Let's Scare Jessica to Death (1971)
Rating: 3 1/2 Stars
D: John Hancock. Zohra Lampert, Barton Heyman, Kevin O'Connor, Gretchen Corbett, Alan Manson, Mariclare Costello. 88 mins. (Paramount Home Entertainment, $14.99 DVD) 8/06
Is it a plot, a Salem's Lot, a mental breakdown, or a literal nightmare? That is the question in Hancock's ingenious chiller, a carefully crafted exercise in psychological terror that truly creeps up on the audience. After a six-month asylum stay, emotionally fragile Jessica (Lampert), accompanied by her musician husband Duncan (who drives a hearse!) and friend Woody (O'Connor), moves into a idyllic rural house-the old Bishop place-with a tainted past to begin life anew in a tranquil setting. However, the quaint New England town, with its strangely hostile locals, proves anything but. For starters, the trio discovers Emily (Costello), a seemingly harmless hippie girl, already ensconced in the hitherto abandoned home. Jessica invites her to stay but soon regrets that decision when Emily, who eerily resembles a long-dead lass in an ancient Bishop family portrait, makes a play for Duncan. When Jessica discovers the body of antiques dealer Sam (Manson), her fears increase exponentially. Writer/director Hancock builds the suspense at a pace so measured that, by midway, the viewer may begin to feel the victim of an elaborate hoax, but that only adds to the power of the pic's ultimate twist. Highlights include an early sťance sequence, Jessica's intermittent audiovisual hallucinations, a runaway tractor tableau, and a Carnival of Souls moment when Emily eerily emerges from a nearby lake, an evocative location that plays an increasingly pivotal role in the proceedings. (Hancock unfolds many of his scariest scenes in bright daylight, never an easy feat for fright-film makers.) As he did with his much later Suspended Animation, aka Mayhem (VS #43), Hancock demonstrates that a tight script and an able cast can overcome a modest budget. While all the thesps acquit themselves admirably, NYC stage vet Lampert carries the film with her nuanced interpretation of the vulnerable but never whiny heroine who embodies the film's delicate blend of the natural and the surreal. Our only regret is that Paramount presents Let's Scare Jessica to Death's long-overdue digital debut sans extras (not even a theatrical trailer); a Hancock audio commentary would have been much appreciated. Fortunately, Scope scribe Calum Waddell helps correct that oversight with the following chat with auteur Hancock, who sheds some light at right.
~ The Phantom
Still Scarey After All These Years! John Hancock on Jessica
As Told to Calum Waddell
For a long time, John Hancock's 1971 cult classic Let's Scare Jessica to Death has been considered a "lost" movie-a title that has joined the likes of schlock favorite The Boogens (1982), Ralph Bakshi's controversial animated satire Coonskin (1975) and Dario Argento's giallo Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971) in a perpetual state of bootleg hell. Therefore, it arrived as a great relief when Paramount released the psychological shocker on DVD this August past. VideoScope caught up with director John Hancock, whose work also includes the Robert De Niro baseball drama Bang the Drum Slowly (1973), the Golden Globe-nominated Weeds (1987) and 2001's gory Mayhem (aka Suspended Animation).
CALUM WADDELL In this day of DVD releases for even the smallest cult movies, is it surprising that Jessica took so long?
JOHN HANCOCK Yeah, I do not understand that at all. Do you want to know a story? It was actually considered too bloody for the UK. We were surprised, but it got an X rating for violence and it was never shown over there. At least as far as I know it wasn't.
CW Can we speak a little bit about the ending-it is very ambiguous.
JH Well, yes, it is and I guess I was influenced by Turn of the Screw-you know, I wanted to try and create the kind of ambiguity where you didn't know if everything was in her mind or if it was all real.
CW Do you have fond memories of making the movie?
JH Yeah, especially working with our production manager, Bill Badalato, who has become my closest friend-he produced Weeds and we have worked together many times since Jessica. So meeting him and working with him was a great pleasure. I also grew up on an apple farm, so I remember enjoying shooting the stuff with the guy on the crops sprayer, where she (Zohra Lampert) runs through the spray. It felt, at least to me, like a child's visit to a scary fruit farm, so it had this kind of autobiographical feel to me. I wrote it as well, under a pseudonym [Ralph Rose], and I remember getting scared at some sequences and I am very pleased that so many scenes came out quite so scary in the final film. It always seems to me to be an able guide-if it is scary in the script, then it will be scary on screen.
CW What do you remember about Zohra Lampert? Hers is one of the horror film's great "one-shot" performances, alongside Jessica Harper in Suspiria and Heather Donahue in The Blair Witch Project.
JH Well, Zohra was doing theatre in New York at the time and she was a highly respected actress-she was just magnificent. She had been in some comedies and she was in Splendor in the Grass; Warren Beatty ends up married to her and she has a wonderful moment in the end when Natalie Wood comes to see her. So she was someone I knew and admired very much as an actress. She hadn't been in many films, but to me she was an established actress, very high quality-she was extremely vulnerable.
CW Did Let's Scare Jessica to Death have a wide release when it first came out?
JH Yes, it did. Paramount had a wonderful poster and a wonderful campaign. They spent a lot of money on the advertising and it opened very big. It played everywhere.
CW Tell me about some of the movies that have scared John Hancock.
JH Hitchcock is my favorite, especially Psycho and Vertigo. I was really scared by The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Recently, I was very scared by The Sixth Sense.
CW I would say that Let's Scare Jessica to Death has a very Hitchcockian feel to it.
JH Yes, very much and before I did it I watched a lot of his films again.
CW Your career has taken a lot of twists and turns. For example, you never followed up Jessica with more horror movies.
JH Well, that is because I enjoy doing something different from what I've just done. Maybe, career-wise, it is not a great idea but it is what I've always done anyway! I'll give you an example--after I did Bang the Drum Slowly, I was offered another sports films and I didn't want to do that. Then after Weeds, I was offered a lot of prison films and I didn't want to do these either. So I've tried to change all the time.
CW And you've worked a lot on television too--The Twilight Zone, Cover Up, Hill Street Blues.
JH Yeah, right, and I enjoy episodic television. I enjoy the speed of the work, the pressure of it--I like all of that. When they did the new Twilight Zone-well, I grew up watching the original, so I was excited to do that.
CW How do you feel the '80s version of The Twilight Zone compares to the original?
JH I don't think in the revival of The Twilight Zone that they ever touched the original. The guy (Rod Serling) had a very dark view and that is something that maybe the people who were reviving it didn't have--that strange darkness.
CW I think I first encountered your work as a child, when I saw Prancer, which is a long way away from directing The Twilight Zone or Let's Scare Jessica to Death.
JH Well, yeah, and that was a rewarding experience. I've run into so many people who have watched that movie with their kids and that is so rewarding. It was hard directing the reindeer in that movie because they are really not trainable and you start to film them and they immediately turn their ass towards you. You say "Cut" and they just turn back. They're disobedient. There I was working with a child and a reindeer-and directing a child is a challenge in its own right!
CW Your most recent film-and your return to horror movies-was first previewed under the title Suspended Animation and then it changed to Mayhem. Why was this?
JH Well, I don't know-although I always thought Mayhem was a better title. I really wanted to call it Mayhem from the start. I know that the people who were selling the foreign rights thought it was a better title and so they decided to sell it as that in Europe. Tell me, do you think that Mayhem is a better title?
CW It certainly sums up the plot.
JH Yeah, I agree! And we also didn't want people to think it was an animated film. That was one of the things that might have caused the title change.
CW One of the things I thought was really interesting was that the first few seconds are animated and this is, at least initially, very confusing. What attracted you to introduce the feature with a cartoon opening?
JH I just thought it was a good, theatrical beginning to start with something so misleading. I thought an animator was a good portrait of a creative person, which is what we were exploring with the film anyway.
CW Why did it take you so long to make another horror film?
JH I've actually wanted to make something that will scare audiences for a while now. It's just a lot of fun to scare people. I felt that way even back when we did Jessica.
CW You mentioned earlier that The Texas Chainsaw Massacre scared you. With its story of a dangerous backwoods family, was Mayhem your own homage to that movie?
JH No, we weren't consciously thinking about that film when making Mayhem. You know, Mayhem just started out with us thinking that we would do Deliverance on snowmobiles and then it just took another direction with these two crazy ladies. That's why we have the change of pace after the scenes in the snow. I wanted to keep the audience off-balance. The audience reaction was very good to that movie; it played several cities in America and it is now out on DVD in the U.S. [via First Run Features].
CW Just like with Let's Scare Jessica to Death, there were no big name stars in Mayhem. A lot of genre critics have argued that a horror movie is more successful when the audience is faced with performers they don't recognize. Do you agree with this?
JH Well, I would rather have strong talent than somebody with a name, but I think it would have been a real advantage for us to have both, you know? But we were working on low budgets with these movies and we were not paying a great deal of money and I wanted to spend the money we had on shooting time rather than on actors. You know, the people that are available to work for moderate amounts are not real draws. So I would always rather have a good actor but it makes it hard when it comes to selling.
CW So even though you wanted to make a horror movie for a long time, I presume you didn't rush into things, hence the length of time between Let's Scare Jessica to Death and Mayhem.
JH Yes, and we worked on the script to Mayhem for a long time.
CW So what is next for you?
JH Once again I'm going to be changing direction. I have a Civil War screenplay I want to do-it has a lot of action in it but it is also a love story.