Release Date(s)1971 (November 26, 2021)
Studio(s)The Jessica Company/Paramount Pictures (Imprint/Via Vision)
- Film/Program Grade: B+
- Video Grade: B
- Audio Grade: B
- Extras Grade: B+
[Editor’s Note: This is a REGION-FREE Blu-ray release.]
Despite having a release from a major studio, Let’s Scare Jessica to Death 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 been recently 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, 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 any 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 audience’s 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.
Let’s Scare Jessica to Death was shot by director of photography Robert M. Baldwin on 35 mm film, finished photochemically, and presented in the widescreen aspect ratio of 1.85:1. Via Vision’s Imprint line brings the film to Region Free Blu-ray for the Australian market utilizing the same master that Scream Factory used for the US Blu-ray release of film. I was harsh on Scream Factory’s presentation, but looking at the exact same master two years later, it’s still problematic. It’s a dated master that’s had obvious DNR applied to it. Grain is mostly absent and most shots appear too clean. It hasn’t been excessively sharpened or tampered with otherwise, but it doesn’t look natural. The best thing about it is the color palette, which featuring gorgeous swatches of red, blue, and green, as well as a myriad of autumnal hues including browns and golds. The beautifully colorful sunsets are also quite striking. Black levels are deep with decent detail in the shadows. Instances of soft focus appear natural, never cloudy or washed out. Aside from the opening titles, the majority of the presentation is stable and clean. Some of it’s very good, even great, but it’s marred by randomly unsatisfactory levels of grain and fine detail.
The soundtrack is included in English 2.0 mono LPCM with optional subtitles in English SDH. There isn’t much of a difference between this and the Scream Factory track, which is a 2.0 mono DTS-HD Master Audio track. Overdubbing is a bit obvious, but dialogue is always discernible, even the ghostly whispers in Jessica’s mind. The score and music selection have been 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. It’s as it should be. Mild hiss is apparent, but the rest of the track is otherwise clean.
The following extras are included:
- Audio Commentary with John Hancock and Bill Badalato
- Audio Commentary by Kim Newman and Prano Bailey-Bond
- Audio Commentary by Kat Ellinger
- 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 – 23:45)
- She Walks These Hills: Let’s Scare Jessica to Death Locations Then and Now (Upscaled SD – 6:49)
- Theatrical Trailer (Upscaled SD – 2:58)
- TV Spot (Upscaled SD – :55)
- Radio Spot (HD – 1:03)
- Still Gallery (HD – 48 in all – 4:39)
The majority of these extras are carted over from the Scream Factory release, but Imprint adds two new audio commentaries. The first is with author and film historian Kim Newman and filmmaker Prano Bailey-Bond (Censor). It provides much of the same information as the featurette that Newman appears in, but like the next commentary, it’s nice to hear a woman speak about the film at length for a change. The second audio commentary features author Kat Ellinger, who is always a welcome addition. She dives deep into many of the film’s facets, pointing out that many of its elements are unlike other films that’s she’s written about in the past, which she considers a major attribute. In the older audio commentary with director John Hancock and line producer Bill Badalato, they go quiet a bit too much as they watch the film and comment on it occasionally. They mange to provide minor tidbits of information along the way, but not to the degree of the other commentators.
In Art Saved My Life, composer Orville Stoeber offers 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. In Scare Tactics, Kim Newman returns and states that Let’s Scare Jessica to Death is his favorite horror film, going into detail about films like it that were being produced at that time. The Locations Then and Now featurette offers a brief glimpse of the filming locations as seen today on location in Connecticut. In addition to the film’s trailer, TV spot, and radio spot, there’s also an animated still gallery featuring 48 images of on-set photos, posters, and press materials.
The disc sits inside a clear amaray case featuring new artwork on the front and a still from the film on the inner sleeve. Everything is housed within a slipcover featuring a recreation of the original UK quad poster for the film. This release is #87 in the Imprint line of titles.
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. The Imprint Blu-ray improves upon the Scream Factory release with the additional audio commentaries, but offers the same presentation and loses the cover art for the US poster. Regardless, if you don’t already own this film, it comes highly recommended.
- Tim Salmons