Horror also experienced a serious tone as the independent film industry started to stand on wobbly legs and become more sure of itself. Let's Scare Jessica is an example of this heady, trippy kind of dark horror best described as "mindscrew horror." Taking the supernatural, quasi-vampire lore and mental insanity and spinning it into character driven story created a unique, small film that became a staple of Late Late Show viewings and scared the hell out of me growing up.
The film's only name star, Zohra Lampert never really made it out of the 70's. Neither too glamorous with a frail, innocent personality, she is the last holdout of the flower power generation. She heads a cast of no names and directed by John Hancock (no, not THAT guy) who became famous for being fired from "Jaws 2" a few years after "Jessica." The last time Lampert made the big screen was as George C. Scott's wife in "Exorcist III".
Hancock's "Jaws 2" might have been a better movie as his work on "LSJTD" hints. Only a few minutes of Hancock's dark and gloomy footage made it to the final cut of "Jaws 2" but it is excellent and shows what that film could've been.
"Paranormal Activity" and its sequels rely on the "found footage" shaky camera gimmick to provide scares. It pads its running time with average, everyday nothing and banter and then punctuates by stark visual scares. The films literally play their audiences through the calm, then jump formula, allowing the body to be lulled into a calm period and then throw periodic "boo" moments to jolt them. The gimmick behind these films, especially the first, is that the studio hopes a large bulk actually believe the nonsense is real, just like "Blair Witch." It IS a gimmick no different than 3D and one that has become shopworn.
In fact, the "Paranormal" movies go out of their way to copy the atmosphere created in "Jessica" and clearly ape its buildup of horror from nothing.
"Jessica" has no gimmick. It is a straight told story and it takes its time. I have found it interesting that some friends that I have recommended the film to, found it boring while they rave over the "Paranormal Activity" films which are basically 88 minutes of nothing peppered with 4-5 minutes of something actually happening. However the "Paranormal" films have fat marketing budgets to feed the hype machine to cynically tell audiences what's good and how they need to buy into it.
The film is moody from its opening credits and the grainy 70's grindhouse look only makes it moodier. The setup is simple: Jessica had a mental breakdown some time earlier and her husband bought a small farm in quiet New England to start over. They've brought along a friend who will serve as a live in farm hand to get the place in shape. Jessica likes the macabre, doing headstone tracings/etchings to hang as decoration and...she hears voices. It all starts in a nearby cemetery where a mysterious girl in white, wearing an odd scarf around her neck may or may not be there. Hissing, whispering voices pop into Jessica's head, calling her name, and she knows she can't say anything or her husband will think she's lost it again.
From there the leftovers of the hippie commune love-in play out as a red headed female squatter is found in their home and she is invited to stay. It isn't long before she becomes the attention of the men, and Jessica again feels unnerved, worried her husband's eyes may be straying. No doubt her mental condition has put a crimp in their love life.
A visit to the nearby village showcases townsfolk all wearing the same kind of scarves around their necks and staring constantly at this young group of people who drive a hearse as their main form of transportation. Back home the red head guest stirs up sexual tension as Jessica hears more voices, starts seeing things and then discovers an old family portrait from the mid-1800's in the attic. The daughter in the portrait bears an uncanny resemblance to the red head living in their house. Jessica tries to pass this off as coincidence as the picture is at least a hundred years old.
It goes from there, to a truly spooky and haunting ending on a nearby lake that puts a different spin on the vampire legend while keeping the supernatural firmly in hand. No SPOILERS have been given as the film has a few surprises. Overall this is a quiet gem of a horror film and should have had better exposure.
The problem is the film came out on the heels of "Jaws" and audiences were quickly leaving the small, indie horror circuit for bigger game. "Jaws" upped the ante in the way of big screen entertainment and "Jessica" could not measure up and it quickly disappeared from theaters and wound up resurfacing on late night free TV, mostly on the CBS Late Night Movie where I discovered it.
It is not the greatest horror film ever made. However it was made with zest and a real intent to scare its audience on the small budget affixed to it. It is a character driven story that truly makes the viewer feel uneasy and the ending reveal, played with no music and just the wail of a light wind over the lake is enough to make the entire viewing worthwhile.
The film's marketing was sloppy and it was tossed out there to fend on its own with little fanfare. A better poster and advertising could have buoyed the film's prospects. This is rich movie, one you settle in with a cup of hot drink, turn the lights out and sit back and simply enjoy, letting it wash slowly over you and seep into your bones.
The DVD mastering gets rid of the washed out late night TV look, which in hindsight may not be a great thing. It was that washed out look from bad broadcast transfer that highlighted the graininess of the film stock and for me at least, added to the uneasy effect of the film. Regardless the film was given a decent DVD transfer and is worth the Netflix rental and time to see it.