Friday 9 March 2018

WDGB #79: Let's Scare Jessica to Death (1971)

It's such a great title, promising so much. It suggests a wild ride. It suggests spooky Scooby Doo fun.
It fools you.

I mean, it's not that Let's Scare Jessica to Death doesn't have something of the trashy to it – it's cheap, at least one pivotal plot development is really silly, the dialogue is pretty terrible – but it's got an art to it, a feeling of dread. Every image is beautifully composed. The atmosphere is thick and languid. It feels exactly like those bright but desperately lonely summer afternoons that so defined my childhood, where it felt like I was the only living person on earth, where it felt like I was being haunted.
It was real. It happened.
It's a lonely film, in that respect. Jessica (Zohra Lampert) has been, we gather, institutionalised for several months. She's still fragile. She moves to a small town far from anywhere with her husband Duncan (Barton Heyman) and their friend Woody (Kevin O’Connor). They've bought the Old Bishop Place; when they arrive, they find a young woman called Emily (Mariclare Costello) already living there. Apologetically, Emily explains that she's been squatting, and is about to leave, but Jessica and the men suggest she stay a while and hang out.

But Jessica is still unsure of what's real. A barefoot girl in a white shift (Gretchen Corbett) appears to her, and Jessica doesn't know if she's real or not. We hear Jessica's internal monologue – the best dialogue in the film by some distance – and she's trying to reason with herself, trying to be strong. She's trying to be well, in the way that you do when you're unwell and you don't know how to be well, and you try anyway without really grasping that the effort is the opposite of healthy. So when Jessica begins to suspect that something terrible is going on and Emily is in the middle of it, she doesn't know what to do.

In fact, we see objective evidence of the actual state of things some time before Jessica does. It doesn't matter. Jessica is scared to death, and Jessica being scared to death – and by “to death” we mean the figurative way most people use it, not literally in the way that, for example, Lily in I Am the Pretty Thing that Lives in the House is scared to death.
I just found this place.

The title, then, Let's Scare Jessica to Death, might be expected to suggest that characters in the film conspire to freak out poor Jessica. In fact, the exhortation is one that the film makers – the director John D. Hancock, his cowriter Lee Kalcheim – have applied to themselves, and to us. Let's create situations where Jessica is afraid. Let's have fun watching Jessica scared to death. The title of the film reminds us of our complicity in this, implying that scaring Jessica to death is a fun communal activity. Let's shoot some hoops. Let's go for a drive. Let's play Twister. Let's scare Jessica to death. You can't have a horror film without an audience, and it's the audience who this is for, it's the audience who are getting the fun out of it. It's the tree in a forest construction: if a horror film gets made and no one watches it, is anyone scared?

If we're watching, Jessica is scared.

The film’s folk horror elements tend to the Lovecraftian, in the way that we see a community corrupted by an immortal monstrous agency, and even if the agency itself is described – briefly – as the most quintessential of gothic horror villains, it almost doesn't matter. I'm categorising Let's Scare Jessica to Death as folk horror here, but you could just as easily call it American gothic, or a vampire movie, or a ghost story.

What drives the film, whatever the box you put it in, is Jessica, scared. it's Zohra Lampert who holds the film together, and her performance as Jessica is a study of, well, every sort of fear you can imagine. She's afraid of looking like she's sick. She's afraid of losing her man to another woman. She's afraid of young women who might be imaginary. She's afraid of a town entirely inhabited by creepy old men. She's afraid of her home. She's afraid of leaving her home. She's afraid of an antique photograph she thought she'd sold. Long wordless sequences, scattered across the film, show us a woman who's as afraid of the demons in her head as rhetoric ones outside (and who assumes that they're all internal anyway, and is more scared as a result). And she really is not well, and worse, she's not well in that awful way that you get with real mental illnesses where you don't have any way of not being ill, and where you become so preoccupied with not looking like you're ill that there isn't any actual way you can appear healthy, and there's a part of you watching this whole process, appalled.
It could look like anyone.
Any reputation Let's Scare Jessica to Death has rests on the languorous, summery visuals that for me so typify a certain sort of American genre film, Zohra Lampert’s performance, and Jessica's internal monologues. The spoken dialogue, on the other hand, is at the very best workmanlike and functional, and at worst written with a tin ear. It almost entirely falls into the “No one actually talks like this” category, and I think that it's not a terribly controversial opinion to suggest that Let's Scare Jessica to Death is at its best when no one is talking.

It's almost as if the dialogue is wholly there because it has to be, so we can get to the business at hand: scaring Jessica to death.

By calling this film Let's Scare Jessica to Death, we're (accidentally? Yeah, probably) invited to participate in, or at least condone, a campaign of harassment and abuse, as perpetrated by the creators of a film against a fictional person they've created, and the fact that none of the characters in the film are in on it (as in, no one is specifically setting out to scare Jessica to death) pushes the blame for that on to the creators and, more meaningfully, us, who abet them through the act of watching.

Does it work? In strictly narrative terms, the film ends with a stalemate, but then a definitive climax was never the intention, and the sense you get is of the declaration that now that Jessica has indeed thoroughly been driven out of her wits, we're done here, and it's time to go home.