“All that we see or seem is but a dream within a dream.” — Edgar Allan Poe
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
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.’
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.
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.
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…
“Leave your insanity at the door.”
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.
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.
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.
And Mariclare Costello is otherworldly as the red headed wraith with the vitreous skin, the ghostly Emily or is she Abigail?
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 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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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?
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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…