Thursday, January 2, 2020

LET'S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH (1971) (Scream Factory Blu-ray Review)


Label: Scream Factory 
Region Code: A
Rating: PG-13
Duration: 88 Minutes
Audio: English DTS-HD MA 2.0 Mono with Optional English Subtitles 
Video: 1080p HD Widescreen (1.85:1) 
Director: John D. Hancock 
Cast: Zohra Lampert, Barton Heyman, Kevin O'Connor, Gretchen Corbett, Alan Manson, Mariclare Costello

The John D. Hancock (Bang A Drum Slowly) directed cult-classic Let's Scare Jessica To Death (1971) is a strange and eerie atmospheric chiller from the early 70's, a film I first experienced on TV as a kid still in my single-digits, and like many of the TV terrors I caught on the tube as a kid it's become something of a landmark film for me informing my young horror heart with an appreciation for eerie slow-burn chills. It's an atmospheric nightmare about three hippies friends who leave the big city and for a farmhouse in rural upstate New York with dreams of opening an apple orchard. The trio consists of the mentally fragile Jessica (Zohra Lampert, The Exorcist III) and her musician husband Duncan (Barton Heyman), plus their friend Woody (Kevin O'Connor, Special Effects), all of whom arrive into a small town near their new home driving a hearse, only to find that hippies are not greeted with open arms by the local folk. A group of old guys gathered on the porch of a local business give them a hard time, calling them freaks, and for some strange reason are all wearing bandages that cover what appear to be recent wounds, a item which figures into the eerie film later on. 

The peace-loving trio eventually arrive at their fog-shrouded farmhouse and discover an attractive fiery-haired squatter named Emily (Mariclare Costello, Nightmares) taking up residence, she gives them quite a startle when they first encounter her, but after an initial bit of awkwardness they befriend her and invite her to stay on at the home. 

It's established early on that Duncan's wife Jessica has just been recently released from an asylum following a six-month stint after suffering a nervous breakdown of some sort. She's a bit obsessed with death, for starters they arrive in town in a hearse, and she enjoys visiting cemeteries and making rubbings of the gravestones. Throughout the film her inner thoughts provide a running narration, giving voice to her vulnerability, and innermost thoughts, as well as revealing that she is plagued by disembodied voices, these voices begging the question is this creeping insanity or is there something more ghostly and supernatural happening here? 

The voices continue to taunt her, chipping way at the happiness she seeks, and she sporadically sees a mute blonde woman around the property (Gretchen Corbett, Jaws of Satan), but her companions think she's losing her grip on reality. Not helping matters is that the ginger-haired Emily seems to have eyes for her husband, and he for her as well, creating even more tension among the group. Later on while trying to sell some of the antiques found around the house the couple learn of the properties former occupants, who daughter Abigail drowned in a lake on the property on her wedding day a hundred years ago, her body was never recovered and the locals tell stories of how she still wanders the property to this day, as a vampire, which further fuels Jessica's agitated state, especially when she notices that Emily bares an uncanny resemblance to 100 year-old Abigail Bishop. 

I can understand how this one might bit a bit of a slog for some viewers who aren't down with a slow-burn, I remember recommending to a now defunct podcast I listened to years ago, and their reviews were unfavorable to say the least, but I have always enjoyed the regional feel of this atmospheric chiller, a meandering and ambiguous slow-burn nightmare with a cool psychotronic score that layers on the dread and further fuels the languid nightmare pace of the film.

Zohra Lampert is fantastic as the vulnerable wife, she's fragile but she's also a strong character, that and the hauntingly scenic rural backdrop, plus the cool psychotronic and string score, make this a delightful slice of slow-burn dread. It's no bloodbath but it is drenched in eerie atmosphere and a nightmare surrealness that I think should appeal to fans of creepy cult-classics that don't necessarily spill a lot of blood but offer oodles of strangeness. 

Audio/Video: Let's Scare Jessica To Death (1971) debuts on Blu-ray from Scream Factory in 1080p HD framed in 1.85:1 widescreen. There's no information about the transfer so this is probably not a new scan of the elements, but it is still is a strong looking HD presentation. There's good depth and clarity to the film, grain looks natural throughout, and the blacks are solid, though there is a slight white patch that shows up in the middle of the frame from time to time, which I would attribute to limitations of the the original cinematography rather than an issue with the transfer. Overall though the image looks wonderfully crisp and vivid throughout, a very nice upgrade from the previous DVD. 

Audio comes by way of English DTS-HD MA Mono with optional English subtitles, there's some age-related hiss and distortion present on the track but overall I had no issues with it at the end of the day, and the score from Orville Stoeber (Freddy's Nightmares) , with an electronic assist from Walter Sear (Midnight Cowboy), sounds great in the mix.

This release is not branded as a Collector's Edition so it's a bit on the thin side compared to other Scream Factory releases, but it's got a few goodies for us fans. We begin with an audio commentary Co-Writer/Director John Hancock and producer Bill Badalato. This track has a bit of dead space throughout but the guys do offer some good insights into the making of the film, and I was excited to hear the story of why the "mole" in the film was really a field mouse. 

We also get a 16-min interview with composer composer Orville Stoeber who speaks about working for Hancocks, how he was sort of cheated out of payment on the film, and addressing his own addiction issues. The best of the extras for me was a 24-min interview with author/film historian Kim Newman, he's a big fan of it, even claiming it's one of his favorite horror films, and relaying his first time watching the film and talking-up the finer points of the regional film. 

The disc is buttoned-up with a locations then-and-now comparison, theatrical trailer, TV spot and radio spots for the film, plus a gallery of still images, print ads and movie posters from various territories. The single-disc release arrives in a standard Blu-ray keepcase with sleeve of artwork featuring the cool original movie poster with a scene from the film on the reverse side, the same artwork is on the disc.  

Special Features:
- NEW Audio Commentary with Co-Writer/Director John Hancock and producer Bill Badalato
- NEW Art Saved My Life - composer Orville Stoeber on Let’s Scare Jessica to Death (16 min)
- NEW Scare Tactics: Reflections on a Seventies Horror Classic with author/film historian Kim Newman (24 min)
- NEW She Walks These Hills – the film’s locations then and now (7 in)
- Theatrical Trailer (3 min)
- TV Spot(1 min)
- Radio Spot (1 min)
- Still Gallery

This HD upgrade is long overdue and very welcomed, Scream factory give this creepy cult-classic a great looking Blu-ray with some cool extras, if you're a fan of strange 70's cinema like The Witch Who Came From The Sea (1976) and Carnival Of Souls (1962) I think this is gonna tickle your sweet spot.  


  1. Good review! But correction; the transfer is framed at 1:85, not 2:35.

  2. Thank you, right you are, I flubbed it. Fixed now, much appreciated.