The ’70s were a golden age for horror fans because of the MPAA ratings. No longer were filmmakers and distributors forced to make films that were basically PG rated on order to get a regular theatrical distribution. You also had the ability to provide frights and scares that were too much for broadcast television. Thus there was a reason why you’d go down to the local drive-in theater to take in the movie instead of waiting a few years for the butchered cut to end up on the midnight movie. You could make an R-rated horror film that had violence, nudity and even bad language. With this new level of freedom, filmmakers didn’t have to outdo the gore effects of Night of the Living Dead. What they did have is the ability to keep up the tension with an audience knowing that they might get horrific images at any moment. Let’s Scare Jessica To Death has a title that sounds like you’ll fleeing from the theater, but is a brilliant slow burn that builds until the pressure explodes into a nightmare.
Duncan (The Exorcist‘s Barton Heyman) is doing his best to be a good husband for his wife. Turns out Jessica (The Exorcist III‘s Zohra Lampert) had a breakdown and ended up institutionalized. In order to get the pressure off her, he quits his job as a bassist for the New York Philharmonic and moves them upstate to the more calming country life. He’s bought an old farm house that needs quite a bit of fixing up. Very quickly this dream of a quiet life gets bumpy when they arrive in the small town only to have to locals view them as hippies because they drive an old hearse since it was the right size for his acoustic double bass. Also the uptight old locals aren’t sure why the couple have their friend Woody (It’s Alive III: Island of the Alive‘s Kevin O’Connor). Along with the house featuring the furniture of the former occupants, they discover Emily (The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension‘s Mariclare Costello) squatting on the property. Woody immediately takes a fancy to her so Jessica and Duncan aren’t going to kick her off the property for being a hobo. During an evening fun, Emily leads them into an impromptu séance calling on the spirits in the house. Nothing seems to happen at first. Things get a bit creepy for Jessica when they’re all swimming in the lake and she swears someone underwater has grabbed her. She has a creepy feeling that there’s something weird about the local guys. Her hobby is making relief pressings of the older tombstones. That gets a bit much when she notices a mysterious blond woman in a nightgown (The Rockford Files‘s The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension) lurking in the cemetery. She doesn’t want to tell anyone what she’s thinking since it might lead to her getting locked up again. She does her best to stay calm, but even something as simple as selling off the leftover antiques leads to her anxieties going off the chart. Are these people around Jessica some sort of supernatural or undead creatures? Is she being gas lighted? Or has she truly lost her mind?
Director John Hancock (Bang the Drum Slowly) and his crew really make us quite a bit frightened as Let’s Scare Jessica to Death gets deeper in the countryside madness. In an era where excess was permitted, he put more pressure on building up the paranoia and anxiety in the audience instead of just grossing them out or giving quick jolts with rapid cuts. The final minutes are a freak out on all counts and makes this more than just a cheap scarefest. The actors are quite natural in their performances. Probably this wasn’t too much of a stretch for any of the upstate locals asked to be extremely suspicious of the new residents. Barton Heyman doesn’t overplay his husband role. He doing his best to help Jessica stay balanced. If he’s clueless to what’s happening to her, it’s because she’s not sharing. Zohra Lampert really just pulls everything into her. She shows how much strength it takes for Jessica to keep stable and not get sent back to the institution. Let’s Scare Jessica To Death is still a perfect cinematic threat to sanity.
The video is 1.85:1 anamorphic. The transfer looks fine and doesn’t scrub the grain so it has a sweet ’70s film feel. Audio is DTS-HD MA 2.0 Mono that brings out the moody score that creeps up as Jessica doubts what she’s experiencing.
Audio Commentary With Director John Hancock and Producer Bill Badalato starts with him admitting the opening voiceover was created in post production to set up things better. He recounts that his father played the double bass. The two reflect the production and how things went pretty smoothly.
Art Saved My Life (16:25) is an Interview With Composer Orville Stoeber. He speaks about his army brat youth. He talks about working with John Hancock since they worked on several films. He also did A Piece of the Action and Mouse Hunt.
Scare Tactics: Reflections On A Seventies Horror Classic (23:44) has Author/Film Historian Kim Newman discuss how this film got under his skin when he saw it as a teenager in the theater. This is his favorite horror film. He gives a bit of the history of the film and its impact when it was released in 1971.
She Walks These Hills (6:49) revisits the film’s Locations then and now. The cemetery still looks the same. You can even do your own relief rub on a certain tombstone.
Theatrical Trailer (2:58) reminds us why you should never call on spirits in a strange old farmhouse.
TV Spot (0:55) really will scare anyone who watched this commercial during an episode of Mannix. It was rated “GP.”
Radio Spot (1:03) will scare you if you heard if you were driving around after dark.
Still Gallery (4:39) contains press photos, posters and press kit.
Scream Factory presents Let’s Scare Jessica To Death. Directed by: John Hancock. Screenplay by: John Hancock & Lee Kalcheim. Starring: Zohra Lampert, Barton Heyman, Kevin O’Connor, Gretchen Corbett & Mariclare Costello. Rated: PG Rated. Running Time: 88 minutes. Released: January 28, 2020.
Tags: Let's Scare Jessica to Death, Scream Factory, The Exorcist, The Exorcist III