Search This Blog

Friday, October 17, 2014

HubrisWeen 2, Day 12: Let's Scare Jessica To Death (1971)

Screenplay by John D. Hancock and Lee Kalcheim (as "Ralph Rose" and "Norman Jonas")
Directed by John D. Hancock

Zohra Lampert:  Jessica
Barton Heyman:  Duncan
Kevin O'Connor:  Woody
Gretchen Corbett:  The Girl
Mariclare Costello:  Emily
Alan Manson:  Sam Dorker

I was tempted to do the entire review as a mock-academic unpacking of this movie's title as a way to implicate the audience in the way that the heroine of this movie suffers. I'm sure I could do it, but then I wouldn't really get to talk about the rest of the movie except in passing. So I'm filing that under "okay idea that probably wouldn't work very well" and just going on to describe this film.

It starts at the end, with a young woman (the Jessica that we're supposed to be scaring to death) sitting in a rowboat near the shore of a lake as the sun comes up. Jessica's voiceover tells us "I sit here and I can't believe it happened," and then the story backtracks a few days to show the viewer exactly what she's referring to.

A shiny black hearse with "Love" painted on the drivers' door in red cursive drives up to a cemetary. Jessica climbs out of the back and goes into the graveyard to make rubbings of a tombstone or two. Her voiceover, which is used to tell the viewer what she's thinking, is overjoyed because she hasn't been free in months. Specifically she says "Forget about the doctors," which is probably not the best omen in the world. The man driving the hearse and another man riding shotgun talk for a while, then call Jessica back to the car so they can get to the farmhouse. They're too engrossed in their own discussion to notice the girl that Jessica saw in the graveyard, who vanished while Jessica was distracted.

They drive to a ferry, which transports everyone to an island. They mention that they're going to "the old Bishop place" and the ferry driver gets really quiet and vaguely hostile at the mention of that name--another really great sign that things will be going well. At the crossroads with a couple of buildings that passes for town near the farmhouse, a bunch of old men on the porch of the general store disparage the trio for being "hippies" as they drive by. And since the movie was made in 1971 there might have still been a few hippies rattling around the country for old paunchy white dudes to glare at.

They get to the farmhouse without further incident, but Jessica sees someone in a rocking chair on the front porch. Or maybe she doesn't--the scene is shot to promote ambiguity, where the viewer plainly sees an empty chair behind a porch pillar as well as a red-haired woman sitting in it. While Jessica looks at the possibly occupied chair she hears whispering voices--ones that don't appear to be the running monologue that the viewer is already accustomed to. The voices ask Jessica why she's come to this farmhouse. As she walks to the rocking chair, the front door swings open before Jessica can touch it. She tells herself not to mention this to her husband Duncan and Woody, the two men, because they won't believe her.

But then Jessica sees someone upstairs, and one of the men does as well. Everyone goes upstairs to determine what's going on and, since it's a horror movie, split up on the second floor. A woman runs past Jessica and startles the heck out of everyone. The man toting a fireplace shovel apologizes to the squatter for frightening her (which is really polite, considering the circumstances). Everyone settles down and the squatter packs up her stuff, saying she'll be leaving now that the actual owners of the house are here. Jessica, trying to be polite, makes the offer of dinner with the trio, couch surfing overnight and a ride back into town in the morning rather than immediate exile. The squatter introduces herself as Emily and accepts the offer.

Oh, and Emily's the person that Jessica saw on the rocking chair outside.

There's pleasant conversation with dinner, and wine. Emily sings for her supper, playing the lute and singing a song with the refrain "Stay with me together, my love". Duncan turns out to be a symphony bassist and joins in for an impromptu jam (and the song starts out kind of creepy but becomes INCREDIBLY OMINOUS with the bass underneath Emily's vocals). Her words echo as she sings, and Jessica hallucinates blood on the dinner plates. Woody starts to hit it off with Emily, who talks about letting her imagination slip its tether and seeing shadows come alive. And then Emily wants to hold a seance, calling up the spirits of everyone who died in the old farmhouse. Although anyone can call on the spirits, it's up to them to answer and in this case they don't. When Jessica asks, she hears wedding bells and moaning voices.

Woody and Emily go for a walk and get to know each other; Woody mentions that Jessica has been "away" for six months, but she's better now. He also says that once Duncan and Jessica are settled in he might go back to New York City. When he goes in for a kiss, Emily shuts him down but tells him not to worry--she's not going away.

The next day everyone's bathing and swimming in the lake (in swimsuits), other than Emily, who went back to the farmhouse to pack up her stuff and make lunch. Jessica is swimming farther out than the two men when she sees a body in the lake and hears a whispered voice:  "Jessica, come to me". She panics and goes back to the shore, but when Woody swims out to where she saw the body there's nothing there. However, the girl from the cemetery is watching Jessica from the shore. So it's time for lunch!

After a meal, everyone looks for antiques in the farmhouse. Jessica finds a trunk in the attic with a folded white dress and a knife in it--that's pretty random. In one of the long shots it looks like someone else is up in the attic with her (I jumped; I'll admit it freely). And the soundtrack here is amazingly creepy, with piano and Moog medleys feeding off each other and getting eerie while Jessica looks around. The suspense and mood of the film are heightened immeasurably by Orville Stoerber and Walter Sear's contributions. The actors are all fine and the cinematography is very good indeed, but add in the music and the hairs on your arms stand up.

Everyone piles their found items into the hearse; the most valuable piece is a photo from the late 1800s or so in a silver frame. Oh, Emily's the woman in the photo, too, but nobody seems to notice at this point. Duncan asks Emily to stay with the trio in the farmhouse (because Jessica asked him to), after being invited into the farmhouse the woman says she'll be happy to stay.

In town, Jessica and Duncan get treated to hostility and smack talk from a bunch of old dudes that don't want to tell them where they can sell their antiques. Some of them even use their shoes to scrape the word "Love" off the side of the hearse. And, weirdly enough, all of them are bandaged somewhere on their bodies--the grumpy guy who won't tell Duncan where to sell antiques his gauze wrapped around his elbows and the chicken farmer that Jessica talks to has a bandage wrapped around his neck. Everyone slouches towards Jessica as she goes towards the hearse but nobody says anything.

Duncan finds a country antique store eventually, and to his good fortune it turns out to be run by another expatriate from New York City rather than a pissed-off middle-aged white man with a bandage wrapped around his wrist. But even the antiques store owner (with the regrettable name Sam Dorker) is hesitant to talk to Jessica or Duncan when he finds out their haul is from the Bishop place. He says he'll never be able to sell anything from that farmhouse anywhere near town and it doesn't sound like he's simply trying to strike a hard bargain. And here's where we--and the characters--get a little information that helps make sense of some of the earlier odd visions and voices. Abigail Bishop drowned in the lake behind the farmhouse, but her body was never found. According to local legend she's a vampire now and still wandering the area. Duncan cuts the story off out of respect for Jessica's mental state.

Her mental state's due for another shock, though; when Dorker goes fishing he hooks Abigail's body with his lure. While that's happening, Jessica is alone in the cemetery and sees the blonde girl from before. She chases the girl and finds Dorker's body at the bottom of a ravine, mauled and bloody. But when she gets Duncan to take a look at it the body is gone. Now Jessica's terrified that she's hallucinating again, but chases the girl when she spots her at the top of a hill. When Jessica and Duncan finally catch up to the mystery girl it turns out that she's mute. Jessica desperately tries to get information from the girl, but it's no use.

At dinner that night, Jessica's interior monologue is busy tormenting her by pointing out that Duncan is very attracted to Emily--at least partially because Duncan doesn't trust his wife, thinking that she's going crazy again. She leaves dinner early to feed the mole that she found in the cemetery earlier and go to bed (and the only false note in the film involves the mole, which is clearly a mouse but nobody calls it that--dragged me right out of the film by imagining the mole sitting in its trailer smoking pot and refusing to go on set, getting fired, and then being replaced by the mouse).

Woody leaves dinner as well, and very pointedly tells Duncan to take care of his wife. Duncan leaves Emily at the table rather abruptly; that night, in bed, he tells Jessica that she should go back to New York City and see her doctor there. The talks break down and Jessica prepares to go sleep on the couch, not wanting to share a bed with Duncan that night. Duncan walks out instead, and sleeps in a recliner downstairs. Inevitably, Emily seduces him. And that night someone kills the "mole"; Jessica's distraught when she finds its body the next morning.

While Duncan drives off to find a telephone, Jessica goes back up to the attic and finds the photo from the 1880s again. She realizes that "Emily" is in the picture, exactly the same age as she is ninety years later at the farmhouse and that's right when Emily shows up and displays surprise at the "resemblance" of Abigail in the picture and her. Then she mesmerizes Jessica, the voiceover commanding Jessica's obedience instead of telling the audience the protagonist's thoughts. At the lake, Abigail pushes Jessica into the water and dunks her under the surface. Jessica, barely holding back panic, tells Emily to get away from her. Which the other woman does, vanishing completely and then appearing as a still silent body under the water.

When Jessica runs away, Abigail rises from the lake in the wedding dress from the late 1800s and compels Jessica to stand still and be bitten. It doesn't take; Jessica runs off and barricades herself into her bedroom, hiding there for hours while Abigail's voice whispers in her head that she's already in there (a lie, probably meant to make Jessica run out and get captured). "You'll never get away. You'll never get better. I'm here," is just not what you want to hear in this situation.

Jessica sneaks out of the bedroom after several hours and flags down a passing truck to get a ride into town; Woody returns to the farmhouse from the orchards and gets overcome by Abigail after a short conversation--and this scene shows Abigail in a mirror, so whatever kind of undead fiend she is, it's the kind that shows up in a mirror. Right around that time Jessica makes it into town, but a shot from outside the truck shows a massive gash on the side of the driver's face that she never saw (a typically great reveal in a movie that's been very subtle and understated; the viewer knows exactly what that wound means at this point and the filmmakers use the language of cinema incredibly well to get the information across). In town, Jessica gets surrounded by middle-aged and older men all displaying nasty semi-healed wounds, including Dorker, who should probably be dead based on the amount of blood around him earlier. She bolts and runs for the farmhouse, but passes out on the path out of shock, exhaustion and terror.

Jessica wakes up later that night and makes her way back to the farmhouse; Duncan lights a lantern because the power's out and they go to bed. But Jessica finds a gash on her husband's neck and all of a sudden the room is full of creepy old bandaged men--maybe a hallucination, maybe not. I have no idea. Jessica runs out and knocks over the bass case in the hallway; the mute girl's body falls out. Jessica flees into the night and finds Woody's corpse on the crop-spraying tractor he was using earlier. She continues to run as dawn breaks (which makes this one of those rare horror movies where things get worse as the sun's coming up). She makes it to the ferry, but the pilot says it's not running for her that day (and he's scarred, of course).

Jessica runs to a boat and gets away from the shore, attacking a man that tries to climb into the boat with a gaffer hook, only discovering that it's her husband after she kills him. Everyone that's still alive in the movie stands on the shore and walks into the woods. Jessica is alone, either losing her mind again or living a nightmare. And then, with the protagonist caught between equally horrible possibilities, the credits roll.

"Eerie" is such a hard mood to sustain but John Hancock manages to keep it going throughout the entire movie without apparent effort. The three leads do a great job seeming natural and protective of each other, and Emily's arrival is one of many scenes that play out the way someone might actually act rather than just the way it's been in dozens of other movies (I really did enjoy the mutual apologies for scaring everyone when Emily first shows up as a squatter in the farmhouse). And even though there's certain things Abigail / Emily can do we never get a scene where someone lists what they are. Jessica, Douglas and Woody put things together about the same time and with the same information as the viewers and they succumb because they're out of their depth in the rural area.

But I started thinking about how the stock characters like the cranky old townies probably felt--they've lived generations in the area where a parasitic monster feeds on them. It's even more horrifying to be them than it is to be one of the newcomers who got killed. The horror's over for Duncan and Woody, but it'll go on for decades for all the background characters.

This review is part of the HubrisWeen 2014 marathon. The other reviews for today’s entry are:

The Terrible Claw Reviews:  Legend of Dinosaurs & Monster Birds

Yes, I Know:  The Living Skeleton


  1. I had a look at this film over the weekend on the strength of your review; previously, my wife's "Jesus, no-- it's unpardonably boring" had kept it at bay. Your line about carefully-maintained eerieness turned the tide, and I quite liked it.

    The notion of a whole town of Renfields rather than a whole town of Brides as the result of a vampire setting up shop is one I don't think I'd ever run across before. It's a neat concept, and I'm glad I eventually had a look at it.

  2. Hey, thanks!

    I never saw anything with a town full of Renfields / victims before either, and with the amazing Moog soundtrack (I'm a total sucker for 60s/70s keyboard sounds) it was like someone made me a movie. Or at least a score.