Critics didn’t quite know what to make of Let’s Scare Jessica to Death when it premiered in the summer of 1971. The New York Times praised the sort-of vampire movie for its visuals, performances, and ambition but branded it a disappointment for its ambiguity. Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Times called it an “intriguing, realistic psychological drama” but panned the script’s supernatural underpinnings. But it’s that slipperiness that has helped make Let’s Scare Jessica to Death a minor cult classic in the half-century since its release on August 27, 1971.
The movie’s plot centers on Jessica (Zohra Lampert), a young woman recently discharged from a sanatorium, whose husband Duncan (Barton Heyman) ferries her to the countryside for a fresh start. When the couple arrives at the rural farmhouse they’ve bought, they find it already occupied by Emily (Mariclare Costello), a seemingly harmless hippie who, they’ll eventually learn, bears a striking resemblance to a long-dead drowning victim who supposedly stalks the nearby town as a vampiric ghost. After an ill-advised séance (is there any other kind?), Jessica is plagued by ghostly voices and a series of terrifying encounters. The film, which features a powerhouse performance by Lampert as the title character, leaves us with as many questions as answers. And we’re never quite sure if the tragic events that unfold onscreen are real or products of Jessica’s fracturing psyche.
Despite a 1984 VHS release, the film faded into obscurity after a successful theatrical run and was difficult to find until it made it onto DVD in 2006 and then Blu-ray in 2019. Over the years it has steadily gained a cult following, thanks in part to being championed by several genre icons. The Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling enthusiastically recommended the film when he spoke on college campuses; author and film historian Kim Newman has frequently sung its praises; and Stephen King has reportedly listed it as one of his favorite horror movies.
Whether you’re a long-time fan or recent convert, here are some things you might now know about Let’s Scare Jessica to Death. (If you’re in the latter category, spoilers lie ahead.)
The artful and elegiac Let’s Scare Jessica to Death was originally conceived by writer Lee Kalcheim as an over-the-top horror-comedy called It Drinks Hippie Blood, about a lake monster that preys on counterculture youth and meets its end on the sharpened point of a pole bearing an American flag. Kalcheim had been commissioned by a father-and-son team who owned a string of New York movie theaters and wanted to break into film production. A young filmmaker named John Hancock was hired to direct the film on the strength of an Oscar-nominated short he had made with a grant from the American Film Institute. Hancock agreed to take the job, but only if he could rewrite the script. The aspiring producers gave Hancock free rein to do whatever he wanted, provided he gave them a horror movie that contained certain, oddly specific elements they thought would play well for their target audience, such as a séance and a spectral woman in white.
One of the standout performances in Let’s Scare Jessica to Death is delivered by Mariclare Costello as Emily, the possibly vampiric woman who terrorizes the film’s heroine, seemingly kills her companions, and murders the mole Jessica finds in the local cemetery and brings home to keep as a pet. According to a 2011 interview with the website Terror Trap, that last bit inspired one of Costello’s most vivid memories of the production. When a crew member told her she’d be offing the animal on camera, the actress understandably refused, hiding in a nearby car until the director found her and implored her to come out.
Incidentally, the tiny corpse that Jessica discovers in the movie is that of a field mouse, not a mole. (While the filmmakers have been dodgy about how the mouse met its end, animal lovers can rest assured that the critter was not assassinated on camera.) The mole that had been procured for the role died of natural causes during the shoot, necessitating its replacement with the nearest available rodent. Hancock was not told of the creature’s death—when he asked how it was doing, he was first told the mole was sleeping, then that it was probably hibernating. (Moles, Hancock would later learn, do not hibernate.)
With a 26-day shoot and a budget of only $250,000, Hancock and his crew didn’t have the luxury of elaborate special effects. In a 2016 interview, the filmmaker told Rue Morgue magazine that when it came time to stage one of the movie’s pivotal scares—a ghostly shape glimpsed moving beneath the surface of a lake—he and producer Charlie Moss rigged the effect in their motel swimming pool the morning before they shot the scene, using a dummy weighted with concrete blocks and manipulated with a simple pulley system. The hastily concocted effect would go on to become one of the film’s most memorable images.
While composers such as John Carpenter, Alan Howarth, and Italian prog-rockers Goblin would make synthesizer scores a staple of horror cinema in the late ’70s and ’80s, electronic music was a rarity in the genre when Orville Stoeber was scoring Let’s Scare Jessica to Death. Hancock and Stoeber were looking for ways to punctuate Stoeber’s doleful piano and guitar compositions with a more sinister vibe, and they agreed that electronic elements would do the trick. They recruited synth pioneer Walter Sear, who had helped Robert Moog develop the legendary Moog synthesizer in the 1960s. Sear added the soundtrack’s menacing drones and other electronica, making Let’s Scare Jessica to Death one of the first horror scores to integrate synth music.
By the time Let’s Scare Jessica to Death made its theatrical debut on August 27, 1971, promotional gimmicks of the sort made famous by William Castle, who once offered fake life insurance policies in case his movie scared a viewer to death, had mostly run their course. But when Paramount picked up the film for distribution, gave it its title (it was simply called Jessica throughout production), and enthusiastically committed to a wide release, newly appointed studio president Frank Yablans wanted the audience to know exactly what sort of experience they were in for. To that end, Paramount hired a horse-drawn hearse, complete with coffins, to lurk in front of the Criterion Theater for the film’s New York premiere. Other venues, such as Minneapolis’s Orpheum Theater, handed out plastic vampire fangs as patrons entered.
Let’s Scare Jessica to Death is tame in terms of onscreen violence, relying instead on eerie visuals, an oppressive atmosphere of dread, spine-chilling sound cues, and the occasional well-placed jump scare to craft an unsettling viewing experience. Its subdued approach didn’t stop the British Board of Film Certification from slapping it with an X rating when it was released in the UK—a rating that branded the film as “extremely graphic” and made it off-limits to anyone under the age of 18. In the U.S. the film was given a much milder GP rating [PDF]—1971’s equivalent of today’s PG.
The UK rating is even stranger when you consider Let’s Scare Jessica to Death in the broader context of 1970s horror. It was released almost exactly one year before Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left helped usher in a wave of transgressive, graphically violent horror films that would make Hancock’s understated slice of gothic Americana seem quaint in comparison.
Let’s Scare Jessica to Death features one of horror filmdom’s great aquatic frights, when Costello, as the possibly undead Emily, enters a lake dressed in a swimsuit and emerges moments later in a soaked 19th-century wedding dress. But that wasn’t the scene that got Hancock noticed by producer Richard D. Zanuck when he was looking for someone to helm a sequel to 1975’s massively successful Jaws. That distinction goes to an earlier scene in the film, when Jessica, Duncan, and their friend Woody (Kevin O’Connor) arrive at the old farmhouse where much of the movie takes place. Jessica spots a shadowy figure lurking upstairs, setting up a terrific jump scare moments later when Emily lunges out of a darkened doorway. Zanuck is said to have pointed to that expertly orchestrated scare as the thing that convinced him Hancock was the man for the job.
Unfortunately, Hancock’s time on Jaws 2 was short-lived. He departed the production less than a month after filming started, when it became clear that his vision for a gritty, character-driven thriller didn’t square with Universal’s plans for a more lighthearted creature feature. Despite the setback, Hancock went on to long career in film, television, and theater. Now 82 years old, he’s still making movies; his latest film was the 2020 drama The Girls of Summer.