Sunday, June 12, 2011

Let’s Scare Jessica to Death (1971)

A cult favorite not because of its excesses but because of its restraint, this eerie thriller is a great illustration of how much atmosphere resourceful filmmakers can generate even if they don’t have the budget for special effects. The story depicts a trio of hippies who take occupancy in a farmhouse somewhere in the Northeast, much to the chagrin of hostile locals. The hippies find a young woman squatting in the house and invite her to stay, soon realizing that she may be part of a supernatural cabal involving the unfriendly townies. What makes this interesting-ish is the mental state of the title character: Jessica (Zohra Lampert), one of the hippies, was just released from a mental institution because she’s plagued by hallucinations, so when creepy things start happening around the farmhouse and the town, her friends (and the audience) have good reason to wonder if the terrors are figments of her imagination. The devices that director John D. Hancock and his team use to create the picture’s disquieting tone aren’t especially subtle (unnatural music created on primitive electronic instruments, overlapping audio of the voices Jessica hears in her mind), but combined with Lampert’s strong performance, the devices get the job done nicely. A slight woman photographed to seem fragile and powerless, Lampert effectively uses flittering facial expressions and a distant smile to convey her character’s tentative grasp on reality. There’s a real feeling of menace from start to finish, and even if the payoff is less interesting than the buildup, Let’s Scare Jessica to Death is better than the average ’70s shocker simply because of its artistic approach to scare tactics. The open-to-interpretation finale closes the movie on an appropriately queasy note—so while Let’s Scare Jessica to Death may not really amount to much, it’s a creepy ride.

Let’s Scare Jessica to Death: FUNKY

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