Bill Van Ryn is editor of fanzine DRIVE-IN ASYLUM and the admin of the Facebook page GROOVY DOOM.

That’s the part that he wrote.

Besides being a friend, as a contributor to his Drive-In Asylum fanzine, I also kind of consider him “boss”. The fact that he allows me to regularly taint his zine’s good name with my inane ramblings befuddles me, but as I’m a whore for attention, I try not to question it.

He also likes to text me Dr. Hook lyrics when I’m drunk, but we’ll save that for next year’s intro.

LET’S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH: A Characterization In Blood

By Bill Van Ryn

Possessing one of the more sensational titles in horror films of the 1970s, Let’s Scare Jessica To Death is a strangely lurid title that seems to promise some full throttle ordeal. Theatergoers had a right to expect something grotesque from the film, as it was released in 1971, and the limits of what was acceptable for on-screen violence were becoming much more liberal, thanks to exploitation films such as Blood Feast and Night of the Living Dead, both released in the second half of the 1960s. What a shock it must have been, then, for those who went to see it and discovered that it actually delivers a very atmospheric, smoldering slow burn instead of a blaze. Aside from a few moments of visible blood and a couple of startling flesh wounds, Let’s Scare Jessica To Death instead finds its creepy impact in the way the character of Jessica discovers that her everyday surroundings, her marriage, her friendships, her very sanity–are rapidly disintegrating.

When we meet her near the beginning of the film, Jessica emerges from the back of a hearse and rushes excitedly into a cemetery to do gravestone rubbings. Despite the implications of a hearse in a graveyard, it’s simply her husband’s vehicle, and Jessica’s happy exterior contradicts the fact that she’s surrounded by the trappings of death. But death is something she will become more and more fascinated by during the course of the film.

Jessica is a woman haunted by whispering voices, which we actually hear on the soundtrack. One of them is clearly her own, and it speaks to her own sense of uncertainty by saying things like “Don’t mention it to them, they won’t believe you, they’ll just think you’re crazy.” There’s another voice that creeps in, one that we eventually come to understand is that of Abigail Bishop, a 100 year old vampire that haunts the Connecticut farm where Jessica has now taken residence.

Jessica has come to the farm after a recent stay in a mental institution; her husband, Duncan (Barton Heyman), has purchased the rural property with his life savings, presumably with the hope that the countryside will help Jessica recover from her unnamed illness without any of the pressures of their former life in New York City. They are accompanied by their friend, Woody (Kevin O’Connor).

If you take the film literally, Jessica is the classic Hitchcockian character who finds herself helplessly witnessing the unfolding of a conspiracy that only she can see. After arriving at their new home, the group discovers a young drifter named Emily (Mariclaire Costello) sheltering in the empty house while passing through—never mind that the house is on an island accessible only by ferry—but eventually Jessica sees more signs that all is not right. The vaguely hostile townspeople are all bandaged in various places, and they behave as if they are entranced. Jessica keeps seeing a mysterious young woman in white who never articulates anything to her, just gestures strangely. A local antiques dealer, Sam Dorker, also a recent transplant from New York City, provides the clues that Jessica needs to deduce that Emily is really Abigail Bishop, a local woman who drowned in the lake on her wedding day. Unfortunately, Jessica later sees Sam’s dead body lying in a wooded ravine. When she brings Duncan to the location of the body, it is gone.

Naturally, Jessica’s companions suspect that her sanity is slipping, and even Jessica begins to doubt herself. Zohra Lampert’s performance expertly communicates this sense of uncertainty, making good use of those ghostly voiceovers as well as subtle facial expressions and movements. Although this is a vampire story, Jessica is not a beautiful damsel in distress carrying a candelabra in an old mansion while wearing a backlit nightgown. She is an ordinary looking woman with a friendly but awkward demeanor, not quite at ease with herself or her surroundings. The one thing that Lampert makes clear in every scene is that Jessica is trying desperately to be “normal”, to cope with her mental illness. Those whispering voices that she hears suggest she is battling schizophrenia, but it seems as if she really is faced with a supernatural menace—or perhaps we’re only seeing the world through the eyes of a hallucinating mental patient.

This is the true horror of Let’s Scare Jessica To Death, the ease with which we as the audience can connect with Jessica’s self-doubt. There are only a few scenes in the film that don’t involve her; in one of them, Emily/Abigail seduces Woody and puts her mouth on his neck. This is one of the only moments in the film that seems to imply that some vampire action is really happening, since Jessica is not present. Then again, we don’t see any bared fangs or even a reaction from Woody, so we could also interpret this as simply something seductive that Emily does. The truly frightening stuff all happens when Jessica is on screen, so she could be imagining the whole thing.

The movie does hold a few terrific shocks. There are several chills related to Abigail/Emily lurking just under the surface of the water, her skin deathly white and her wedding dress flowing around her. In one unforgettable moment, she lurches up out of the lake and walks toward a terrified Jessica, urging her to “come with her” and allow herself to be drowned in the lake. Another nightmarish moment occurs when Jessica, now teetering on the brink of total insanity, sees Abigail and a mob of pale, elderly townspeople crowding around her with the intention to cut her and drink her blood.

It’s the bleak ending that is worst of all for our heroine. Attempting an escape from the island in a rowboat, she attacks a man who tries to climb into the boat from the water, only to discover she has killed her own husband. Still unsure of herself and in shock, she drifts alone in the boat wondering if she imagined the whole thing. There are no definitive answers, not for the audience, and not for Jessica.

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