This is a transcript of the great introduction from Cult Film Historian Darrell Buxton from Friday 21st February 2014’s screening of LET’S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH.
LET’S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH
Greetings, horror fans, and welcome once agin to QUAD’s regular shock movie slot Fright Club. My name’s Darrell Buxton, I’m a Derby-based writer and critic and every month I’m here to introduce our latest offering in the field of cinematic terror.
We’re going retro with tonight’s show, bringing you a revival of a film that really ought to be better known and should be shown more often. From its title alone, I’m sure you can already tell that LET’S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH isn’t going to be your ordinary, run of the mill fright item. It’s one of those movies that fans of my generation read about in various horror film books, with sketchy information being offered and the occasional tantalising still photo depicted. It was released theatrically in the UK, but probably not widely – it is possible that we may be presenting the first Derby big-screen outing for the film tonight – and I’m sure you’ve all taken a good look at the striking, bright yellow vintage poster that we’ve been displaying in the QUAD lobby for the past few weeks, as our extra little effort in re-creating that old-time ambience.
LET’S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH actually has something of a contemporary feel to it, mind you. We live in a world where every man and his rabid dog seems to be making horror films, and in an over-saturated marketplace creative types may find they have to develop something different from the competition to stand out. Recent critical hits such as SIMON KILLER, TAKE SHELTER and MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE have melded indie-style drama and powerhouse acting with the type of internalised psychological disturbance that we may be more used to from a certain type of traditional horror film, and JESSICA would fit right in alongside this sort of company. One can almost imagine JESSICA as the kind of production that today might be made by a bunch of twenty-something slackers, with an eye on Sundance, Cannes, and the festival circuit beyond, with the odd screening at places like QUAD and eventual low-key DVD release. What’s very different about LET’S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH is that it was the product of a major Hollywood studio, Paramount Pictures – further proof, if it were needed, that the 1970s were indeed another country.
The film’s director, John Hancock, began his career working in theatre during the 1960s. He staged a controversial 1968 version of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which Cue magazine described as “brutal, vulgar, and erotic… the most original and arresting adaptation I’ve ever witnessed”. Hancock also worked closely during this period with the legendary Tennessee Williams, and as the seventies dawned, moved into cinema production with the acclaimed short film STICKY MY FINGERS… FLEET MY FEET, which went out on US release with Woody Allen’s BANANAS. An Oscar nomination for the short film helped his budding career no end, and led to Paramount backing his feature debut with JESSICA. Hancock brings a folksy, new age, post-psychedelia touch to the movie, and JESSICA stands alongside such hippy horror contemporaries as Richard Blackburn’s LEMORA: A CHILD’S TALE OF THE SUPERNATURAL, John Newland’s THE LEGEND OF HILLBILLY JOHN, and – from the makers of Quad favourite HOWARD THE DUCK – Willard Huyck’s masterpiece MESSIAH OF EVIL. Imagine if tv’s The Waltons lived in a haunted house,and you’ll get some way towards understanding the direction in which this peculiar strand of rustic, down-home American horror was headed. Like most American indie shockers of the early seventies, tonight’s movie is also informed and heavily influenced by George Romero’s NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, but LET’S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH brings an unorthodox, wispy, ethereal, and rural aspect to the by now already well overused concept of the zombie.
John Hancock’s career as a director stalled somewhat later in the decade. In 1973 he made a superb drama about a terminally ill baseball catcher, BANG THE DRUM SLOWLY, with early appearances from Robert de Niro and Michael Moriarty. He was then offered the job of directing JAWS 2. It’s unclear why. The way Hollywood works, maybe it was simply that in LET’S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH he’d made a movie in which a body of water had been used as a setting for terror, and some suited executive thought that Hancock would therefore be the perfect choice to helm the sequel to Spielberg’s killer shark epic. If you’ll pardon the pun, it seems that John was completely and utterly out of his depth on JAWS 2, and after a week in which he tried to give the subject matter a subtle, sombre tone, concentrating on showing Amity as a ruined ghost town of a place in the wake of the events of JAWS, Hancock was sacked, the studio wanting a much lighter and brisker action-orientated follow-up. As with Vincent Ward on ALIEN 3 several years later, it’s such a shame we’ll only ever get a faint idea about how Hancock’s studied, character-based and very different take on the JAWS sequel might have panned out. Hancock went on to direct just half a dozen rather inconsequential movies over the next 25 years, such a waste of interesting talent.
Speaking of interesting talent, the Jessica of the film’s title was played by actress Zohra Lampert, the exotically named daughter of Russian Jewish parents who had gained attention in a string of minor film roles during the sixties, most notably as Angelina in Elia Kazan’s drama SPLENDOR IN THE GRASS, acting alongside Natalie Wood and Warren Beatty. Lampert is dazzling in LET’S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH, almost creating or inventing a shy, mousy, internalized performance style in her stunning portrayal of a disturbed young woman unable to breakout of her shell and associate with reality. We really get inside the character’s psyche here, and it’s almost as though she is so withdrawn from the world that Jessica is compelled – perhaps willingly – to descend to another, supernatural plane of existence. Lampert could easily have become typecast by this role, but showed her range a few years later by winning an Emmy for a 1975 episode of Kojak in which she played a young gypsy girl who masterminds a series of bank robberies. In one of those weird twists of fate, the Kojak show in question was directed by Jeannot Szwarc, who three years later would be called in by Universal Pictures to replace John Hancock on JAWS 2!
I’ll be honest here. LET’S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH has had a mixed reaction from horror fans and pundits over the years, and the Rotten Tomatoes movie website, which collects together reviews and opinion from a variety of critical sources, currently gives the film a somewhat under-par and disappointing 33% rating. But hey, when was the internet ever right about anything? Take it from me, this is a hauntingly sad, achingly beautiful piece of craft which achieves its frights and chills in an understated but devastating manner. The Chicago Film Critics’ Association once named LET’S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH as the 87th scariest film ever made – and if that’s the case, I’d be keen to find out what the other 86 are. The celebrated British critic Kim Newman regards LET’S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH as his personal all-time favourite movie, so I’ll leave the final word to Kim. He has described the film thus: “so obscure that the few who had seen it thought it might be a dream. At once an anatomy-of-a-crackup film and a vampire movie about a flower child who drains the blood from an entire town of unfriendly, scarred folks. The last reels manage a symphony of shudders and a succession of beautifully creepy images. It’s still unsettling”. Kim also says that the movie contains “perhaps the single scariest image I retain from horror film viewing in my teens”.
I’m back here at Fright Club next month with a screening of Derbyshire’s very own 1970s zombie classic, THE LIVING DEAD AT THE MANCHESTER MORGUE. How can you resist a title like that? Not to mention the glorious Peak District settings and even more glorious euro-dubbing on the soundtrack! See you here for that one! But for now, I hope you enjoy the fragile, eerie poetry of one of the great unsung American chillers of the era. Jessica may well not be the only person in the room scared to death over the next 90 minutes. Enjoy!