Release Date(s)1971 (January 28, 2019)
Studio(s)The Jessica Company/Paramount Pictures (Shout!/Scream Factory)
- Film/Program Grade: B+
- Video Grade: B
- Audio Grade: B
- Extras Grade: B-
Let’s Scare Jessica to Death, despite having a release from a major studio, is one of those forgotten horror films that had a lousy home video life as it was mostly unavailable. Disappearing from the theaters after its release in 1971, it developed a minor cult following and is remembered as a particularly frightening theatrical experience by those who actually lined up to see it.
Jessica (Zohra Lampert) has recently been released from a mental institution, and to start fresh, she moves into an old country house with her husband Duncan (Barton Heyman) and their mutual friend Woody (Kevin O’Connor). Upon their arrival, they discover a peculiar young woman, Emily (Mariclare Costello), who has been squatting in the abandoned house. The four start living together, but Jessica’s sanity seems to slowly be slipping. Strange things begin to occur around her and she becomes suspicious of Emily’s intentions towards her, Duncan, and Woody, but all the while finding difficulty in distinguishing delusion from reality.
Akin to ghost stories in the vein of Carnival of Souls and Don’t Look Now where the lines between what’s real and what’s imagined are blurred, Let’s Scare Jessica to Death (a lurid title that doesn’t represent the final product all that well) plays upon ambiguity and doesn’t give concrete answers. In Jessica’s case, it’s a matter of trying to discern what’s happening around her and whether or not she’s actually crazy. Zohra Lampert gives a powerhouse performance as a woman who gradually loses touch with all that’s real, or does she? Is she losing her mind or are the spirits of the past, possibly even vampiric in nature, attempting to ensnare her and her friends? Ultimately, it’s up to the audience to decide, which can be a maddening prospect.
Let’s Scare Jessica to Death is thought of mostly as a vampire tale that takes its cues from Carmilla, but it’s also a psychological thriller, or even a character study of sorts. It plays with an audiences’ genre expectations and keeps them in a constant state of confusion. In truth, it’s a lot of different things, which is part of its strength. It’s also one of the most haunting films of its era; misunderstood and overlooked initially, but well-regarded in the years since.
Scream Factory brings this horror cult gem to Blu-ray finally with an older transfer that’s a little problematic, but a major upgrade over its DVD counterpart. Let’s Scare Jessica to Death has always been a grainy film with instances of soft focus, but the presentation of it here appears to have had instances of DNR applied to it sporadically. Because of this, some shots appear more natural than others. Grain is mostly absent as everything appears a bit too clean. However, it has not been excessively sharpened, retaining its low budget 1970s look, but lacking a bit of the depth of a more natural presentation. The color palette is lush with gorgeous swatches of red, blue, and green, as well as the myriad of autumnal hues. Black levels are deep with decent shadow detail, while contrast allows everything to appear bright but not washed out or cloudy. This presentation also contains little to no leftover debris and features a high encode.
The soundtrack is included in English 2.0 mono DTS-HD with optional subtitles in English SDH. Overdubbing is a bit obvious, but dialogue is always discernable, even the ghostly whispers in Jessica’s mind. The score and music selection is given a boost in clarity as well. Like the video presentation, the audio is faithful to its source in that it doesn’t sound at all like a modern soundtrack. As such, it’s what it’s meant to be, which is a good thing. Mild hiss is apparent, but the rest of the track is free of any thumps, crackle, or distortion.
For bonus material, the following is included:
- Audio Commentary with Director John Hancock and Line Producer Bill Badalato
- Art Saved My Life: Composer Orville Stoeber on Let’s Scare Jessica to Death (HD – 16:25)
- Scare Tactics: Reflections on a Seventies Horror Classic (HD – 23:44)
- She Walks These Hills: Let’s Scare Jessica to Death Locations Then and Now (HD – 6:49)
- Theatrical Trailer (SD – 2:58)
- TV Spot (HD – 0:55)
- Radio Spot (HD – 1:03)
- Still Gallery (HD – 48 in all – 4:39)
It’s nice to hear from the director in the audio commentary, but he and his line producer go quiet just a bit too much as the pair basically watch the film and comment upon it occasionally, though they do provide minor tidbits of information along the way. Orville Stoeber provides plenty of background information about himself, how he and his family were musicians, meeting and working with John Hancock, writing the score for the film, and the personal issues he faced at the time of the film’s release. Kim Newman says that Let’s Scare Jessica to Death is his favorite horror film and goes into detail about films like it that were being made at that time. Locations Then and Now offers a brief glimpse of the filming locations today in Connecticut. There’s also an animated still gallery featuring 48 on-set photos, posters, and a set of press materials.
A film that owes much to late night TV, Let’s Scare Jessica to Death deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as many other genre classics that came out of the 1970s. It’s not an easy film to get into initially as it follows its own weird structure, but it’s highly effective. Finally having it on Blu-ray with a few extras in tow is a real treat. Highly recommended.
– Tim Salmons