Let's Scare Jessica to Death: A Review
Let's get this out of the way right now: Let's Scare Jessica to Death is not the 87th Scariest Movie of All Time. Honestly, it's not even really a scary movie, let alone one of the best of all time. What it really is, more often than not, is a boring slog through 89 minutes.
Released in 1971 by Paramount Pictures and directed by John Hancock, a man who would later go on to direct movies about baseball, marines, and fighter pilots. The movie begins by introducing us to the titular Jessica, played by Zohra Lampert. Jessica is sitting in a rowboat and pondering the meaning of life. Jessica is not quite sure whether she is crazy or not, and even after watching the movie, I don't have a clue, either. Flashing back a few days, we find that Jessica has just been released from a mental hospital. Why she was in there in the first place is never elaborated on. This is a recurring theme throughout the movie. Things just tend to happen because, well, they do.
In order to help her recover, Jessica's husband, Duncan (Barton Heyman), has purchased a home for them out in the middle of nowhere. With the help of their friend, Woody (Kevin O'Connor), the three of them pile into their hearse and head out to their new home. Upon arrival, they find a squatter there going by the name of Emily (Mariclare Costello), whom Jessica invites to stay for dinner because, well, she does. When she sees that Woody has taken a fancy to the squatter, Jessica invites Emily to stay on for an extended period of time. That would be all well and good, except that Emily doesn't seem to have much interest in Woody. She does, however, have an interest in Duncan. Maybe.
You see, it's hard to tell what is really going on here. Jessica is fresh from the loony bin but even though she was released, she might not all be there. Jessica has been seeing a mysterious blonde girl that appears and disappears, she discovers a corpse that gets misplaced before she can get anyone else to take a look at it to confirm its validity, a picture frame that Jessica sold to an antiques dealer has reappeared and seems to point to Emily being something other than just a regular squatter, and it's all really very tiring. By the time it is revealed that Emily might be the vampiric previous owner of the house, who supposedly drowned in the lake a century ago, you're long past the point of caring. You don't care what happens to Woody or Duncan or anyone else, for that matter, and when Jessica ends up in the rowboat questioning her sanity, you can already guess that nothing will be explained to satisfaction here. Is Emily a vampire or is Jessica just nuts? Has anything in this movie actually happened or is all just the delusions of someone who should still be getting professional help?
The problem with this movie is not that things aren't wrapped up in a neat little bow. You can have an ending where you are not quite sure if anything you just watched was real or not (American Psycho does a pretty good job of that). But if you are going to do that, you really need to be able to build up enough goodwill with the audience to get the leeway necessary for that kind of non-ending. Let's Scare Jessica to Death does not do that nearly as good as it needs to. Things happen for no reason (why are they driving a hearse?) and no explanation (who is the blonde girl Jessica keeps seeing?) and the acting is not nearly good enough for us to sympathize with any of these people.
The movie's worst crime, really, is that it's boring. In 2006, the Chicago Film Critic's Association proclaimed this movie the 87th Scariest of All Time. Looking at the list, there is definitely plenty of other movies that don't belong there, but I can't for the life of me picture anyone at all being scared by this movie. The movie is too slow and plodding for any kind of real tension.
- CFCA: 100 Scariest Movies of All-Time list
Chicago Film Critics Association's 100 Scariest Movies of All-Time.