear of insanity creeps back over her, she chooses not to tell hubby Duncan (Barton Heyman) and Woody (Kevin O'Connor).

They make their way across the cove on the ferry, they take a drive through the little town before arriving at the gorgeous house, enveloped in fog as it will continue to be throughout the entire film. As the men unload, Jessica goes up to the house and is startled to see someone sitting in the rocking chair on the porch. Or does she? When she looks again, no one.
When the guys finally join her, they go inside and in fact discover someone walking around upstairs.

Searching all the rooms, they finally find the source. A redhead shows up, and basically admits she has been squatting in the house because she thought it was empty.
After talking to her a few minutes, Jessica invites her to stay for dinner and overnight. (Which to me is extremely strange. Maybe people were more like that back in the early 70's with the free love and all, but seriously, you don't even know her!)

Emily (Mariclare Costello), a college drop-out, charms them by playing the guitar and singing, which sends Duncan into the other room to grab up his Bass Violin and start an impromptu jam session of sorts. Jessica listens, smiling on the outside but questioning Duncan's intentions on the inside. It's obvious she has some serious self-confidence issues compounded by mental woes that perhaps aren't as tucked away as she'd like. She stares at the dinner at the table, transfixed by the bloody meat juices on the plate.

After dinner, conversation runs to the weird and wacky, including discussions of Jessica's father's death and spirits in general. It should have been a great big fat hint when Emily mutters the line: "Nothing's ever completely dead, right?"
Emily suggests having a seance, and calls to the spirits that have died in the house. (Okay, time for the nutty visitor to leave...) She asks Jessica to do the same, and a strange whispering begins. Jessica seems to be in her own little world, hearing a strange moaning sound. She doesn't admit to having heard all the noises, lest everyone thinks she's in need of mental help again, and heads off to bed with Duncan.

In the bedroom, Jessica is admiring her latest gravestone transfers, which she has hung on the wall (and I thought I had some creepy art on my walls!) Even though that subject is morbid, they feel the need to have sex. Whatever it takes, I guess.
Downstairs, Woody, inspired by the frolicking going on upstairs, tries to put the moves on Emily. She rebuffs him, but does ask him to go for a walk, where he is able to get a few kisses. When he attempts to get a little more frisky than that she stops him, telling him not to worry - that she won't go away.

In the cove the next day, the foursome is taking a dip when it appears Duncan is enjoying rubbing Emily's neck. It does seem a bit rude for him to be doing such a thing, especially when his wife is watching.
Soon, Emily leaves to go back and make some lunch and Jessica takes a swim a little further out. Without warning, she sees someone under the water - a redheaded woman floating - and she starts screaming when it touches her. When the men help her out of the water, the young girl from the graveyard is again standing on the shore.
Duncan and Woody try to reassure her that the cove is safe - that nothing is in the water.
During a rather quiet lunch, we hear Jessica's inner thoughts. She's sure Duncan thinks she's losing it again, but she tells herself she's most certainly not.

Set on selling off old antiques left at the house, they begin searching the property for things to sell. Jessica explores the attic, finding a trunk filled with old clothing, including what appears to be a wedding dress. Just as she notices an old photo on the wall in a silver frame, Duncan finds her. They take the photo as well as a bunch of the old junk and load up the car.
As they are about to leave for town, Duncan, with Jessica's blessing, asks Emily to stay on with them at the house. Woody (most likely living up to his name right about now) is pretty psyched when she says yes.

In town, no one seems very friendly. All of them seem to have bandages on them, which Jessica makes a note of. One man in particular even slaps Duncan on the head. What the hell?
Weirded out, they head on to the antiques dealer. Thankfully, the dealer is relatively normal. They make some deals and sell off some of their things.
However, when the antique dealer notices the photo in the silver frame, he balks at buying it. When he hears they bought the old Bishop place, he explains that the photo is of the Bishop family, and their daughter Abigail drowned the night before her wedding, way back in 1880. Apparently they never found her body, and legend has it she's a ghost, or even a vampire that roams the countryside.
Getting a paltry $250 out of the dealer for an assortment of their things (including the Bishop photo), Jessica and Duncan head home. The dealer heads out onto the lake to fish.

Later, Woody is off in the apple orchard, dusting the crops on an old tractor. Duncan and Jessica are back at the cemetery finding more stones to do etchings of when they find a mole. For some reason this really thrills Jessica and she decides she wants to keep it so she sends the hubby back to get a box.
She wanders the graveyard until she comes across Abigail Bishop's stone. Just then, the girl in the white dress shows up, motioning her to follow her. Jessica does, right into the woods near the lake. What she sees is the antique dealer, all bloody and most certainly dead. When she brings Duncan to the site, of course he's not there. But the girl in the white dress is, and Duncan gives chase, finally catching her.

They demand to know who she is, but discover she's mute. Jessica tries very hard to get mute-girl to speak, to tell Duncan and the recently arrived Woody and Emily that she isn't crazy -that there really was a dead man. But she doesn't back Jessica's story up.

Totally ignoring the episode with the girl, the four in the house sit around and joke during dinner, with Jessica's inner voice still telling her that Duncan wants Emily. She feigns being tired and heads up to bed, as does Woody, leaving Duncan and Emily alone. Glances are exchanged, but Duncan retreats to bed nonetheless.

Duncan pleads with Jessica to go back to New York and see her doctor, which leads to a major argument in which Jessica does indeed seem a little off her rocker. Duncan leaves the room to sleep elsewhere, and poor Jessica curls into a ball and weeps, not sure if she's truly losing it or not.

Soon, we see a hand reaching into the little mole's house (a glass jar) and stabs the poor little guy.(I'm guessing he didn't even see it coming. Sorry, not funny...)
Right after this episode, Emily comes on to Duncan, who reciprocates very willingly. We don't see much of the doing, but are led to believe they make all kinds of love.

In the morning, Jessica discovers her little dead friend. She tries to explain to her three housemates that she thinks the same person who killed the antiques dealer killed the mole. Naturally they all think she's now bat-shit crazy. Who wouldn't? I mean, it's a rare individual who has a vengeance against antique dealers and moles.

When Duncan drives off to town, Jessica observes Emily and him saying goodbye at the car, and she notices a kiss is exchanged. She retreats to the attic and the first thing she notices is the Bishop photo is back on the wall in the attic. (How on earth she can't see that Emily is in the photo - from the 1800's mind you - is beyond me!) She hears whispering, voices from long ago that speak of Abigail.
When Emily joins her in the attic, Jessica finally acknowledges that the woman in the photo looks absolutely like her. Emily, touching Jessica on the face, speaks to her without opening her mouth - she becomes the voice in her head, telling her to look at her eyes. It's a very creepy moment, brushed off quickly with the recommendation of a swim.

The two women head off for the cove. When Emily begins to rub suntan lotion on Jessica, she gets a bit too close for comfort, bringing a lesbian vibe into the film. Jessica rebukes the advances, and becomes utterly frightened when Emily pushes her into the water then joins her.

When Jessica struggles towards shore, she realizes she is alone in the water. Panicking, she follows an inner voice she hears in her head, desperately trying to get out of the water.
She's then pulled under by someone, and though she is able to get away and rush to shore, she then sees Emily coming out of the water, walking towards her.
Whispering that Jessica is home now, Emily comes onto shore and tries to attack her and bite her neck. Jessica runs back to the house and hides in her bedroom, beyond frightened. Still, she hears the whispering.
(Now dammit, isn't it quite ironic that she would move into a house that is being haunted? That she'd hear ghostly voices from beyond yet wonder if it was all in her head? I think this is what is one of the best things about the film, the fact that we as the audience, have no idea if Jessica is losing it - it's all about how you as the viewer decides to translate it.)

Jessica tries to convince herself that she has nothing to live for, all the while in the background, the whispering continues, complete with an otherworldly banging noise that won't stop (sounding a whole lot like The Haunting, truth be told).
Confused about what to do, she heads off to town to find Duncan.

Woody returns to the house after working in the orchards, finding Emily alone in the house and dressed in the wedding dress from the attic. She tries to tempt him, but he's not blind to what has been going on with her and Duncan. After giving her a mini-lecture on the value of morality, he still succumbs to her. A man is a man, after all. In the heat of the moment, Emily appears to bite Woody's neck.

Meanwhile, Jessica gets a lift into town, but everyone she talks to has no idea what she is talking about. Not only that, but every single person she sees has a strange bite, scar, or injury on their neck. (So we really must be talking vampires here, right?) She runs off, back to the woods where the young girl showed up, but she can't find her and collapses on the ground.

(Read no further if spoilers aren't your thing.)

Eventually it gets dark and Duncan manages to find her. Heading back to the house, the couple heads off to bed, obviously both feeling very amorous - until Jessica sees a strange mark on Duncan's neck. Just as they are getting it on, Emily arrives in the bedroom, toting along with her a posse of townsfolk. She immediately tries to injure Jessica.

Barely escaping, she rushes out to find Woody on his tractor (it's not even dawn) but sees that he has been killed.

Running through the woods and to the shoreline, she tries to take the ferry but the ferryman also has neck issues.
She gets in a boat and rows out onto the water. When someone emerges from the water and tries to get onto the boat, she ends up beating her alleged assailant to death with a fishing pick. When the victim turns over, it's Duncan.

What we can take away from this spook-fest is this: the entire thing is open to interpretation. Are we dealing with just ghosts here, or vampires? Vampires, right? Vampire ghosts may be more accurate.
Let's just say, if Emily/Abigail isn't a vampire, then how do we explain the bandages on everyone's neck and the fact that she always heads for the neck when she's going to attack? But then again, if the vampire theory is correct, then she must have been one of the undead before she drowned in the 1800's, right? Because to my knowledge, vampires can't drown. And let's face it, we never see any actual blood-sucking.
But then again, subtlety is a lost art, and this film has it in droves.
No matter how one interprets it (and I do choose the vampire theory, for the record), this film is a rare gem with a ton of atmosphere and creepy fun.


Aaron said...

LOVE this movie! I really need to watch it again... it seems to be coming up a lot as of late. I went into this one with an idea of what to expect, but not really. Very atmospheric and, I dunno... strange? There were times where I'd see something in the background (like a crew member's leg) and think "was I supposed to see that?" And like you said, the movie doesn't give you all the answers, which I appreciate (especially in this day and age when everything seems to be dumbed down and explained for everyone). Thanks for covering this. More people need to see this movie!

Cinema Du Meep said...

My second favorite horror film of all time (After the original Halloween)

This movie does it completely right. Love it to death!

Christine Hadden said...

Aaron: It really is a great atmospheric film. Zohra Lampert was so freaky in the title role you'd think she was nuts herself. Talk about method acting! And I like the vague storyline, it makes it more eerie.

CDM: Ah, Halloween. Yep, that one is truly one of the best. Period.

Andre said...

Ooh oooh I think you will enjoy my Paracinema article. It may make you rethink your decision on vampires....!! But it will also depress you. Sorry.

Christine Hadden said...

@André- The first time I saw this film I had no real idea if it was ghosts or what. The vampire thing just didn't occur to me. Then I kept reading all these reviews where people were calling it a 'vampire film' and I was like whaaaat? So I watched it again. And again. Hence my coming around to that idea. Now when I watch it I'm still not really sure...

I simply cannot wait to hear your thoughts!!

The Mike said...

Fantastic, as always, ma'am. Your choices this month have been fantastic, and the write-ups are spot on. Mega kudos.

Christine Hadden said...

Thanks, Mike! It is really hard, believe it or not, to narrow down my favorite 31 films! I mean, there are around 15 I knew I had to include (some of which aren't posted yet of course) but then I was just like, 'who can I leave out??"
It's also kind of a bitch to write a lengthy review every day, which I found out about five days in and then it was too late ;o)

Aaron said...

Re: The "Ghost vs. Vampire" debate

I don't consider this to be a vampire movie at all. I see it as a ghost story, but perhaps I do need to watch it again.