Let’s Scare Jessica to Death (1971) & The Night God Screamed (1971)-Leave Your Faith, Fear and Sanity at the Water’s Edge. Part I

“All that we see or seem is but a dream within a dream.” — Edgar Allan Poe

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‘Leave Your Faith, Fear and Sanity at the Water’s Edge’ – Jo Gabriel

As quoted in W. Scott Poole professor of history at Charleston South Carolina University’s remarkable book Monsters In America he opens his chapter MONSTROUS BEGINNINGS with “There are terrible creatures, ghosts, in the very air of America.” -D.H. Lawrence

Monsters in America

Taken from his chapter The Bloody Chords of Memory, which I think is very appropriate for this discussion, Poole states that, “it would be too simplistic to view monster tales as simple narratives in service of American violence. The monster is a many-headed creature, and narratives about it in American are highly complex.Richard Kearney describes the appearance of a monster in a narrative, in a dream, or in sensory experience ‘as a signal of borderline experiences and unattainable excess.’

The isoloation of madness

In 1971 two films were released with a sort of queasy verisimilitude, using a monochromatic color scheme and protracted themes of insanity, fanaticism and self-annihilation. One drawing more of it’s flicker from the time of cult murders by religious fanatics, and an anti establishment repudiation reflected in the cult fringe film. The Night God Screamed utilizes as it’s anti-hero the motorcycle gang who hates ‘citizenship’ and phony institutionalized prophets. These outliers are dirty, rebelliously dangerous hippies, who are hyped up and deluded into following a charismatic cult leader, a neanderthal named Billy Joe Harlan performed with a Shakespearean griminess by Michael Sugich.

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Michael Sugich as the maniacal Mansoneseque cult leader Billy Joe

He’s quite a Mansonesque figure with his malefic unibrow. This offering aptly called The Night God Screamed, even boasts a scene where the cult actually crucifies the clean cut minister Willis, man of the tradition gospel played by Alex Nicol. They essentially nail him to his own pridefully giant wooden phallic cross. Leaving his wife Fanny (Jeanne Crain) to scramble in the darkened halls, conflicted as to whether to try and help her husband or save herself from the cult’s ferocious blood lust, driving her into a numb moral and cognitive stasis of unresponsiveness, reason and human connection. I will talk about this film in Part II.

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the beautiful Jeanne Crain

Let’s Scare Jessica To Death (1971) is a film that hints at a post- modern Americana Gothicism permeated by a rustic folksy style of vampirism, with it’s small town coteries, paranoia and the archetypal hysterical woman in a sustained level of distress and adrift on a sea of inner monologues and miasma of fear. I’ll begin in Part I with my much loved classic horror…

LET’S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH 1971

“Leave your insanity at the door.”

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Unfriendly Locals

Lets Scare Jessica To Death 1971, is not only the far better film but probably unintentionally the more iconic 70s trope for what was so extraordinary about the special clutch of horror films that were birthed in the 70s epoch.

Directed by John D. Hancock (Bang The Drum Slowly 1973) and penned for the screen by Hancock, Lee Kalcheim and apparently using elements of Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla, although uncredited, the film has a very captivating soundtrack by Orville Stoeber  accompanied by Walter E. Sear’s Electronic musical nuances that work as much to impact the atmosphere as Robert M. Baldwin’s (Basket Case 2, Frankenhooker 1990) cinematography.

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‘The love that dare not speak it’s name’- The Lesbian Vampire archetype revealed
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A scene from Vadim’s marvelous adaptation of Le Fanu’s story Blood and Roses. Hancock’s film hints at the repressed lesbian theme underscored by Emily’s erotic taunting of Jessica

Carmilla was first published in a magazine called The Dark Blue, later in a collection of short stories by Sheridan Le Fanu entitled In A Glass Darkly in 1872. Supposed as accounts of  “true” stories offered from the casebooks of a certain “metaphysical doctor.” by the name of Dr. Hesselius.

Le Fanu's Carmilla

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Emily / Abigail ?

Let’s Scare Jessica To Death stars the perfect ensemble of ordinary players. By no means, do I imply bad actors, I simply mean authentically human subjects. Zohra Lampert is perfect as the paranoid and frightened Jessica (please no crack about her product endorsement ‘Goya, oh Boya’ commercial for canned beans. Not here, not now at least.)

Barton Heyman plays husband Duncan, an average looking new yorker guy, I mean…he looks real. You might actually recognize him as Dr. Klein in Friedkin’s The Exorcist. Alan Manson plays Sam Dorker the nice antique dealer in town. The very wooly Kevin O’Connor (He was Stanley Gusciora in William Friedkin’s  The Brinks Job 1978 starring my beloved Peter Falk, a film which I adore by the way.) plays the friendly yet hairy Woody.

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And Mariclare Costello is otherworldly as the red headed wraith with the vitreous skin, the ghostly Emily or is she Abigail?

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She performed in a few memorable made for tv chiller/dramas The Execution of Private Slovik (1974) starring Martin Sheen and a very interesting obscure horror thriller about a closed community hiding a terrible secret called Conspiracy of Terror (1975) directed by the great John Llewellyn Moxey.

I hesitate overusing the word atmospheric too often, as I don’t want it to become a complacent adjective to describe every film that has a sense of it’s own presence. The pervasive theme, the repeated motif of the film’s narrative is the question of Jessica’s madness? Is it true… or are we misdirected by the very real manifestation of a collective malevolence, synthesized by the ghostly predatory Emily. You can imagine the story either way. A straight forward unsung modern adaptation of Le Fanu’s bloodletting femme fatale Carmilla, or the piece can work as an exercise in paranoia and the isolation of insanity.

The Wraith

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The 70s is occupied by a collective conveyance of social fears, confusion and turmoil, that engendered a variety of sub-genres. Given the various categories that became cyclical such as the slasher film, the exploitation/cult or grind house , fear of devil worship/cult murderer film, the psycho-sexual trauma , the body horror film, science seeking hubris, nature takes revenge and so on and so on.

The one’s I find myself drawn to often remain obscure, with directors who seem to create just one piece that remains more entrenched in my consciousness as well as many other genre fan’s memories. And for reasons that might only be attributed to the beauty of an unselfconscious medium that lacks a healthy budget, box office notables or a self righteously possessed film maker trying too hard to make a statement, what happened at times, are these beautifully, ‘dreadful’ and I mean that in a very good way, nightmarish, allegorical, chaotic, yes I’ll say it again, atmospheric and unique little classic horror genre art house gems.

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Lemora: A Child’s Tale of The Supernatural 1973

I think of Lemora: a child’s tale of the supernatural (1973) (Carnival of Souls (1962) which was from the 60s, but relevant to the point I’m trying to make being Herk Harvey’s only film. Michael Winner’s The Sentinel,(1977) the claustrophobic and disturbing Silent Night Bloody Night (1972), Narciso Ibanez Serrador’s beautifully Gothic The House That Screamed (1969) with Lilli Palmer, Don’t Look in The Basement (1973) and a few more which I’ll write about very very soon, down the winding bloggy road.

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Don’t Look in the Basement renamed The Forgotten 1973
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Sepia flashback of the lunatics taking over the asylum in Silent Night Bloody Night 1972

The looming question is-Was Jessica delusional? Was the horror that was unfolding for her part of her elaborate hallucinations, cerebral phantasmagorias, surreal nightmares, or was her rustic landscape truly haunted by rural vampiric phantoms?

Perhaps the film finds itself a bit on the art house shelf, fluttering in and out with the delicacy of butterfly wings, with a sort of post-modern, surreal narrative, for Jessica’s habitual torments are never quite cemented for us in the context of the film’s visual journey from any other point of view other than her own. From the outset we are taking that journey with her. This is a subjective passage into a realm where, it neither matters whether Jessica is a schizophrenic or the victim of a haunted nestle of rural chimera’s. We’re inside a snow globe of horror floating around our heads.

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Olivia de Havilland in The Snake Pit- Is she truly crazy or being driven mad?

What strikes me as an interesting trajectory within the inter-textuality of John Hancock’s film, is that it isn’t trying to revive the perspective of madness from the milieu of The Snake Pit 1948 or Sam Fuller’s Shock Corridor 1963 the film is set in a picturesque 70s style of modernity, albeit rural. It doesn’t possess corporeal monsters that inhabit the world in a Gothic framework where you can attack these fiends back, there is nothing concrete to protect against. There are no boundaries you can see, feel or touch. The parameters are contextual only in the sense that the film manages to manifest a sense of dread, possible insanity or corporeal fiends that inhabit this little niche of pastoral countryside, but they are as fleeting on the screen as rain drops on a windshield. It all trickles away without the ability to grab onto a solid cinematic fact.

The film renders you helpless, well, it definitely incapacitates Jessica, leaving her to float, to drift literally aimlessly on a seemingly tranquil lake. Alone, in a little boat. A refugee from a muddled ordeal that has taken away any sense of reality left in her life or in the minds of ‘us’, the spectator. Interesting that Sam the antique dealer, referred to Jessica and Duncan as refugees from the urban blight.

The story line:

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Jessica and her husband Duncan an upright Bassist with the Philharmonic Orchestra have decided to leave New York City life behind and move I believe it appears to be somewhere around upstate New York, where it’s more quaint and conducive for quiet living, antiquing and Jessica getting some much needed rest.

Once they arrive, the locals exude an odd impenetrable hostility. It makes me think of John Boorman’s Deliverance (1972) Newcomers, outsiders, are often the enemy bringing with them ideas and attitudes that are not welcomed in the isolated cadence of an insulated community.

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This particular little small-town is even more eerie and foreboding than most. The inhabitants seem to be plagued by a strange type of malady, mental illness or curse themselves. A few baring the marks of a strange ritualistic scarring or wound on their bodies. A frightening touch that adds to the macabre sense of dismay signaled by the presence of the locals and the cryptic malevolence that seems to reveal itself as an unspoken malignancy in the town. Or is this part of Jessica’s delusion?

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It’s the quietness, the involuntary externalized dissidence, the stillness of the underlying vexation and contagion what ever that is, that creates the ghastly ambiance that is most horrifying, and particularly alarming within the augmentation of the scenery and it’s unfolding plot.

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The couple have purchased a little slice of property, which is a potentially beautiful old farm house, that legend says, is haunted by the ghost of a girl, the oldest Bishop daughter who disappeared on her wedding day. They arrive at the house, to find a young hippie named Emily taking up residence there, squatting with her sleeping bag, hiding out in one of the upstairs rooms. At first they startle each other as she tries to run for it, but then they invite her to stay as their guest. She might make a nice companion for their hairy beast of a friend Woody, who has accompanied them on the foray into solitude and pesticide spraying in the orchid.

Emily becomes an enticing creature for all three characters. Jessica, her husband and their wooly friend, but her presence triggers anxiety and paranoia in Jessica, who struggles with a repressed psycho-sexual persecution complex. The film becomes a parallel journey as we gaze at the visual dream like events that straddle the natural moments in time, with Jessica’s inner monologues. The voices that patronize her head are frail utterances that prey and oppress her.

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Ah, the queen of the inner monologue Eleanor Lance as played by the great actress of stage and screen Julie Harris in Robert Wise’s The Haunting 1963

Emily acts like a succubus, a vampire, a phantasm, a monstrous feminine wraith who continues to slowly traumatize Jessica into a state of hysteria. Emily is also the very likeness of the Bishop’s daughter who vanished without a trace. Curiouser and curiouser still…

Jessica sees visions of a little mute girl played by the adorable Gretchen Corbett. She’s a somber, willowy young girl dressed in a bucolic white frock. Is she too a specter in Jessica’s nightmare world?, and has she come to warn Jessica of impending doom, or is she part of the elaborate framework of fantasy that Jessica is being devoured by little by little?

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Is Gretchen Corbett, the mute girl in the white dress a specter or angel of mercy?
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Mia Farrow as Rosemary Woodhouse- A tale of Motherhood, Hysteria, Satan Worship in an Urban Modern setting, and certainly, it’s about Paranoia.

Re-Occurring Themes – A Tableau of Paranoia. – We’ve seen it in Henri-Georges Clouzot’s ‘Diabolique’ (1955) Roman Polanski’s ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ (1968) and ‘The Tenant'(1976). Curtis Harrington’s ‘What’s the Matter with Helen'(1971) and his taut thriller, ‘Games'(1967) Even the ultimate theatrics of paranoia played out to the max, in Aldrich’s two Grand Dame Guignol Masterpieces What Ever Happened To Baby Jane? and Hush Hush… Sweet Charlotte, both starring the queen of the ball, Bette Davis

Using the mechanism of voice over, Jessica opens the film by narrating her story, until the inner monologues, visual cues and nightmares become the diegesis. Her intonations lack buoyancy, she herself is trapped in a netherworld of reality, dream-life and inner machinations.

One of the motifs of the film I love is the usage of the grave stone etchings that Jessica uses like art therapy. She sits and engraves with charcoal creating paper rubbings, tracing over the images, icons and epitaphs on tombstones. It is the world of the dead that Jessica seems to be impelled toward.

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Just an ordinary farmhouse and a few roaming ghouls from Romero’s classic Night of The Living Dead. The ordinary landscape becomes extraordinarily grotesque

The environment is so normal and everyday, just as in Romero’s Night of The Living Dead (1968), where an ordinary farm house becomes an unsavory nightmarish killing field for zombies, phantasms and the wretched oxygen of ruination, decay and the self destruction of the American Dream myth, Jessica’s house will soon become an ominous playground.

In Let’s Scare Jessica To Death, A large case for Duncan’s upright acoustic bass appears as if it were a mammoth coffin.

Upright Bass Coffin

A seemingly serene lake like a quiet untasted drink, becomes the whispers of a depth, a frightening, foreboding abyss that holds the suggestion of a watery graveyard.

The cluttered sinister attic room, filled with memorabilia, the oval pitted, stained and fading portrait of The Bishop girl who bares the striking resemblance to Emily.

The small country house bedroom becomes a menacing place. The tombstone engravings seem to puffle by an unseen gust of air, moving in an out with a rhythm that modulates Jessica’s inner whispers and fragmentation.

The use of sound is key, it utilizes the natural environment surrounding the characters, it is discordant and nuanced. The entire film is a beautifully painted nightmare.

The film opens with Jessica narrating her strange tale…

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“I sit here and I can’t believe that it happened, and yet I have to believe it. Dreams…. or nightmares…. Madness or sanity? I don’t know which is which.”

The frame warbles into a flashback, the diffuse sound of a gong echoes us backward. At first two men are scraping heavy furniture along the floor, they are apparently moving.

Then single abstruse mid range piano notes signal the next scene, a car, more explicitly a black hearse being used as a car traveling down a road.
As the hearse pulls up to a cemetery, female legs kick the back end of the hearse open, Jessica runs with rolled tracing paper in hand, yelling “don’t worry, I’ll be back in a minute.”

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The two men Duncan and Woody, are leaning up against the car, their stance a little preoccupied perhaps, a hint of apprehension.

The hairy one says “Don’t worry the farm will be great for her”

The sound of an ominous wind brewing it’s force of air, starting to blow around us, circulating, birds chirping, leaves crunching all giving the atmosphere a naturalistic sense of place.

“The apartment was beginning to scare me too.” Woody chuckles to himself, Jessica’s husband Duncan says nothing yet.

Jessica’s inner monologue begins again, “For the first time in months I’m free. Forget the doctors. Forget that place. I’m okay now. We’ll start over.”

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The resonance of wind soars through the nucleus of the opening scenes with as much significance as the soundtrack.
Jessica rubs her gravestone etchings, using her hands like she’s molding clay.

Suddenly Jessica looks up from her rubbings and sees the image of a blonde girl dressed in a breezy while frock. The sound becomes distorted as if a large amp is feeding back into a gurgle of noise. When Jessica turns back to look toward her traveling companions to show them the girl, once she looks back again, the girl has disappeared into thin air.

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Then the whispers begin, the inner confabulations, the voices taunting her, no fabricating her imaginary visions. A cluster of low incoherent conversation that manifests as worry on Jessica’s face for the first time since the film opens.

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Her husband Duncan calls to her “Hey Jess, Come on, we gotta get moving.”

The inner monologue continues, “Don’t tell them… act normal.”

Jessica’s husband admires the grave etchings and asks “Find anything good?”

“Frail as the leaves that shiver on a spray, like them we flourish like them decay” Jessica smiles at the notion of the eternal cycle of life and death as she recites the proverb.

‘See you’re less frightened already” Duncan rewards his wife with praise, then she kisses his hand.

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The traveling scene in the car cuts away to simple guitar strokes as the hearse is now on the ferry taking the three across the river.

Orville Stoeber’s musical score works as a primer to the baleful, unwholesome solitude the three are about to embark on. An odd ferryman walks around the car looking inside, his gaze is on us. The quiet guitar notes keep pace with his elegiac, melancholia. A secret plaintive scowl as he surveys the inside of the hearse. He espies the great upright bass in the back end of the car. Studies it for a moment, then proceeds to ask Wooly man what he’s got in the case.

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” My mother in-law” He says humorously derogatory or denigrating, the air of subtle dismissive scorn toward this local man can not go unnoticed. He’s a damn city elitist. But the ferryman comes back at him, with a jeering grin ” I wished it was mine!” He chuckles with the face of an evil goblin then asks, “Where you folks goin’?”

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Duncan says, “The other side of Brookfield it’s a farm on the old Cove Road called the Bishop place do you know it?”

“Yes I do. Well we’ll be on the other side very soon.”

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Is this statement an augury? What is the other side. A new realm, the otherworld? Passing through life into a landscape of death and non existence?

Jessica smiles at the man. A blameless look. She is on a new journey. She does not pick up on the old man’s subtly sinister reply.

The camera carries the ferry across the water, the simple guitar notes sing out their quiet song. All is still serene for now.

The wooden paddles churn the water, the seagulls cry out. The guitar plays it’s soft poignant requiem for lost travelers. A distant sound almost like that of a scream enters the atmosphere as the ferry pulls into the dock. No, I believe it’s distinctly meant to appear as if as scream is rolling out the red carpet. The idea of a ferry is very referential in terms of the journey “the dead were required to pay a fare to Charon, the ferryman of Hades.”

The gentle guitar strumming from Orville Stoeber’s score interweaves it’s movement with the steam engine of the ferry boat. The sound distinguishes itself, and segregates the moment between a framework of isolation and of journey.

Jessica smiles like a young child, on a road trip, looking out the pane of glass from the back of the hearse. She seems happy.

A dog barks, the hearse pulls into the frame close up. Duncan says “This is your new home town Jessica.”

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The wooly Woody waltzes them around the stone walled turn about so Jessica can soak up her new town, and the landscape. Then the hearse pulls up to a quaint building with a porch occupied by old men dwellers. One in a rocker, one with a walker wearing an open shirt exposing his under whites ,and one leaning up against a post holding a newspaper. There’s the sign for Main Street which crosses Maple Street. This is anywhere U.S.A. populated by ancient, ossified old men. “Look what they’re driving, damn hippies, creeps!”

“Some Welcoming Committee” Duncan reacts.

“I think it’s our mode of transportation” Jessica laughs.

“Look at those bandages, I think some of these guys have been left over from the civil war.”

While Woody drives we see that written on the side of the hearse is the iconic 70s hippie axiom LOVE in red paint with a tiny peace symbol to the right.

He yells out to the old geezers “It’s cheaper than a station wagon.”

The hearse pulls away. The four old men remain leering at them as they drive off. The tone has been set as the cantankerous old foursome say “Good Riddance.”

Driving down the old road, the hauntingly poignant intonation of the piano and guitar moves the journey along a bit further still.

The slight moment of conflict between two worlds, generations has been left behind them in the dirt road, and we are back on the path toward Jessica’s sojourn with madness.

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Pulling up to the Gothic farmhouse foggy, bluish toned like that of an Andrew Wyeth painting, we arrive at the house, where Jessica will now live.

Poking through the musical atmosphere is almost the presence of a banjo, a warbling of a wild bird, and the hearse comes to a stop.

Jessica jumps out of the hearse, elated, exuberant, she decries “Oh God, it’s fantastic” Duncan seems pleased that his wife is happy, she kisses him on the cheek. Jessica tells Woody where all the things are for bedding in the hearse, and runs off to explore her new domain.

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As Jessica walks up a small set of steps, the soundtrack utilizes a distortion of wavelengths. Like wires being stretched over hot coals, until they melt into a wavering din of metal noise, a dying tuba or the pipe in some lower region of hell dwindling into an abrupt drone. Add the creaking of the rocking chair. The use of sound is penetrating.

A frightening sound that accompanies the next frame. A door, a porch, and an obscuring camera angle hindering us from seeing the figure that is rocking back and forth. A creepy moment that sparks more creepy moments to come.

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Jessica is back in the frame, she sees the person rocking on the porch. She looks over toward Duncan and Woody unloading the gear from the hearse. Then she looks back at the porch. No, there is no one in the rocker, and the door is set ajar. The rocking chair has been left to it’s own volition, vacated by the phantom who occupied that space moments before.

Now the inner spirits, the voices that haunt Jessica’s mind begin their diatribe. Jessica’s elation has been transmuted into fear, paranoia and abjection. The lower male voice is more incoherent, but a more lucid female voice asks her “Jessica why have you come here?” Jessica holds her head as if to squeeze the thoughts out of there. The buzz saw, the rapacious wires that drone as part of the soundtrack, the underlying score to Jessica’s questionable madness culminate in a moment of quiet frenzy.

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And suddenly the moment breaks, we hear the natural sound of the birds, the whispers stop and Jessica lets go of her head. We hear the hooting of a dove or owl, as Jessica proceeds up the little stone steps that lead to the porch. The rocking chair is still moving itself back and forth, a wooden machine moved by an invisible wind. Jessica stops at the chair to study it’s emptiness.

The camera so effectively exchanges moments between Jessica’s reaction and the still shots of queer solitude and the sense that something eerie and uncanny has invaded this space.

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Jessica slowly placing her hand on the old wooden door, begins to push it open. She does not leap into action, nor investigate with substantial force. It is as if she already knows that she must be cautious. Partly her paranoia, yet there is a sense that something arcane, and terrifying is awaiting her once she opens that door. The film moves specifically at a pace like a sluggish waltz not a hurried exertion. It’s this sedate, and quietly alert sense of foreboding that creates the moodiness of the film. It’s why it’s left such an impression on me after all these years and still works as an authentic chiller.

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As the door creeks, the sound of Duncan coming up the stairs with Woody bringing in supplies, breaks the moment. He asks Jessica “Get it open?”

Then he asks if she’s okay. We hear her inner machinations, “Don’t tell them… they won’t believe you.”

This theme is quite essential as to what makes this such a good horror film. Not to be believed. It’s a horrifying premise to be trapped with possibly a ‘truth’ that no one else can see. Think of INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1956). It wasn’t so much the pod replicas that were frightening as it was having the entire population slowly dwindle away, and no one left to believe your story.

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Invasion of The Body Snatchers 1956 –Kevin McCarthy

This film while standing very much alone as a unique contribution to the cannon of classical 70s horror, successfully overlays many themes used in the various iconic horror films I’ve cited in this post. Without pilfering anything it contributes to the  established archetypal thropes and paradigms that made these other masterpieces work so well.

Jessica has already lost her identity, and what remains is as fragile and tenuous as a spider’s web. The frayed bits of her identity, the remnants are still sacrificed up to be ‘qualified’. Is everything she sees or hears real? This is yet another frightening trope.

When you become mad, you are not only separated from yourself, but you become separated from the rest of the world. Beyond the possibility that there are in fact vampiric town folk with odd bandages and scowling looks, isn’t it as dangerous and unsettling  when your own husband doesn’t believe you’re sane…?

Jessica feigns being comfortable at the moment, throws a smile at Duncan and mouths the words,  “yes” he says, “well let’s go in.”

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At first the two are emerged in total darkness, Duncan throws the lights on and asks Jessica if she likes it. If it wasn’t supposed to be a creepy environment in a horror movie, the house could be considered a charming fixer upper. But that’s the point. This ordinary, homespun hearth can and will be transformed into a place of uncanny bane.

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Jessica stands still. leaning up against the wonderful floral wall paper. Duncan asks what’s wrong.
A giant distorted rumble as if coming from an old Marshall guitar tube amp, glimmers like bubbling thunder as Duncan and Jessica are fragmented by the silhouette of two shadowy legs upstairs.

As the legs run out of frame, the lasting sound is that of one single piano note held at the very bottom of the octave range. It’s sustained and ominous. Duncan says “It’s okay Jess, I saw it too.”

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A look of relief washes over Jessica, perhaps she isn’t being revisited by the madness. Duncan ,Woody and Jessica head upstairs to investigate the intruder.

Woody’s response is no kidding that’s great. He’s an easy going hairy dude after all. Peace, love and squatters welcome.

An odd touch, the camera focuses on their ascent up the stairs by zeroing in on only the steps, the trio’s legs and shoes which signify the movement of the scene. It’s a choice that creates an off kilter atmosphere, which is what we’ve been introduced to from the very beginning of the piece.

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Duncan is framed in the entrance of a darkened room wielding a fireplace shovel, looking more like a fly swatter, but I doubt he could do any damage with that sort of  light weight sundry. He’s definitely ready to bash someone’s head in for trespassing. Duncan moves out of frame, tells Jessica to stay where she is with Woody. She is showing teeth, Is she smiling from excitement because this was not a hallucination?

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Yes, she is pleased, ” I really did see something” she emphatically tells Woody. He tells her as if he needs to,  “I believe you.”

The girl who cried wolf really did see a wolf this time… right. She giggles with a cheerfulness.  She tries one of the doors, which is locked, walks back toward the hallway. Off screen we hear one of the men say, “We know you’re in here so come out”

Jessica is now beaming with ebullience, as if she’s on a scavenger hunt. She begins to peer into the darkened room. Slowing advancing. Slowing, the pacing of this film is executed with a deft simplicity of motion and orientation. We hear a loud creak. A door being opened perhaps. Jessica turns around in shadow, then proceeds to move further into the dark room. We hear breathing, the night birds, the footsteps on the old plank floor boards. The obfuscating shadows move like eerie molasses on the screen. Jessica is surrounded in shadow.

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As in any good horror film, the environment becomes as monstrous as the monster itself. The camera carefully frames bits and pieces of the house. In Curse of The Cat People (1944), what was most frightening, wasn’t just the odd people who inhabited the old dark house, it was the shapeless, open ended fear that lurked from the outer boundaries of the unknown, the non spaces.

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The shadows, that trigger what haunts our own childhood fears of the dark, Freud’s ‘uncanny.’ The camera places special attention on these ‘spaces’ These seemingly harmless, ordinary walls, radiators, (The wallpaper that embodies a matrix effect, like floral patterns becoming ominous faces leering back at us, in Robert Wise’s The Haunting 1963)

The Haunting matrixing wallpaper face

Comparative Matrix Haunting
There is the emergence of a matrixing factor, a comparative semblance of Jessica’s graveyard rubbings to the face’s that manifested themselves in Robert Wise’s who’s hand was I holding” scene of The Haunting. Both wallpaper and rubbings radiate an ominous essence.

We are cast within a blanket of unknown shadow, which seem like sinister dimensions gaping open, watching us. Footsteps, Jessica’s footsteps move us forward toward a room with a door ajar. We hear a labored breathing. We shift to another angle of the house. Another space open, using partial lighting, boxed in by total blackness. It is another staircase.

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Close up on Jessica’s face, and then… like a jack in the box popping out of it’s little macabre receptacle, the effect is similar once Emily, the mysterious vagrant jumps out of the room. Her movement is so fast that it’s like a flash of impish lightning.

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She runs out into the hall, Duncan almost swings at her with his iron whats it, and she turns around and runs into Woody’s arms, who holds her still, so she can’t escape. Duncan asks what she’s doing there and says to her, ‘Well, I’m sorry If we frightened you, but you just scared the hell out of us.”

“Oh that’s alright…I…who are you?” She takes a deep breath.

Duncan tells her, “The place belongs to me now…”

“Oh, I just found this place and I thought it was abandoned so I just sort of moved in… then I saw this hearse coming up the drive.”

Jessica interrupts her, “We must have scared you, as much as you scared us.”

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She laughs, then everyone begins to join in on the lightness of the moment. Emily tells them that she’ll get her things, implying that she’ll be leaving now. Duncan seems fine with that thought telling them that he’s going to put the rest of the stuff away, but Woody’s gaze lingers, staring after her like a carnivorous brute who has found his next meal. Jessica is still beaming an out of body twinkle, her face lit up, the pair of them look almost comical in their fixation on the girl.

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This is where I am going to leave my overview of the film. I’ll present you with a few, well more than just a few visual cues, as a photo journal of the moodiness from the narrative. But trust me, I’m leaving out much of the continuity and eerie surprises, so I won’t fret that I’ll be ruining anything for you. I’d rather you either re-experience the film again having not seen it for a long time, or if you’ve never seen it, please take my recommendation and give it a chance. Make some popcorn, shut the lights off, and just sit with the film quietly. You might not derive the nostalgic Schadenfreude that I still get from this chillingly beautiful masterwork, but I hope you will at least watch it for yourselves and arrive at your own conclusions. And hey, drop me a note and let me know if you liked it…

MG

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CapturFiles_7 He likes her
“He likes her”

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a harmless little hippie parlor seance

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CapturFiles_14 'I'm calling on all the spirits who ever died in this house-give us a sign give us a sign'
‘I’m calling on all the spirits who ever died in this house-give us a sign-give us a sign”
CapturFiles_14 A toast to my bride Abigail, and to all the Bishops
“A toast to my bride Abigail, and to all the Bishops”- a distant other- worldy voice floats in the air as Jessica summons the spirits of the house.
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“I’m here Jessica… I’m here” She hears the voices calling.
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The whispering in Jessica’s head begin to serenade her
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“Stay Jessica Stay, Stay Jessica Stay”
CapturFiles_15 we gave a seance and nobody came
Woody gibes, “We gave a seance and nobody came”

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CapturFiles_20aIt was in the water

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CapturFiles_25dWedding Dress in the trunk

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Hancock utilizes a variety of odd close ups on the inhabitants of this strange town, or Jessica’s dream world.
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“They probably get back in their cages after dark, what a bunch of weirdos”-Duncan
“Duncan why are they all bandaged?”-Jessica
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“More refugees from urban blight eh” – Sam once a New Yorker, now the kindly antique dealer

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CapturFiles_40aGirl in White again

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Jessica: “You don’t believe me. You don’t think there’s anything strange going on.”
Duncan: “I think it’s… it’s all strange.”
CapturFiles_47 Jess I think you should go back to NY for a while, you could see your doctor
“Jess I think you should go back to NY for a while, you could see your doctor”

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CapturFiles_49 Abigail never got to wear that wedding dress

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Jessica: I was just, er, looking at the picture. It looks so much like you.
Emily: My lord, it does. Gee, how weird. What’s the matter?
Jessica: “Nothing. It’s just, er, it does look so very much like you.”
Emily: “It’s an old print. It could look like anybody.”
Jessica: “No, it’s… it’s the eyes.”

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“I’m still here Jessica, you’ll never get rid of me, I’m in your blood , I’m in your blood, you want to die.”

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CapturFiles_98 I'm here Jessica, I'll always be here, I'm in your blood

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The Night God Screamed (1971) Leave Your Fear, Faith and Sanity at the Water’s Edge Continued in Part II

12 thoughts on “Let’s Scare Jessica to Death (1971) & The Night God Screamed (1971)-Leave Your Faith, Fear and Sanity at the Water’s Edge. Part I

  1. Joey, in your review of LET’S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH, you have the instincts of a filmmaker in your writing, as well as your eye for imagery! I liked Zohra Lampert long before she was the “Goya – On, Boya!” girl. If I recall correctly, Zohra was also Warren Beatty’s young bride in SPLENDOR IN THE GRASS. I also remember Gretchen Corbett on THE ROCKFORD FILES and a number of TV movies. Boy, that brings me back to my kidhood! Your discussion really had me thinking; in fact, I”m still feeling a bit goose-pimply thinking about it! How pretty Zohra was here, too. You made my heart go out to our fragile heroine. Excellent post, Jo, as always!

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    1. Dori-Second to my passion as a songwriter, which will always be the thing I was chosen to do, film is my life’s blood. The two are so interconnected that I can’t help but consistently tout how much watching these films inspired my music and my writing. And actually who I am as a person. I think you’re right about Zohra being Beatty’s bride, I saw it a few years ago, but it’s ringing those memory bells. And I love Gretchen Corbett. I am a huge Rockford Files fan. I’ve got this thing for gruffy older private eyes, like Harry O, Quincy ME and of course my fav is Columbo. Gretchen was in one of the best episodes of Columbo, Exercise in Fatality. She’s a tree sprite. I’m glad you liked the post. You know I spend so much time writing about these obscure films that I stumble onto, and not enough time talking about the very films that have left an indelible mark on my consciousness as an artist. I should post my list of top 50 horror films and then just write extensively about them already. Hope the goose pimples are the good kind and not the flu kind…You’re always such a dear to stop by and boost my ego. I need to stop over at Tales of The Easily Distracted and read all about Danny Kaye and Wonder Man… See ya soon kiddoe-Pal Joey

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  2. I liked what you said at the beginning of the post about monochrome colours and they sure do lend themselves to a feeling of creepiness and underlying terror. Thanks for the mention of “Monsters in America”; I have put it on my reading list.

    Are you thinking of writing a book at some point? You have some thought-provoking posts and what seems to be a ton of research.

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    1. Hey you!- I really do think that part of what made the 70s decade of horror was the use of color. I’m glad you liked my take on that. You should really grab a copy of Monsters in America. It’s such an accessible read. Brilliant, and interesting, hilarious and informative. I wish I could take one of Professor Poole’s classes. But I don’t live in the south. Perhaps he’ll come to the east coast and do a lecture in NYC. Okay, so here’s the deal with writing a book. I have had this secret wish that McFarland Press would approach me to be the one who does a Boris Karloff’s Thriller Television Show Companion. I love the show so much and enjoy posting about the particular episodes that I think are so memorable, and very ahead of their time, and timeless in fact. Who knows, if I collect enough interesting essays, maybe publishing a book down the road would be lovely. I actually have an album, that I’m waiting to record hopefully in the next year or so, so I might wind up taking a hiatus from the blog to record my album, and perform live again. One thing is true, I enjoy writing this stuff, and I really appreciate hearing from you… thanks so much as always-joey

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  3. Joey, Ruth, and pals, I think our Jo could write a truly amazing book about any and all of these topics! Jo, I’ve always liked your stunning, musical turns of phrase, like the ones you have in your review of LET’S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH, such as “…a seemingly serene lake like a quiet, untasted drink” and “…an out-of-body twinkle…” Beautifully expressed, my friend!

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    1. Dori, would you please be my agent…haha. You’re such a wonderfully warm person. You say I’m a sugar bowl with two handles, but you’re a honey jar filled to the top overflowing…thanks so much for that…

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  4. Amazing! Incredibly detailed and thorough review of a well-deserving movie. The recent critic’s darling Martha Marcy May Marlene reminded me a lot of Let’s Scare Jessica to Death in its exploration of delusion and isolation, and in its purposeful ambiguity. And yet MMMM fell completely flat for me (there’s no third act for starters) while Let’s Scare Jessica is absolutely haunting. Any thoughts on MMMM? Did you see it?

    On a side note, might I add Savage Weekend to this strange little genre of arty and atmospheric rural horror flicks of the 70s? That’s a fun one if you haven’t seen it. It’s got a great performance from an incredibly young William Sanderson, character actor extraordinaire.

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    1. Stephen-thanks so much for the kind words. I’m so glad that it’s not only me that finds Let’s Scare Jessica To Death so eerie and compelling. Initially I was very drawn to MMMMM but got side swiped by a trailer which showed a cat in the woods being killed with a rock. The scene startled me, and as I’ve said on previous posts, I just can’t deal with films that show cruelty or suffering of animals, especially felines. I’m such an advocate and have several of my own.

      I will confess here and now, that I’ve been taking films that I would otherwise love to re-watch and re-editing out the cat killings. You could call it the “no cats were killed in the making of this version” films. For example- The Killing Kind, You’ll Love My Mother, The Other…Bug… the list goes on. I can’t help it, the impression stays with me and I get upset and then can not get settled into the film. It’s like walking around a mine field. Anyway, the scene turned me off to the film, although I can absolutely see why it evoked certain impressions of Jessica for you. I’m glad it fell flat.

      And yes I have seen Savage Weekend, recently as a matter of fact and really enjoyed it. While it’s not on the same level as Jessica, it does have it’s very own perspective of eeriness and alienation. Which is so ironic that you mention Sanderson- I just watched his little cameo in The Onion Field as the young con. He’s a truly unique actor indeed. The Onion Field by the way is absolutely disturbing, although I’m starting to realize certain things about Wambaugh’s work that piss me off.

      Anyway I digress. Thanks for letting me know how much you liked my review. I’m still working on the follow up with The Night God Screamed. Have you seen that one?-Joey the long winded MonsterGirl who loves cats even more than film.

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      1. I haven’t seen The Night God Screamed yet, but plan to in anticipation of your next review. I’m a cat lover as well, so I totally sympathize with your aversion to onscreen cat cruelty. Glad you liked Savage Weekend; a fun little flick. Gotta love that Sanderson!

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      2. Teehee, I’m always so happy to find another cat lover. They are such a sacred and special little bunch. I hope you like The Night God Screamed. It’s not particularly flattering in terms of a good role for Jeanne Craine, but then again a lot of starlets found themselves doing these odd films in the 70s. It’s just Shelley Winters,Ruth Roman, Ava Gardner and of course Carroll Baker… were much better at manifesting that grande dame quality. Sanderson has a funny quality about him… see ya soon..

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  5. I’m so happy to have come across The Last Drive In! A terrific blog/website for cinephiles. What excellent writing: the prose appeals to my love for poetry and film, combined.

    Let’s Scare Jessica to Death holds a special place in my heart, always will (and what a great, unique & memorable score!), although I must confess I started off by reading your reviews on A Reflection of Fear and The Baby. After reading those, I simply had to read more: couldn’t stop. :-)

    Kind regards

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