The Dead in Broad Daylight – Rediscovering ‘Let’s Scare Jessica to Death’ (US 1971 – 89 mins)

Posted in Rediscover by - December 03, 2015
The Dead in Broad Daylight – Rediscovering ‘Let’s Scare Jessica to Death’ (US 1971 – 89 mins)

A moody early 70’s sleeper, ‘Let’s Scare Jessica to Death’ may not be the horror film its reputation and title suggests, even though there are various horror motifs throughout, including zombies, ghosts and especially vampires.

After being released from a mental institution, Jessica (Zohra Lampert) and her husband Duncan (Barton Heyman), along with their friend Woody (Kevin O’Connor) seek solace on a remote farm in Connecticut. Soon after arriving Jessica begins seeing strange figures which the others do not, and it’s not long before they are joined by the mysterious Emily (Mariclare Costello), a guitar playing young drop-out with an agenda of her own. There are also stories circulating around town that the farm may be haunted by the ghost of Abigail Bishop, a young bride who drowned just before her wedding day. Also, to add to the mysterious atmosphere, all the towns’ people appear to have strange bite marks on their necks.

The movie’s title may lead you into thinking that this could just be your typical high school horror, but it could not be more different. To me it’s always felt like an atmospheric drama of a troubled young woman’s mind, interlaced with imaginative horror elements. Wonderful stage actress Zohra Lampert was perfect as the emotionally delicate Jessica, and always seemed to have that look of fragility about her. Another good role of Lampert’s was an early one she had in Elia Kazan’s teen romancer ‘Splendor in the Grass’ (’61), as Warren Beatty’s young bride. As Jessica’s husband, Barton Heyman may be more familiar as Dr Klein in ‘The Exorcist’ (’73), while pale-looking television regular Gretchen Corbett was an ideal choice for the spectral ‘Girl’.

Director and co-writer John Hancock made his debut here and went on to make the heart-tugging sports drama ‘Bang the Drum Slowly’ with a young Robert De Niro. Here Hancock also drew some inspiration from Irish writer Sheridan Le Fanu’s 1827 vampire novella ‘Carmilla’, which itself was a big influence on Bram Stoker’s 1914 draft of ‘Dracula’.

There are numerous memorable moments, including the opening cemetery scene and the lake attack finale before the dreamy end credits. The most striking however is the now-famous scene where Emily, dressed in Abigail’s wedding gown, slowly rises corpse-like out of the lake in broad daylight, before attempting to bite Jessica’s neck. It’s a startling and unsettling moment and remains one of the very best and most memorable scenes in the entire genre. The movie’s low budget doesn’t hurt the picture either, as the natural autumnal weather of foggy landscapes and ghostly lakes gives the movie a nice eerie feel throughout.

A favourite of critics and Stephen King, ‘Let’s Scare Jessica to Death’ does have a minor following, although I don’t think it’s the masterpiece as others have stated, as it’s too deliberately paced and we are never quite sure whether we’re watching a movie about a troubled woman’s decent into madness, or a tale of ghosts and vampires with a drop of the undead thrown in. But this is no bad thing as it’s sometimes better to just leave certain things to the viewer’s imagination. Either way, it’s a very interesting and enjoyable movie, and one that needn’t be saved for the obligatory rainy night.

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