Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Bad(?) Movie of the Month: Let's Scare Jessica to Death

I may not be devoting all of my time and effort to covering bad movies these days, but that doesn’t mean I stopped loving them. So once a month, I’ll spread a little bit of that love…

October already? Feels like it. October means Halloween, which means you're probably expecting something like Troll 2 to be a shoe-in for the Bad Movie of the Month. And it's certainly BMotM-worthy. But since I've been slacking off the past few weeks, I thought you deserved a deeper cut. Something like... 

Hey, this is a writing blog, so let's talk about narrators... I tend to have very mixed emotions about unreliable narrators. When done right, they can make for a great twist. When done poorly, it feels lazy, like a big ol’ cop out. Which is why I give Let’s Scare Jessica to Death a lot of credit: the filmmakers found a way to develop a main character so unreliable, she can’t even trust herself.

We open with our title character, mentally shattered, sitting in a rowboat on a lake. From there, the film is one giant flashback, starting with happier times like running around a cemetery to get some rubbings. No, you sicko, gravestone rubbings. 

Jessica gets a good rubbing (stop it) and thinks she sees a young blonde girl in a nightgown in the distance. Instead of saying, “Hey, what’s that young blonde girl in a nightgown doing in a cemetery,” Jessica mentally tells herself that the girl isn’t there and says nothing to her husband, Duncan, or their buddy, Woody. As we later learn, Jessica has just spent a stint in an institution – it’s never specified why, but I’m guessing it’s not “exhaustion” – and is worried she’ll be sent back if she starts acting all paranoid again.

"Spooky"? Old Saybrook, Connecticut
Which is a big reason why the trio has moved from New York City (where Duncan was a successful bassist for the philharmonic) to a big ass farmhouse in a small island community (played here by Old Saybrook, Connecticut? It must’ve been a very different place in the ‘70s). Because it’s a small rural town in a movie, our main characters gets lots of cold, unwelcoming stares at the trio rolls through town. Then again, they are driving a hearse…

Once they arrive at the big ass farmhouse – which has its own apple orchard, fun! – there’s a glimpse of someone running through the house. This time, it’s not in Jessica’s mind cuz Duncan sees it, too. The three use the old Scooby-Doo “let’s split up and find the unknown thing running around the spooky old building” strategy. 

And here’s something the film does really well: build suspense. No cheap tricks, no heavy-handed music to let you know “THIS IS SCARY,” just a solidly shot sequence of a timid woman making her way through an old house. This sequence also introduces the very smart idea of having the unexpected thing Jessica sees actually be there half the time, meaning that Jessica (and the audience) can’t just blow off odd occurrences. Well played, movie.

Turns out that something in the house is a cute young squatter named Emily. The trio invite her to stay for dinner, and then there’s more gentle folk music because this film was released in 1971. They all get along swimmingly well, even if Jessica begins to suspect that her husband is hot for Emily, or if Emily seems to be a bit… off. Maybe. It’s hard to tell if “hey, let’s hold a séance and call out to all the spirits who ever died in this house” in 1971 is meant to play as the suggestion of derangement or a sign of free-spiritedness. Either way, it’s another moment that wears away at Jessica’s psyche.

Also wearing Jessica down: the prerequisite Tale of Woe attached to the big ass farmhouse, the assortment of Creepy Old Things found in the attic, the thing underwater that may or may not have grabbed Jessica while she was swimming in the cove, and the increased number of incidents where Jessica thinks she sees something. And again, half the time that something was indeed there, which keeps her (and the audience) constantly guessing.

Oh, and I can’t forget about the locals! Like the small-town locals in many a film, these guys are meant to be intimidating with their quiet, judgmental stares and refusal to get out of the way. But these guys aren’t rednecks or roughnecks – they all look like the kind of guys you’d find down at the VFW. It’s as if your grandpa and his buddies started a gang and spent their time loitering outside the corner market in their windbreakers, giving people the stink-eye. Duncan and Woody are intimidated, but I just found them adorable.

Anyway, the tension begins to put a strain on Jessica’s marriage, and the discovery of a dead pet and later a dead body (that disappears when Jessica goes to show Duncan) just makes things worse. As Jessica begins to fully unspool, we start to get answers (mostly) and find out what’s going on (unless it’s all in Jessica’s head). 

Yes, there is a fair bit of ambiguousness to the film. Between the ambiguousness and the slow burn pacing, there are quite a few people who are down on this film. But not me. I think the ambiguousness here make the film more interesting, and I’ll take a slow-paced study in building suspense and tension over cheap jump-scares and insulting moments of our hero in danger any day. 

For all the hate this film gets at Rotten Tomatoes, Let’s Scare Jessica to Death made London Time Out’s list of 100 Best Horror. And that seems about right to me.

Congratulations, Let's Scare Jessica to Death: You are the Bad(?) Movie of the Month.


  1. For what it's worth, the low score on Rotten Tomatoes is based on just seven reviews. It's done a lot better on Letterboxd, where the average review is 3.4 out of 5.

    I liked it. It's weird, and sometimes that's what is needed.

  2. I wondered about that... 3.5 out of 5 for this movie makes a lot more sense to me.


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