The 1971 cult classic horror film, which Warner Archive released on DVD two weeks ago, "Let's Scare Jessica to Death" is a good example of the understated suspense films of that genre. Some of the more extreme examples of the film's leisurely pace will evoke thoughts that the film should be titled "Let's Bore Jessica to Death."
Rather than the generally not-so-scary events, the uncertainty regarding the extent to which the horrific occurrences are all in the mind of the titular character creates the suspense.
The film opens with Jessica, her husband Duncan, and their friend Woody driving their hearse to the isolated New England town. The move relates to Duncan, ala a mix of Oliver Wendell Douglas of "Green Acres" and Utopian-minded hippies of the era, buying a farm to establish an orchard. Unfortunately, the film does not provide any opportunities to exclaim "how about them apples."
In addition to wanting to return to the earth and farm with Woody (no pun intended), Duncan is motivated by Jessica recently being released from a psychiatric hospital after a nervous breakdown. Duncan feels that a quiet and isolated life will be therapeutic.
The following video clip, courtesy of YouTube, of "Jessica's" trailer provides an excellent sense of the film's creepy nature and awesomely retro early '70s style.
The predictable cool reception that the local small-town folks provide the newcomers is the first obstacle to the desired ideal life. New Englanders tend to not be very welcoming to outsiders anyway and flaunting a choice to ride around in a hearse does not help matters.
The real creepiness begins on the not-so-ghostly trio arriving at their new home and Jessica being unsure if she imagines seeing someone first on the porch and then in the house. M. Night Shyamalan very effectively uses this technique in "The Sixth Sense," and Jessica is very anxious regarding whether she can see dead people.
The intruder turns out to be a drifter named Emily who has been squatting in the empty house; Emily's quirky nature and her close resemblance to the house's lady in the lake drive most of the suspense regarding how much Jessica is imagining, how much is due to Emily having fun, and whether Emily truly is a spirited individual.
The coolness of the locals also feeds Jessica's paranoia by fueling thoughts that an evil entity possesses these northeast Sam Druckers and Fred Ziffels. Considering the combination of her open nature and psychiatric history, it is not surprising that Jessica looks to the occult for an explanation of why every figurative door that she knocks on is slammed in her face.
The climax comes when Jessica rabbits (this had to be worked in somewhere) at the end of the film; divulging whether Emily is merely taking things too far and if the locals are there out of concern or a desire to zombify Jessica would ruin the fun of watching the film.
The main things for fans of today's faster-paced and gory slasher flicks is that "Jessica" is your father's horror movie. It relies more on the unseen and possibly imagined than frantic chases followed by slicing and dicing to set the mood. Its effectiveness in doing so is why it has name recognition more than 40 years after its release.
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