Tuesday, October 7, 2008
Madness Or Sanity
I feel like I should be writing more about horror films right now, what with autumn here and Halloween coming, but the heat just won’t go away. How is it so hot in Studio City in the middle of the day in October? Where’s the leaves, the wind, that fall chill in the air that makes me want to go home to watch a Hammer film? Not in L.A. these days, that’s for sure. But sometimes you need to find a horror movie and watch it because, after all, it is that time of year. So for starters there’s the 1971 cult item LET’S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH.
Jessica (Zohra Lampert, Kinderman’s wife in THE EXORCIST III) is a woman recently released from an mental institution (or “That place” as she calls it) who travels to a farmhouse away from the city with her husband Duncan (Barton Heyman, “Mrs. MacNeil, the problem with your daughter is not her bed,” in THE EXORCIST) and their friend Woody (Kevin O’Connor). The three arrive in a hearse with “Love” and a peace sign painted onto the side (“Damn hippies,” one of the old men in town observes, though the three are obviously in their thirties). As soon as they arrive at the farmhouse they encounter a younger girl named Emily (Mariclare Costello) who has been living there by herself but since everyone is very accommodating in that hippie way they invite her to stay. But as Emily makes her way into their lives soon enough Jessica begins to hear voices and witness the continuous sight of a silent girl dressed in white (Gretchen Corbett, best remembered as Beth Davenport on THE ROCKFORD FILES) which cause her to once again question her own sanity. Is she in fact losing her mind? Is there something haunting the farmhouse? Is there any truth to the legend of the girl who drowned behind the house and now some say she’s a vampire? Is it all just a setup to drive Jessica mad once again?
Part of the oddness of JESSICA as directed by John Hancock is that it comes from the time when movies like this were allowed to be off-kilter. There’s a genuine odd sense that permeates the whole film, growing as it continues. It’s not dread but just a notion that something isn’t right, as if just watching it is causing the room you’re in to drop a few degrees. It’s a very slow burn—I would imagine that on the page it would seem as if nothing happens for a long time, but on film it continually gives the feeling of things not quite right through weird music cues as well as sound work that hauntingly provides a wind blowing through many scenes, as well as other audio puzzles—is that a scream heard off in the distance or just a bird? The character of Jessica is even given a running internal monologue as she continually tries to sort out what’s going on in her head, something which shouldn’t work but actually does in this context. It’s the sort of movie that feels like you should only watch it in the middle of the night. Its deadly serious earnestness will seem not silly but genuinely affecting and the building creepiness may make you wish that Jessica is wrong and it never really turns into an actual horror movie.
Zohra Lampert is an extremely unusual personality to have as the lead in a film, especially this one. She seems nervous and eager to please right from the start and many of her mannerisms don’t even seem like acting. It’s like watching a horror film with Elaine May as the lead, played totally straight and with that sort of personality the overall effect becomes more unusual as the film goes on. There’s an episode of THE BOB NEWHART SHOW she did that can be found on Hulu.com and she has an interesting presence there too, the sort that seems to belong in the seventies but no other decade.
LET’S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH contains a narrative which is extremely elusive and borderline frustrating. Why don’t these people ever look for local law enforcement? What is it with the old men? Why aren’t there any women in the town? Even the pacing seems somehow off, yet this also seems deliberate. One shot of a minor character feels held for a length that seems to make the sequence drag…and then an unexpected grin begins to form on his face, causing a genuine shiver. Some of it seems meant to be ambiguous yet there’s that old bugaboo of these sorts of movies which is to kill the POV by having scenes take place away from the lead character. Plotwise, it feels more along the lines of CARNIVAL OF SOULS than ROSEMARY'S BABY, but no real complaints from me about that. Taking a look at some of it again it’s also very possible that the film is the exact opposite of ambiguous and everything really is spelled out practically in capital letters. I’m still not sure. Even when everything feels like it’s revealed in its final moments there really isn’t the satisfaction that you’ve gotten all the answers. The end, when it comes, is almost surprisingly abrupt and on first glance maybe unsatisfying, but in thinking back on it it’s possible that it’s just saying that the ‘what’ of the film’s mysteries doesn’t matter. What we’ve witnessed might be real, it might be not. If you’re not able to tell the difference any more, then what does it matter. Which just might be the scariest thing of all.