Let’s Scare Jessica To Death

Year: 1971
Studio: Paramount Pictures
Director: John D Hancock
Writer: John D Hancock/Lee Kalcheim
Cast: Zohra Lampert, Barton Hayman, Kevin O'Connor, Gretchen Corbett

If I remember correctly I watched this movie after hearing it mentioned in connection with Quentin Tarantino's name – either because he extolled its virtues or someone compared it to some element of his work.

First of all the title is a smokescreen – the whole way through you're waiting for a twist that explains how the people surrounding the titular heroine (Zohra Lampert) were conspiring against her the whole time, but the film never explains just who's deciding to scare Jessica to death.

But she arrives with husband Duncan (Barton Heyman) and their friend Woody (Kevin O'Connor) at a country house on a small farm with a lake nearby, and it's her chance to heal after a breakdown that's led to a spell in a mental hospital – fixing the place up, swimming, eating good food, drinking wine and enjoying the lifestyle. The locals are none too happy at the free-spirited young hippies who blow into town, but the gang try not to let that bother them as they settle in.

No sooner have they arrived than they uncover a young woman squatting in the house, Emily (Gretchen Corbett), who frightens Jessica by leaping out a doorway after a search around the creaky hallways and dimly lit rooms. After things settle down, Emily explains her situation and they insist she stay awhile until she gets on her feet, the four of them forming an effective quartet that might just help Jessica return to a healthy frame of mind.

But Jessica still has weird feelings and wonders if she sees things out of the corner of her eye. They also learn from the local antiques dealer that the daughter of the house a hundred years before drowned in the lake on her wedding day, and after finding stuff belonging to the former owners in the dusty attic, Jessica can't help but realise that the dead girl in the century old photo looks just like their houseguest.

Is Emily a 100 year old vampire ghost who roams the property, ultimately killing every man who trespasses on her turf? Or is Jessica not cured at all, seeing things in the shadows and ready to crack again at any moment? Psychological horror wasn't a big genre in the early 1970s, but director John D Hancock is more interested in making you wonder what's really going on until the final scenes, putting you very much in Jessica's shoes.

There are some very effective scary scenes where the dank cinematography and disturbing music will make you want to turn the lights on, but even though the aesthetic mood works, it never really comes to a head as a horror movie. There's a mystery story aspect to the ghost legend that will keep you interested, it all just needs to be gorier – maybe just scarier – to really have an impact.

That said, there is a strange X factor around star Lampert that makes her very watchable. She's not the best actress nor the most attractive woman, but there's something in her early Mia Farrow hair and huge dark eyes that draws you in and makes you want her to be okay.

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