Saturday, February 21, 2009
#55: Let's Scare Jessica To Death (John D. Hancock, 1971)
I love excessive gore and ridiculous, over-the-top vulgarity and all the cliches and conventions of horror, but the movies that reside in my top echelon of the genre tend to be more understated. The best horror movies, for me, create a sustained tension and dread, a slow creep. They also use sound wisely and know how scary noise, and the spaces between noise, can be. They use light and darkness and the careful composition of image. They notice details and create vivid characters. John D. Hancock's Let's Scare Jessica to Death is one of these understated gems.
Aside from a shakily awkward zoom out from a scene and a couple of jarringly misplaced closeups, Hancock's film is a sustained classic of unease. The beauty of the composition, the quality of the performances, and that freaky feeling of something always being a little off create a palpable mood that your whole body feels. This movie engages the senses.
I won't spoil much of what happens. Like Lemora, this movie requires a certain unfamiliarity to make its full impact. The movie opens with a trio of post-hippie bohemians arriving in the bucolic New England countryside, fresh from a move out of NYC, driving a hearse with their belongings and Jessica (Zohra Lampert) in the back. Jessica, recently released from a six-month institutionalization for hallucinations and extreme fear, travels with her husband Duncan, a symphonic musician, and their free-spirited unemployed friend Woody. When they arrive at the farmhouse, they find Emily, another bohemian, squatting there. They befriend her and let her stay. And that's all I'm going to tell you.
At once a fine example of the 1970s American film; a post-Manson, post-Altamont cultural fear of post-1960s life; a compassionate and empathetic portrayal of mental illness; a fine character study; and a freaky-ass scary movie, Let's Scare Jessica to Death should be more widely seen.
Lampert, excellent as Ben Gazzarra's wife in Cassavetes' Opening Night and as George C. Scott's wife in The Exorcist III, gets to carry a whole movie here. Her lack of pretense, relaxed naturalism, and expressive face create a fully developed, interesting character. When was the last time you saw a complex portrayal of a fight between a husband and wife in a horror movie? The filmmakers, especially the sound editor, skillfully weave together Jessica's private thoughts, the understated and jazz-inflected score, and noise and silence, creating a sustained and intriguing unease. This movie is scary.
The director, John D. Hancock, gave Robert De Niro the role that first made him famous in the following year's Bang the Drum Slowly. He also directed several episodes of Hill Street Blues. Also, his name is John Hancock. Whenever he needs to sign something and is told to put his John Hancock on the dotted line, the expression is both figurative and literal. What a country.