Wandering around Collectormania London recently, I saw on one of the stalls a copy of Let’s Scare Jessica To Death, John D Hancock’s cult chiller from 1971. This was a movie that had long been on my want-to-see list, thanks largely to the critic Kim Newman. In my late teens, I was a regular browser of Newman’s 1988 book Nightmare Movies, in which the author championed the film, describing it as “shamefully underrated” – though, really, the title of the movie alone was enough to convince me that I ought to see it if I ever got the chance (see also Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things).
The stallholder was asking the not-unreasonable sum of £4.99, so I paid up and took the disc home. When I sat down to watch it last Saturday night, a curious thing happened: the film’s title prevented me from enjoying it as fully as I should have. To understand why, you have to know something about Jessica’s narrative – and here be spoilers, so if you’d rather be blind to what happens in this movie, shut your eyes now. (Beware the trailer below, too.)
Let’s Scare Jessica To Death begins with the titular character (Zohra Lampert), plus her husband Duncan (Barton Heyman) and his friend Woody (Kevin O’Connor), arriving at a house in the country to start a new life. Jessica has spent some time in what these days we’d call a psychiatric unit, but which was commonly known 40 years ago as a mental institution. Straight away, she starts seeing odd things, but it’s not clear – to the characters or viewer – whether Jessica is experiencing delusions, or whether strange, perhaps even supernatural, happenings really are afoot. At least, this is the way it’s supposed to work.
My problem was that I spent an hour and a half convinced that Jessica was experiencing nothing stranger than a set-up designed to drive her to suicide or a coronary, or perhaps even back to the psyche ward. When it became clear that her husband was doing sexy stuff with house guest Emily (Mariclare Costello), the same woman who was doing scary stuff to Jessica, the notion that this whole thing was a macabre, malicious prank seemed so obvious. How could it be anything else? The clue was right there in the title. Consequently, while a couple of the film’s shocks worked on me, the chills really didn’t stand a chance.
And it’s a shame because, in the end, the two readings that the film seems to offer are both more unsettling than the one I had running through my head on Saturday. It turned out that this was a horror film, whether supernatural or psychological, but I was experiencing it as a crime thriller – one where I was also one step ahead of the central victim. Of course, Let’s Scare Jessica To Death isn’t the first film I’ve seen whose title has little to do with its story – horror and exploitation have plenty of form in this area – but it is the first movie I’ve seen whose title has, on first watch, actively worked against its effectiveness.
I don’t know whether to feel fascinated or robbed. If I didn’t like the film, and Let’s Scare Jessica To Death wasn’t such a great title for something, everything would be so much easier.