The late 60’s/early 70’s was something of a formative time for horror. Classics like The Exorcist, A Clockwork Orange, Rosemary’s Baby, and Night of the Living Dead were paving the way for subgenres to come. Gone were the days of cheesy 50’s monster movies, and evolving were the days of early 60’s black and white gothic horror.
Movies were becoming more surreal in style, and realistic in tone simultaneously. But one movie from this era that often gets overlooked is the 1971 horror gem, Let’s Scare Jessica to Death. With a title that sounds like an 80’s slasher, the movie is quiet slow-burn, that manages to be creepy and atmospheric, all while setting the tone for many movies to come.
Ahead of Its Time
The term “gaslighting” is never used once in the movie, but it’s very much what the entire movie is about. Jessica has recently been released from a mental health facility, and is using this vacation at the lake as a way to unwind and start feeling better.
However, it becomes quite clear that everyone she thought she could trust is actually plotting against her. Frequently citing her recent mental health issues, her supposed friends, even her husband use this to make her question her own sanity when something truly sinister is going on.
Featuring a female protagonist who’s trying to not be controlled, particularly by her husband hit very close to home in the early 70’s. After all, this was the decade that women in the US were finally allowed to apply for credit cards separately from their husbands.
While it doesn’t seem overtly feminist on the surface, Let’s Scare Jessica to Death dealt with issues that were relevant at the time, and continue to be today. Jessica remains the only sane one, when everyone has her convinced otherwise. And it’s a situation that tragically still continues today.
There’s something unsettling about not knowing who you can trust. There’s a real sense of conspiracy here as Jessica feels that everyone is on a secret but her. And the fact that the film itself doesn’t have lengthy exposition scene to give away every detail makes it all the more scary.
The audience is largely left to fill in the blanks. Is it truly a vampire movie? Maybe. Is it actually all just in Jessica’s head? Perhaps. Could it be some other supernatural entity at work? The fact that we don’t know puts us in the same place of frightened ignorance that Jessica is in for the duration of the movie.
Paving the Way
Stephen King once cited Let’s Scare Jessica to Death as one of his favorite horror films. At the time, it was being released, horror (and cinema) was going through something of a rebirth. Having been shot in a subjective manner, many other 70’s horror films like Last House on the Left, The Wicker Man (which came out the same year), and even some elements of The Exorcist were shot in similar ways.
Rather than rely on studio soundstages, the movie used his lake house setting to immerse the viewer. There was less an emphasis on being spooky like there was the 60’s, and more a focus on creepy atmosphere. And while it can’t be credited with this entire movement in film, it’s a great example of an early horror film that utilized a more modern style that would become the norm.
It’s the reason why 50 years later, Let’s Scare Jessica to Death hits just as hard and is just as frightening!
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