1970’s Horror: Let’s Scare Jessica To Death (1971)

Jessica (Zohra Lampert) doubts her sanity as a sinister evil seems to close in around her.

In 2006, this classic was called one of the scariest films ever made by the Chicago Film Critics Association. I may even attest to that. When I screened it for my horror friends, they also agreed that it is still chilling and worthy of the acclaim. To be honest, I have fond memories from my youth of staying awake after midnight with my mother to watch this on late-night TV. Most likely the film was grainy and dark, not crystal-clear and digitized as it appears today. If you are not familiar with it, I highly recommend you track it down and give it a watch, but promise me you’ll do so after midnight, in the deepest dark of the night.

Zohra Lampert (“Splendor in the Grass”) portrays Jessica, a fragile woman who’s been released from a mental hospital. Her husband (Barton Heyman) gives up his job with a New York orchestra and moves them to a rundown farmhouse in the quaint countryside. Joining them is a hippie friend called Woody (Kevin O’Connor). Imagine their surprise to find a drifter called Emily (Mariclare Costello) living there when they arrive. You may remember Costello from “The Waltons”. She is perfect in this film.

Soon after, Jessica starts to hear strange noises and sees a strange girl (Gretchen Corbett) watching her from afar. You may recognize Corbett from “The Rockford Files”. Jessica begins to fear she is relapsing as she watches her husband and Woody become more enamored of Emily, and the men in town, all of whom wear bandages, seem to threaten them. Does Emily command some strange hold over the menfolk, or is Jessica cracking up…?

I won’t spoil anymore surprises, except to say that director John Hancock succeeds in ratcheting up the suspense. Similar to protagonists in Shirley Jackson’s “The Haunting of Hill House” or Henry James’ “Turn of the Screw”, Jessica as played by Lampert is off-kilter, becoming more concerned for her safety and sanity as supernatural events begin to appear, enveloping her in a growing sense of dread.

The film was shot over 26 days in Connecticut. I’m willing to bet some local townsfolk played extras. There is a realism to the drowzy villagers that reminds me of summers spent in Ludlow, Vermont. It isn’t hard to believe that ancient evil was waiting to awaken in remote locations like these. (Think ‘Salem’s Lot or Pet Sematary.) The cast is excellent, especially Lampert who imbues childish innocence and upsetting fear of being truly crazy. Her Jessica is a perfectly sympathetic heroine and one we come to care about, which helps make this classic a success. Costello is equally as effective as the mysterious drifter who may be friend…or malevolent foe!

The resolution is still blood chilling and one of the most unique in horror. Not sure I can ever recover from the affect this film had on me, late at night, when I could imagine the true terrors being real. Like “The Stepford Wives” or “Harvest Home”, this film ruined quaint, off-road woodland villages for me. Upon entering them, doesn’t our spider-sense tingle that something dreadful may be waiting for us under the picturesque surface? I rate this classic (5 out of 5 stars). An oldie, but still goodie!

Next time: Horror Express (1972)

About the author

David Chrisom

David joined Boston Super Blog in May of 2019. His vibrant personality is rivaled only by his creativity in his artwork and writing. We're lucky to have him on board sharing his thoughts! In his spare time he's a member of the New England Horror Writers.