Jessica moves from the city with her husband, Duncan, and their friend, Woody, to “the old Bishop place,” a 19th-century farmhouse on a Connecticut island. The isolation proves detrimental to Jessica’s psyche as she has recently been released from an asylum for a massive nervous breakdown. Jessica is indeed scared “to Death,” and with her history of hallucinations, she can no longer decipher between “Madness or sanity.”

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Bloody Rundown

In his feature film directorial debut, John Hancock co-wrote Let’s Scare Jessica to Death with Lee Kalcheim. The duo is credited under the pseudonyms of Ralph Rose and Norman Jonas, respectively. (How someone blessed with a birth name of John Hancock could deny his valid signature on any horror is beyond me.)

20This atmospheric, eerie horror is commonly regarded as a cerebral “hippie vampire” film. (Allegedly, Let’s Scare Jessica to Death is highly-regarded by Stephen King. So, if the title doesn’t entice you, surely that will!) Orville Stoeber’s unnerving score is one of the main highlights of the film. Although epitomized of its era, his score is still downright scary, and for that matter, timeless.

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Beautifully shot, the film encompasses several elements vital for a spooky horror: a hearse; graveyards; autumn; mental illness; a desolate island; an old farmhouse; lakes, for swimming, drowning, and most horrifically, bathing; the ghastliness of communal living (but only for the sake of 70s horror); ghostly rumors of vampirism; unfriendly townies, all of whom are old men; and, of course, Connecticut, the most haunted state of the union. (What is even scarier, though, is not that the trio moves to the most haunted state, but that they move to the state that is also the most expensive—dead broke.)

scare 4To fabricate “the old Bishop place” in Brookfield Island, the twenty-five-day shoot was filmed entirely in Connecticut, in and around two historical homes. With the town scenes shot in Chester, the farmhouse’s interior was filmed in the E.E. Dickinson Mansion in Essex. The exterior was filmed in Old Saybrook at the actual Bishop house, which currently has a lovely view of a car dealership.

11The film was portrayed by New York trained, critically-acclaimed players. Zohra Lampert shined in the named role as the precariously unhinged yet optimistic protagonist, who has a penchant for the art of headstone rubbings. Lambert can also be seen in The Exorcist III (1990) as Mary Kinderman.

25Mariclare Costello, a lifetime member of the Actors Studio, depicts Emily, the seductive squatter whose singing and lute playing talents entrance all. Mariclare’s horror skills are also demonstrative in the anthology Nightmares (1983). (Until his death at 95, Costello was married to Allan Arbus who costarred in Damien: Omen II (1978). I only mention such as it seems to always come full circle in the horror genre—does it not?)

For Barton Heyman, who portrayed Jessica’s wayward husband, Duncan, this was not his first time at the horror rodeo show. Aside from appearing in two Twilight Zone (1959–1964) episodes, Heyman played the unforgettable Dr. Klein in The Exorcist (1973).

21Kevin O’Connor played the hearse-driving hippie, Woody, Jessica and Duncan’s generous and gentle friend. O’Connor added to his horror review with turns in Tales from the Darkside (1983–1988) and It’s Alive III: Island of the Alive (1987).

The conclusion’s open-ended interpretation lends for much critical analysis. Then again, the entire film is loaded with ambiguity. Let’s Scare Jessica to Death is a nuanced spook that will forever feed those who relish in figuring any haunting subtext. Alas, the cult classic prevails.

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Die-Anne’s Diatribe

14I actually viewed this Connecticut-based film for the first time in Connecticut! My horror-movie cohort and I watched the film in Norwalk—at her parent’s house. We so anticipated massive horror with a film with such a hardcore title, a title akin to I Spit on Your Grave (1978), that we were, well, gravely disappointed.

It absolutely pains me to state this, but after several views, I still find this cult classic to be more of an art-house than a horror-house haunting. There are too many themes, far too much subtext, and the film is completely too slow-moving to boast such a straightforward title. Alas, the scariest part of the film is its hard-hitting title.

But, please understand, that I appreciate the artistic value of this film, and feel it needs to be viewed by all; however, don’t get your hopes up for a major scare—even if your name is Jessica.

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Plot Mutilator

Coming before the inevitable remake.

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Deadly Details

Director ∞ John Hancock
Producers ∞ Charles B. Moss Jr. and William Badalato
Screenwriters ∞ John Hancock (as Ralph Rose)
     and Lee Kalcheim (as Norman Jonas)                                    18
Music ∞ Orville Stoeber
Cinematographer ∞ Robert M. Baldwin                                         
Editor ∞ Murray Solomon  
Set Design ∞ Norman Kenneson  
Makeup ∞ Irvin Carlton  
Costume Design ∞ Mariette Pinchart  
Sound Department ∞ Joe Ryan
     and Scott Warren (boom)
Production ∞ Paramount Pictures; The Jessica Company
Distributor ∞ Paramount Pictures
Release Date ∞ August 1971
Running time ∞ 89 Minutes                                                  19
Country ∞ United States
Language ∞ English
 
Cast ∞
Zohra Lampert as Jessica
Barton Heyman as Duncan
Kevin O’Connor as Woody
Mariclare Costello as Emily
Alan Manson as Sam Dorker
Gretchen Corbett as The Girl