CAUTION: CONTAINS “SPOILERS”
I missed “Let’s Scare Jessica to Death” back in 1971. The title was off-putting and it sounded like yet another “Baby Jane” affair–you know the type: wealthy heroine being driven mad by greedy husband, half-sister, milkman, etc. Then I learned–by reading another critic!–that it was actually a vampire movie, and loosely based on J.S. LeFanu’s “Carmilla” to boot! So I had to search it out. Producers take note–see what kind of trouble a silly and inappropriate title can get your movie into.
So, is it a vampire movie? Sort of, although the teeth-to-neck action doesn’t begin until the film is more than halfway through its brief 83-minute running time. Is it a loose adaptation of “Carmilla”? Well, let’s say it’s a VERY loose adaptation and let it go at that. Yes, yes, but was the movie any good? It’s actually very good. The vampire–called Abigail Bishop in this one, not Carmilla Karnstein–is actually more of a vengeful spirit who can’t rest and doesn’t want anyone else to rest either. She has an entire island community under her thumb–fittingly enough since she and her family were the big shots of the island, circa 1880. But just as LeFanu’s vampire hides behind a façade of bogus identities, so too Abigail spends most of the film masquerading as a dulcimer-playing, husband-seducing hippie chick named Emily. She was played quite excellently by Mariclare Costello, who remains otherwise unknown to me.
I suspect that “Let’s Scare Jessica to Death” may have originally been intended as a made-for-TV movie, but was shunted into theaters due to its bouts of blood-letting and overall creepy, unsettling tone. It also gives the impression that some pages of script were left on the cutting-room floor. For instance, we never do learn what the story is with Gretchen Corbett’s nameless mute girl. The plot has Zohra Lampert’s Jessica only just recovered from a nervous breakdown when her quiet new life in the country drops her into the arms of vengeful Abigail who wants Jessica to join her extended vampire family. (These are modern vampires–no capes, no coffins and they do function in daylight–they’re just rather nasty, inbred and unpleasant.) The fact that the heroine is constantly engaging in interior monologues questioning her sanity–a point not resolved until Emily/Abigail places all of her cards on the table–only adds to this mood of gnawing anxiety.
Back in the 1970s and 1980s they were quite a few interesting little vampire yarns. Some, like John L. Moxey’s staunchly traditional “I, Desire” still not available on DVD, others like the offbeat “The Legendary Curse of Lemora,” now fairly well known. “Let’s Scare Jessica to Death” certainly deserves membership in that latter category. It accomplished a lot with a modest budget, a largely unknown cast, and a calculated teasing-out of its vampiric horrors.