It's a memorable and effective title, to be sure, and one that sounds a lot better falling trippingly from the tongue than your average open mic night at the Karaoke Bar next door to a Tourette's support group! Especially during Flu Season... Now THAT's crazy!
Let's Scare Jessica to Death is the twisted terror tale of a young woman named... um... hang on... oh, yeah, Jessica (Zohra Lampert)! She hasn't had it particularly easy of late, seeing as how she just got out of a mental institution. You know, stays in Mental Institutions rarely make for a great anecdote collection. It's like "What I did on my Summer Vacation, by Jessica: Group Therapy, Shock Treatment and six pills a day in tiny little paper cups. And Nurse Ratchet can go to hell!"
Anyway, the poor (actually, quite cute) woman still worries about paranoid delusions coming back up so she walks this strange tightrope between positivity and hope and paranoia about paranoia. Luckily she's got a loving husband in the form of professional New York Philharmonic Cellist Duncan (Barton Heyman) and a super-cool mutual best friend named Woody (Kevin O'Connor) for support. Of course, I have to say their ideas of theraputic recovery might not be straight out of the standard nursing guidelines... Let me ask my mom, dad and sister (RNs, all)... Nope. Not really recommended by the handbook.
While taking her out for a retreat to the old Bishop farm on Brookfield Island Connecticut (read: away from New York) sounds like kind of a cool idea, they do drive her there in a HEARSE.
Look, I get it, a Hearse is just a Limousine Station Wagon and Duncan's got a big Corellian cello to hoist around (it's really the size of a Bass violin) but, look, folks, if I just got out of the Psyche Ward and somebody pulled up in a Hearse and said "Care for a Riiiiiiiiiide?" I'd yell "SHIT NO!" and go ask for some more meds, man!
That's not even to mention the fact that the house Ol' Dunc-a-Dunc buys for this retreat looks like a cross between a Cathedral, a small Castle and one of those portable Haunted House dark rides you see at the County Fair (or Parish fair if you live in a Dream State), or the fact that on the way there they stop to explore a cemetery for some tombstone rubbings. Top it all off and within 24 hours they have a Seance in the place, man. Yeeeeeeeeeeeeah, way to get rid of your demons and have a peaceful recovery... hearses, haunted houses, cemeteries and seances. I'm just thankful you drew the line before goat slayings and Manimal reruns!
See, as soon as they get there, they find a cute hippy chick named Emily (Mariclare Costello) squatting in the place. The thing is, she's just so darned cool that they not only allow her to hang out, but also to hold that seance with them. It's no surprise that Jessica soon starts to think she's seeing things... and just might be! Then again... Maybe not.
At first these things really could be all in Jessica's head. She starts to see a young, lost girl (Gretchen Corbett) who stares at Jessica from afar (including in Graveyards) and might well be a figment of her imagination... but then again, maybe she's just a lost mute blonde girl that everyone can see, right? She and Emily find an old photograph in the house that looks a lot like Emily herself... or maybe it's just a coincidence. Duncan starts to take a strange interest in their guest while Jessica finds disturbance in minor things like... the fact that her rare steak is (dant-dant-daaaaaaaaaa) Bloody! Of course we always know what Jessica is thinking due to the (tasteful) voiceovers that give us her thoughts and doubts.
Soon things become harder to deny the weirdness of. Antique dealer Sam Dorker (also a New Yorker played by Alan Manson) tells them the creepy story of Abigail Bishop (as in "the old Bishop farm"). Abigail is said to have died just before her wedding day and may still roam around the countryside. Is she a Vampire... perhaps a Lesbian Vampire? Is she a Ghost... or perhaps just a suburban legend? Who knows?
If Abigail's tale sounds slightly familiar to you astute readers, it's because writers Lee Kalcheim and John D. Hancock (who also directed), based their story, in part, on Carmilla by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, the (lesbian) Vampire Novella that predates even Dracula and has also been adapted into The Blood Spattered Bride and The Vampire Lovers amongst other things (including the none-too subtly titled Carmilla, the Lesbian Vampire).
That said, Let's Scare Jessica to Death is hardly an exploitative horror flick with gratuitous sex or shocks. While the film can be very frightening in a sublime and deeply chilling way, Jessica is much more of a drama than a shock suspense story! Rarely are there startles or deeply supernatural disturbances, but some real-world freak outs like, oh, say, a trusted friend suddenly playfully trying to drown you... and not ceasing the play when the fun stops. Typical for a horror flick? Nope! Scary in real life? Yes, yes.
This is one reason that intelligent people might find Jessica to be remarkably effective, cerebral and smart while those weaned on startle flicks and horror porn might be bored. By the same token, this is a low-budget horror flick that doesn't always succeed in what it attempts to do. The failures here are few and easy to dismiss, considering the lofty goals it sets for itself. After all most every film of its kind (be it well done or not) resorts to a good deal of gratuities to keep the audience interested. While there is a reasonable amount of blood here and plenty of surprises, there is no nudity (regardless of how cute Zohra Lampert, Gretchen Corbett and Mariclare Costello are), only suggested sex and very subtle vampiric tones. Even the Lesbianism (which is a staple of most Carmilla adaptations and the original work itself) is mild and not played for audience tittilation.
It all serves to keep the film ambiguous and strange with a true uncertainty about whether this is real, a figment of Jessica's imagination or even some kind of concerted mean prank. The answer is... unknown even till the end. This can be both fascinating and frustrating for the audience, however, it's no more than what Jessica is thinking herself as she ponders her reality and beliefs. It takes a fine actress to pull this off and Lampert really does a great job of making Jessica realistic, confused, vulnerable and sympathetic without ever becoming a waifish cliche either. If Lampert hadn't taken this role seriously, the film would never have worked. At the same time, director Hancock never attempts to make her charater less real by turning her into a sex-pot leading lady. She is cute in an unconventional way, but it's her sympathy and emotions that truly endear the audience to her.
Frustration and Fascination are the names of the game here. The unknown and the unexplained push the drama into the horrific and earn Let's Scare Jessica to Death Three and One Half Stars out of Five. Look, folks, it's far from perfect, but Jessica trusts the audience and allows itself to progress in a paced and dramatic way, foregoing most gratuities for a tingler of a tale that you can look hard at but never quite be sure what you're gazing at. Kind of like those Animaniacs! What in the world are they, man? See you in the next reel!
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