of the freakiest movies ever made, and one of the sneakiest, a defiantly unique
viewing experience that breaks nearly every genre movie rule yet still succeeds
as an unnerving excursion in pure horror.
Hancock has made many eccentric films covering a variety of genres in his
thirty-five-year-plus career, including the Robert De Niro baseball drama BANG
THE DRUM SLOWLY (1973), the Nick Nolte prison flick WEEDS (1987), the kiddie
movie PRANCER (1989) and SUSPENDED ANIMATION (2001), a spooker (and a lame
one). 1971ís LETíS SCARE
JESSICA TO DEATH, Hancockís feature debut, IMHO remains his best film, and
the truest to his sensibilities (in a recent interview Hancock complained that ďWith BANG THE DRUM SLOWLY I got typed as
warm and human. I'm not.").
Unlike many of his subsequent flicks, it lacks movie stars, but does
feature the criminally underrated Zohra Lampert in the title role, whose
performance accounts for a large part of the filmís effectiveness.
Youíve seen Lampert in supporting parts in films like OPENING NIGHT,
STANLEY & IRIS and THE EXORCIST III, but I think itís safe to say that
her work as Jessica represents the pinnacle of her career.
twentyish Jessica is heading for the New England countryside together with her
husband Duncan and their hippie pal Woody.
Jessica has just been released from a mental institution, and itís
hoped that the scenic Connecticut home Duncan has purchased will help with her
from the start this seems a false hope. As
soon as Jessica steps out of her and Duncanís car--a hearse--she spots a
ghostly nightgown-clad woman who promptly vanishes.
Upon entering the house they find it occupied by a skittish young
red-head named Emily, apparently a drifter.
Emily stays on with Jessica and the guys, becoming a fixture in the
house...but her behavior, to Jessica at least, seems a little odd.
The reason, it seems, is revealed when Jessica and Duncan head into a
nearby town populated by stand-offish rednecks, all wearing bandages on their
necks; the only townsperson who isnít apathetic is an antique dealer, who
reveals to Jessica and Duncan that a hundred years earlier a young woman
drowned on her wedding day, a young woman who just happens to be a dead ringer
there Jessicaís mental state steadily deteriorates as she sees--or thinks she
sees--the murdered corpse of the antique dealer lying in a field.
Jessica also confronts the ghostly woman she glimpsed in the cemetery,
wearing a neck bandage similar to those sported by the townspeople, who
abruptly runs off. A bit later
Jessica is attacked while swimming in a lake near her house by Emily, or at
least someone who looks an awful lot like her.
Eventually both Duncan and Woody are killed--or so it seems--and Jessica
is left alone, adrift on a boat in the middle of the lake, completely unable to
distinguish reality from fantasy.
makes LETíS SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH unique is how un-horror like it is, having
been shot in extremely scenic lakeside locations that wouldnít feel out of
place in ON GOLDEN POND, and largely in broad daylight.
The atmosphere is staunchly naturalistic and the scares fairly
paltry--at times one wonders if John Hancock was even aware of the type of film
he was making.
though, Hancock did know he was
crafting a horror movie, and very much so.
Thereís a real aura of gothic menace suffusing the early scenes that
increases as the narrative advances, exploding in several profoundly chilling
scenes, most notably the justifiably famous shot of the pasty-skinned Emily
rising from a lake to attack Jessica, a sight as eerie and surreal as just
about any youíll see. Without resorting to the post-modern pretension popular at
the time, Hancock keeps us, like his heroine, constantly on edge about whatís
real and what isnít; weíre never explicitly told whether Jessicaís
exploits are all figments of her disturbed mind, but the suspicion is always
film has furthermore dated quite well (excepting the title characterís
make-up and wardrobe, which seem to have been patterned after those of then
flavor-of-the-month Ali McGraw)--even after thirty-five years, thereís
nothing else quite like it in or out of the genre. Kudos must go to Zohra Lampert as Jessica, who creates a
heartbreakingly vivid study of psychological torment, in a character whose
unquiet mental state is always disconcertingly visible on her face.
By the time itís all over, youíll know exactly how she feels.
SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH
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