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.

10 comments:

J.D. said...

This is wonderfully creepy and genuinely unsettling film. As you point out, one that took advantage of the ability to make off-kilter films at that time. You'd be hard-pressed to make it now... maybe independently.

Very nice write-up. You basically summed up my feelings about why I like this one so much. A lot of what is unsaid is what really gets under my skin about this film.

Nicholas said...

I caught this as a kid (on television) and only really remembered the atmosphere and that amazing title. When the dvd came out a few years back, I had a vivid experience watching it. My wife's sister was taking a nap in my living room and I shut my eyes for a while myself. I woke up in that post-nap haze and made some strong coffee, then turned the DVD on my laptop so as not to disturb my guest. I sat there in bed, drinking coffee, watching this movie unfold as it got dark outside. It felt like a perfect disassociated mood to catch the film again. Today I still remember it as I did from childhood -- as all atmosphere.

Good to read of it again here.

Mr. Peel said...

Glad to hear that others like this film and confirm my thoughts that there is something about this movie which you can't quite put into words. Maybe that feeling it gives off doesn't have to be described, just absorbed. I love the idea of watching it in a half-awake frame of mind as the sun goes down. Thanks very much to you both.

Joe Valdez said...

That poster has to be one of the worst ever, but the screen grabs look like they could have been shot in 1995. Thanks for reviewing this flick, Peel. I tried watching it a couple of months ago, but never got around to it. It pops up frequently on lists of overlooked classics.

All I know from John Hancock is that he was the original director of Jaws 2 and got fired apparently because the dailies looked too much like this movie: gothic and odd.

Mr. Peel said...

Joe--

It's not a very good poster and doesn't really represent the film very well at all, but I sort of liked displaying how it clashed with the more sensitive shots from the actual film. JAWS 2 is something I've known about but it seemed a little too off-topic to get into it. Still, I wonder what that version of the movie would have been like. Probably not something that Universal wanted. JESSICA, on the other hand, is very good and I hope you wind up giving it another try.

Jeremy Richey said...

Seriously give me a desert island with this film, LEMORA and FULL CIRCLE (THE HAUNTING OF JULIA) and I am one very happy camper. I was so glad when this finally hit DVD a couple of years back although I still have a sentimental attachment to my old full frame VHS copy.

Mr. Peel said...

It seemed strange that Paramount released it on DVD, much as I liked it, since it doesn't really have any marketable names attached to it. Is the cult for it that strong? Did they just think it would sell as part of a Halloween set? I do understand hanging on to a VHS for those reasons. I've got a few of those.

Arbogast's Ghost said...

Zorah Lampert's inner monologue in this reminded me of Lon Chaney, Jr. in the old "Inner Sanctum" movies, where he was always talking to himself (or listening to himself). I got to see this as a child (not as a kid, as a child) at the cinema and it has really stayed with me.

Mr. Peel said...

Arbogast--

I've seen a few Inner Sanctum films and wow, you're absolutely right. That inner monologue really does give off a feel of 'what is this movie?'. If I'd seen it when I was a child I'm sure it would have seriously freaked me out.

Jordynne Olivia Lobo said...

Since I fist saw her in 'Pay Or Die' (co-starring with Ernest Borgnine who played NY City Detective Lieutenant Joe Petrosino) Zohra Lampert was one of my favorite actresses. Never could understand why she didn't get more and better roles as her acting is as affecting in 'Pay Or Die' and 'Let's Scare Jessica to Death' as I found it to be in everything else I've seen her work in - including an 'Alfred Hitchcock Presents' TV episode opposite Robert Redford.