(Obligatory spoiler disclaimer for Part I–while I’ll be focusing mostly on the cast, director, and general trivia, I might edge dangerously into spoiler territory. Nothing major, but if you are like me, the word “the” is too much information if I haven’t seen the movie, so…forecast of partly cloudy spoilers).
It wasn’t easy to classify Let’s Scare Jessica to Death…I wasn’t sure whether it was truly Glorious Shit or qualified as Flawed but Worthy. Apparently, I’m not the only one who isn’t sure how to feel about LSJTD (it will be a pain in the ass to type out the full title for an entire blog, so indulge me); while there is some polarization, most critics also seem conflicted–they praise certain elements, pan others, and in general, are as wistful as I am about what could have been. Then again, some people love it–Stephen King said it was one of his favorite movies and Rod by god Serling said “It’s one of the most frightening films I’ve ever seen”, which is undeniable horror street cred.
On the other hand, some critics (and viewers) loathe LSJTD. They describe it as boring, nonsensical, hate the performances, the characters, the cinematography, script, or, in a few cases, hate it so much that their review reads more like the froth-mouth, borderline-offensive ravings of a bitter ex (it is my contention that any male reviewer who resorts to tampon metaphors could probably use one).
And yet–for its many, many flaws, it still works for more horror fans than not. Admittedly, I feel a certain amount of sentimental fondness for LSJTD–the first time I came across it was when I was eight. My responsible, attentive parents were drinking and playing cards with their friends on a school night, which meant I pretty much had carte blanche to watch whatever I wanted in the next room; LSJTD was the 2:00 AM late-late movie…and by the time I finished, I was wide-ass awake. I distinctly remember wondering “WTF?” (yeah, literally. I’ve been cursing since I was seven) but still feeling genuinely creeped. I didn’t see it again for decades and when I finally watched LSJTD again, I wondered “WTF?”, and still felt genuinely creeped. And any film that can affect me the same way in my Jurassic years as it did when I was in second grade, well, it must have some special, weirdass, creepy je ne said quoi; that alone makes it at least worthy of a blog…even if I do shred some of the lesser elements.
Like the script, for example. Have you ever watched a horror which had a great premise and all the elements needed to make a great movie…then when it turns to shit, you take it so personally that you rewrite entire scenes and dialogue in your head?
Maybe that’s just me.
Anyway, upon watching it for the whateverth time, I’ve decided that, had the script been even fair, LSJTD could’ve been a great horror film. Unfortunately, the script is unforgivably awful. The plot completely lacks any sort of cohesion or purpose or even any goddamn sense; it breaks its own rules, the dialogue is insufferable and, excepting the roles of the titular Jessica and the enigmatic Emily, the other characters might as well be made of dandelion fluff. Even the extras were awful, and that’s a very low bar. Ordinarily, I would accuse it of having too many plot holes, but there’s not enough plot to even allow for a decent hole. The sad, unfair result is that the actors’ performances were panned–these are experienced, Shakespearean actors, not that it matters–all the fine acting in the world can’t overcome a bad script…the savant bastard offspring of Meryl Streep and Laurence Olivier couldn’t save this piece of shit.
There is an excellent reason the script is so shit–it does not even remotely resemble the original version. The original version, written by Lee Kalcheim, was supposed to be a freaking satire called “It Drinks Hippie Blood”. The premise was that a bunch of hippies camping in the same cove are terrorized by a monster in the lake; it ends with the lead hippie impaling the creature with a flag pole, Old Glory still attached and rippling in the breeze, which sounds fucking AWESOME. “It Drinks Hippie Blood” was supposed to be a jaundiced homage to the end of the hippie era. I’m guessing that final flag impalement was a bittersweet signal that it was time for all those fun-loving hippies to cut their hair, get a soul-sucking job and conform like a proud Murikan should…which, again, sounds fucking awesome.
THAT…was the original script.
So John D. Hancock, a not completely inept director (Bang the Drum Slowly), basically took that script, cut it into little pieces, pasted all the words on a poster board and called it good. Okay, that’s bullshit, but my sarcasm is generous by comparison. In his version, he took the entire original premise, and got rid of everything except the cove. Understandably, Kalcheim was so disgusted that he made them use his (highly amused) father’s name in the credits: Norman Jonas. And as a writer, I stan.
Whilst he was busily chopping away at the script, Hancock claimed that he was influenced by Carmilla, Turn of the Screw and The Haunting. Uh huh. First of all, nope to all of the above and second, attempting to emulate…whatever he was trying to emulate… the aspects of three entirely different stories might have a wee bit to do with the script’s complete lack of focus.
Even the admittedly fantastic title is wrong–think about it; there is no fucking plot to kill Jessica. Granted, the other (far inferior) horror movie with the even better title–Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things–wasn’t about children and nobody was playing, but at least there were some goddamn dead things.
If I had to guess, I would say that Hancock grew up very sheltered, because even the set up is childish bullshit: after having a hardcore nervous breakdown–so severe that she has to be hospitalized for six months–Jessica’s pathologically patronizing cellist husband just gives up playing for the fucking New York Philharmonic, sinks every cent they have into a ridiculously huge, drafty-looking farmhouse in Connecticut…where they are going to grow apples–even though they’ve never grown apples nor do they show any indication that they’ve ever even seen a goddamn apple orchard–and until they make their fortune selling these magical apples, they’ll survive by selling the old shit in the attic, because they have no other life plan in place…all so Jessica can avoid stress.
It sounds like the premise of a deeply twisted sitcom.
The conceit of LSJTD, of course, is that Jessica herself is an unreliable narrator, so you’re left with an “Is she crazy? Or is it true?” ending, which I think was supposed to be deep. I don’t know. I keep envisioning Hancock handwriting “Finis” while fantasizing about smart people passionately debating its meaning in some strategically grimy coffeehouse. But then I’m a bitch. Besides, the answer to this is so glaringly obvious that I can’t believe nobody else has caught on…but that answer is a blatant spoiler, so I’ll save it for the second part.
The rest of the movie is populated with weirdly hostile townies resentful of them durn smart aleck hippies (even though they are clearly middle-aged and look as if they at least considered voting for Nixon); there is the extraneous Woody, who seems to serve no other purpose than spend his days spraying massive clouds of DDT on very non-organic apples, sexually harassing guests and being a convenient victim (it’s called ME TOO, buddy). Then there is a nameless mute girl whose entire raison d’être is to wave limply, run away, wave some more, run away and then as an auxiliary victim, because apparently, she doesn’t run fast enough.
But more importantly, what the fuck is Emily even supposed to be? Her character breaks all vampire-ghost-zombie rules: she moves about freely in daylight, she can speak, eat, drink, have sex and, judging by the gashed up geriatric locals, she either doesn’t have fangs or doesn’t want to dull them on old people skin.
What…a lot…of horseshit.
And yet, it works. Most of the credit, I believe, is due to Zohra Lampert as Jessica, whose harrowing descent from neurosis to psychosis (…or maybe not…) is almost painfully convincing: her posture, the awkward, almost chaotic gait, and her “please don’t kick me” expressions convey deep insecurity, which devolves into barely concealed hysteria before eventually crumbling into anxious twitching and obvious paranoia–and without being unintentionally funny (unlike Ellen Burstyn in the ridiculous Requiem for a Dream). Her terror is palpable; she brilliantly conveys the horrible truth about mental illness–once your mind betrays you, you can never truly trust yourself again…and how can you defend yourself against something that might not even be real?
Which makes the prey/predator chemistry between Jessica and Emily very effective..and extremely intense. For some reason, Mariclaire Costello gets very little love from the critics…which I don’t understand. Given the crap dialogue and the mere outline of her character, Costello perfectly embodies this invincible, phobia-inducing entity of the House Guest Who Never Leaves, the Woman Openly Snaking Your Man, the Deliberate Gaslighting Psychopath and an Inhuman…whatever. In other words, a woman’s worst nightmare…and a nightmare that you might not be able to resist–Emily’s intense blue-eyed stare is as mesmerizing as it is repellent. Her big reveal in the cove still creeps me the fuck out.
It’s also wonderfully atmospheric, especially since they were blessed with a sudden on-location fog. The slightly grainy, desaturated colors and bleak beauty of the place perfectly sets the tone even before things get evil, which is heightened by its unsettling score and sinister sound effects. I’ve read some unfairly dismissive comments about the soundtrack and I honestly believe some of that hate is because LSJTD was the first time a synthesizer (gasp) was used in a movie soundtrack…which apparently is an unforgivable offense in the world of musical snobbery. Non-musical person that I am, I can be objective (and ignorant) enough to disagree. Composer Orville Stoeber and sound man Joe Ryan effectively use music and sound effects to boost the good-scare intensity up to eleven. I don’t think those scenes would not have been nearly as effective without the soundtrack and/or sound effects.
There is more to praise and more to shame in the second part, but that I will save so discuss within the context of scene and character. For now, if you haven’t seen it–yeah. It’s a shit horror movie. It’s also a great horror movie…more importantly, it is indisputably creepy. I highly recommend it to any horror afficionado who hasn’t seen it and can afford the $2.99 rental fee on Amazon.