Jessica (Zohra Lampert) has been released from a mental institution to the care of her husband, Duncan (Barton Heyman), who has given up his job as string bassist for the New York Philharmonic and purchased a rundown farmhouse on an island in upstate New York. When Jessica, Duncan, and their hippie friend Woody (Kevin O’Connor) arrive, they are surprised to find a mysterious drifter, Emily (Mariclare Costello), already living there. When Emily offers to move on, Jessica invites her to dine with them and stay the night.
The following day, Jessica, seeing how attracted Woody is to Emily, asks Duncan to invite her to stay indefinitely. Jessica begins hearing voices and sees a mysterious young blonde woman (Gretchen Corbett) looking at her from a distance before disappearing. Later, Jessica is grabbed by someone under the water in the cove while she is swimming. Jessica is afraid to talk about these things with Duncan or Woody, for fear that they will think she is relapsing. She also becomes aware that Duncan seems to be attracted to Emily, and that the men in the nearby town, all of whom are bandaged in some way, are hostile towards them.
Duncan and Jessica decide to sell antiques found in the house at a local shop, one of which is a silver-framed portrait of the house’s former owners, the Bishop family—father, mother, and daughter Abigail. The antique dealer, Sam Dorker (Alan Manson), tells them the story of how Abigail drowned in 1880 just before her wedding day. Legend claims that she is still alive, roving the island as a vampire. Jessica finds the story fascinating, but Duncan, afraid that hearing about such things will upset his wife, cuts Dorker short. Later, as Jessica prepares to make a headstone rubbing on Abigail Bishop’s grave, she notices the blonde woman beckoning her to follow. The woman leads Jessica to a cliff, at the bottom of which lies Dorker’s bloodied body. By the time Jessica finds Duncan, however, the body is gone. Jessica and Duncan spot the woman standing on the cliff above them, causing Duncan to give chase. When the woman is caught and questioned by the couple, she remains silent and quickly flees when Emily approaches.
That night, Duncan tells Jessica that she needs to return to New York to resume her psychiatric treatment. Jessica forces him to sleep on the couch, where he is seduced by Emily. The next day, Jessica finds the portrait of the Bishop family, which she and Duncan had sold to Dorker the previous day, back in the attic; she observes that Abigail Bishop, as seen on the photo, bears a striking resemblance to Emily. Jessica agrees to go with Emily to swim in the cove. While swimming, Emily vanishes from sight; Jessica hears Emily’s voice in her head and watches as Emily emerges from the lake in a wedding gown. Emily attempts to bite her neck, but Jessica flees, locking herself in her bedroom in the house. Hours pass and Jessica leaves to hitch a ride into town. Woody, who has been working in the orchard, returns to the house, where Emily bites his neck.
When Jessica gets into town, she sees Duncan’s car and asks about his whereabouts, but no one will speak to her; she then encounters Sam Dorker, and terrified, runs back to the house. She collapses in the orchard and later is found by Duncan, who takes her home. In their bedroom, the couple go to lie down; Jessica notices a cut on Duncan’s neck, and Emily then enters the room brandishing a knife, with the townsmen following behind her. Jessica flees the house, knocking over Duncan’s bass case, which contains the corpse of the mute woman.
Jessica runs through the orchard and comes across Woody’s corpse, his throat slashed. At daybreak, Jessica makes it to the ferry and tries to board, but the ferryman refuses to let her on. She jumps into a nearby rowboat and paddles out into the lake. When a hand reaches into the boat from the water, she stabs the person in the back several times with a pole hook. As the body floats away, she sees that it is Duncan. From the shore, Emily and the townsmen watch her.
It all began with a father-and-son team, Charles Moss Sr. and Jr., who owned the Criterion, one of the top movie houses in New York, along with a chain of other East Coast theaters. The Mosses wanted to make their own film, and hired Lee Kalcheim to script it. Kalcheim had been writing for television since 1965, working on the likes of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, The Paper Chase, All in the Family and M*A*S*H. The original idea was to do a send up of horror films, which was a natural for Kalcheim given his comedy background, and the fact that he was not a fan of the genre—“I find them slightly silly,” he says.
Kalcheim, who wrote the script in the Moss offices, lived in Connecticut, not far from where Jessica eventually filmed, and he incorporated many locales that were close to him, including coves in front of his home and a ferry that was within walking distance. “The ferryboat was at the end of the road that I lived on, and the orchard was right up the street,” he recalls.
Jessica would undergo plenty of changes in the transition from horror/comedy to a genuine scare film, but as Kalcheim notes, “The situations stayed—the people showing up at the house, the kind of weirdness of the place.” In his original script, a monster lived in the coves. “It was during the Vietnam War, so you had all these hippies, which is still part of the film. And I believe the monster was killed when the lead character rode a motorcycle that had an American flag with a point on the end of it, and he rammed it through the monster.”
Then director John Hancock, and a more serious approach to the material, came in. Hancock, a native of Kansas City, was discovered by William Wyler’s daughter, a development executive for the legendary producer Joseph E. Levine. She saw an Academy Award-nominated short he made in 1970 called Sticky My Fingers…Fleet My Feet and got a number of people to see it including the Mosses, who immediately considered Hancock to direct their project. “The script I was given was kind of a parody of a horror film,” Hancock confirms, “and I tried to make it a genuinely scary movie. I attempted to make it as real as possible.”
Hancock grew up on a fruit farm, which he incorporated into the film, and applied the memories and equipment to horrific ends, like a crop sprayer whose poison kills humans as well as insects. “All that personal material, it’s like a child’s ghostly visit to a farm with a sprayer that poisons you,” Hancock says. “That must have been how I felt as a kid going to my grandparents’ farm, and that made Jessica unlike other scary movies. It was a very personal picture.”
His father was a bass player, and in the film one of the characters plays a huge upright bass. Hancock’s college roommate also felt that the film’s redheaded vampire, Emily (played by Mariclaire Costello), bore some family resemblance. Recalls the director, “He said, ‘If you don’t think that redhead is your mother, you’re crazy!’ I wasn’t conscious of it, but he claimed it was!”
Hancock, who had never shot a fright flick before, worked closely with the Mosses and incorporated their suggestions while he rewrote the script. “They wanted a seance. Why? ‘Well, because people like them.’ They wanted a little girl running around in a gauzy white (shroud), “because it will be scary.’ They had big input into this film, and a very strong sense of what audiences liked. They also had a good sense of what scenes make the audiences go get candy, and I tried to avoid those!”
As Hancock wrote the script, “I learned that indeed the things that scare you in writing them will scare an audience. Locations that scare you when you’re scouting them will scare an audience. I learned to trust in that sense. When I first looked at the mansion where we shot the film, there was a hallway upstairs with a lot of doors in it, and I got kind of a chill. I thought, ‘Well, this is a scary location,’ and indeed it was. All those doors, somebody could come out of any one of them.”
In one scene, Jessica flees into the house and locks herself in her room. As she cowers in fright, papers she posted on the wall flap loudly in the wind, and her inner voices whisper through the walls. “As I was writing that, I got chills, and I was pleased that it was scary to an audience too,” Hancock says.
Zohra Lampert, who plays Jessica, recalls meeting Hancock backstage when she was performing in Mother Courage with Anne Bancroft at Broadway’s Martin Beck Theater. He approached her about the role, “and I accepted, trusting his judgment,” she says. “I have great fondness for John Hancock, and enjoyed working with him very much.”
“I had seen Zohra in several plays and dated her briefly,” Hancock adds. “I thought she’d be good for the role and vulnerable, easily frightened. A good screamer. The ladies in these films have to be able to scream!” To prepare for the part, Lampert worked with her lifelong teacher, Mira Rostova, as did Costello; Rostova’s other students have included Alec Baldwin, Montgomery Clift and Roddy McDowall.
Practically everyone who worked on Let’s Scare Jessica to Death was a novice to the horror genre, and Hancock bought a 16mm projector and rented a number of Hitchcock films to prepare for the shoot. Jessica has often been compared to the cult chiller Carnival of Souls, which Hancock and Kalcheim both claim they haven’t seen. “I’m not even sure I’d seen Night of the Living Dead by then,” Kalcheim says, referring to another genre classic that Jessica has been compared to.
Let’s Scare Jessica to Death opens and closes with the same scene, which was filmed off a pier. Against a beautifully shot sunset, Jessica sits in a boat with her back to the camera as she slowly drifts out into a river and we hear her thoughts in voiceover: “I sit here and I can’t believe that it happened. And yet, I have to believe it. Dreams or nightmares, madness or sanity, I don’t know which is which.” Jessica has been in a mental hospital for six months, and her husband is hoping some time on a farm in upstate New York will do her some good.
“For the first time in months I’m free,” her narration tells us. “Forget the doctors. Forget that place. I’m OK now. We’ll start over.” But she starts seeing and hearing things she’s not sure are real. Voices echo in her head, asking, “Jessica, why have you come here?” But she tells herself, “Act normal,” so as not to alarm her husband.
Arriving at the farmhouse, they discover the hippie girl Emily, who was living there previously, thinking the house was abandoned-or so she says. Soon they learn the truth: Emily drowned in the cove in 1880. As the townsfolk tell the tale, her body was never recovered, and she’s now a vampire roaming the countryside.
Hancock wanted to make Let’s Scare Jessica to Death a variation on The Turn of the Screw where you’re not sure if the heroine is truly crazy or if the horror is really happening. Jessica’s husband certainly has his doubts as to whether his wife’s condition has improved, or if she’s relapsing. “Jess? I think we should go back to New York for a while.” he tells her. “You can see your doctor.” He pauses to consider what he’s saying. “If you want.” As she approached her performance, Lampert says, “I believe Jessica was more dubious about her husband’s fidelity, as well as his belief in her, than anything else.”
Let’s Scare Jessica to Death was shot in Old Saybrook and East Haddon, Connecticut. The main house where most of the central action takes place was called the Dickinson Mansion, located in the town of Essex. The first night the film company went to the house being used for exteriors, an incredible fog had rolled in which gave the area a spooky haze that was used throughout the movie. “We got lucky with that,” says Hancock. “It happened to be there when it was time to shoot.”
Primarily a stage director, Hancock was a bit uncertain once he started making his first feature. “I didn’t have any idea what I was doing!” he laughs. “I tended to work quite openly with actors in the theater. I tried to free them up, get them to be real, full and expressive, and limiting that to what a camera sees was something I found frustrating. It was a little hard to accept that indeed I did have to block them through the camera; I couldn’t just have the scene be good, then take a picture. Then I realized it wouldn’t kill off their spontaneity entirely, and accepted to some degree that you lose a little bit of that. A lot of good cameramen will free up actors from marks for that very reason.”
The director recalls that the first cinematographer on Let’s Scare Jessica to Death kept regarding him like he was incompetent. “So I fired him after the first week, and got one who didn’t look at me like that!” That cameraman was Bob Baldwin, who went on to shoot I Drink Your Blood (1970) director David Durston, The Exterminator (1980) and The Soldier for James Glickenhaus and Frankenhooker and Basket Case 2 for Frank Henenlotter. Before Jessica, Baldwin had previously lensed a number of black-and-white stag films in 35mm. “I believe Jessica was one of the first pictures I shot that was not a nudie,” Baldwin says.
Unlike Hancock, the DP didn’t watch any horror films for inspiration before the shoot. As he recalls, they went up to Connecticut right away, and there wasn’t much time to prep. While the first cameraman on Jessica didn’t think Hancock knew what he was doing, Baldwin felt the situation was a big step up from his previous projects.
“The cameraman is really the director on those nudies, because you’re movin’ the camera and doin’ the shots, and all the director cares about is gettin’ the shot, and gettin’ out of there to return the equipment because they’ve only got it for the weekend,” Baldwin says. “Jessica was probably the first really good organization I worked with; it wasn’t like people grasping. When you start, you know when you have a director who knows what he’s doing. That to me was a revelation, I guess !”
Lampert especially enjoyed working with Baldwin, who was “very sensitive to the performer,” she says. “We understood each other and worked in tandem.” Baldwin replies, “I always sort of pride myself on that. I always had a habit of going into makeup and just sitting and schmoozing with the actors before the day started. I spent time with Zohra in the rehearsals, and I was always around. You get so you kind of hold their hand or whatever it takes for them to do their thing.
“Zohra was a good actress,” Baldwin continues. “I felt she had plenty of screen presence. She spent a lot of time developing that character. Some actors can finish a scene and then be back to their regular selves, joking around, then on take two they’re right back into the role. But she’d get into character and spend the day there.”
Let’s Scare Jessica to Death gave Baldwin the opportunity to experiment with camera tricks. One special effect he pulled off was making the ghostly apparition of Emily appear and disappear in the lake, which he accomplished with a Polaroid filter that worked like a Venetian blind. When the filter was rotated one way, you could see the actress floating underneath, but when it was turned another way, only the reflecting glare of the water was visible. “We did a lot of tricks that they do with computers today,” Baldwin notes. “Sometimes I think that the computer is what made everybody lazy. We did a hell of a job for the money we had.”
The one memory that stands out for those who worked on Let’s Scare Jessica to Death was the weather, which made it difficult to film in the lake. “I remember we shot in October, so for all those scenes in the water, they were freezin’ their asses off!” says Kalcheim. “If you look at the leaves on the trees, you’ll see it was not conducive to swimming!” Not only was the water frigid, “Our legs were being nibbled on by fish!” says Hancock.
“The water was cold, I remember that part!” adds Baldwin. “And poor Mariclaire, she had to swim in that white gown with that white makeup.”
Director John Hancock Interview
WHAT WAS THE BEGINNING OF YOUR INVOLVEMENT WITH LET’S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH?
John Hancock: I’d made a short film on a grant from the AFI called Sticky My Fingers, Fleet My Fest that was about businessmen who play touch football in Central Park. It had received an Oscar nomination and had also been shown by CBS during half-time of their big Thanksgiving football game. That secured me a lot of attention and William Wyler’s daughter Kathy, saw it…. She then recommended me to the producers of Jessica, who were looking for a director. There was a very important chain of exhibitors known as B.S. Moss Enterprises who were run by a father-and-son team who were both named Charlie Moss.
DID YOU EVER CONSIDER RETAINING KALCHEIM ‘S TITLE: IT DRINKS HIPPIE BLOOD?
John Hancock: No! Kalcheim later wrote comedies like MA’S H and specialized more in humour than horror Naturally, he delivered a script that read like a parody of a scary movie. It was a playful send-up of the horror genre and didn’t take itself seriously at all. From what I remember, it had some hippies moving out to an isolated house in the country who encounter a blood-drinking monster that lives in the water. That was the nugget of a good idea but Kalcheim ‘s whole approach to the story, the characters – and the monster – did not interest me very much beyond that. The Mosses then asked me if I wanted to do it, and I said, “Sure, but only if I can rewrite the script.” I made it eminently clear to them that did not want to do a satire of a horror picture. wanted to do a movie that was legitimately terrifying
KALCHEIM ADOPTED THE PSEUDONYM “NORMAN JONAS” AS HIS CO-WRITING CREDIT AFTER YOU REVISED HIS DRAFT, BUT WHY DID YOU INSIST ON CALLING YOURSELF “RALPH ROSE”?
John Hancock: I believe Kalcheim used his fathers’ first name for his credit as I did with mine but, in retrospect, I probably made a mistake in using the pseudonym. The producers wanted certain things in the script like a séance and this mysterious girl dressed in white who appears to Jessica. These additions didn’t make much sense to me, but the Mosses felt they would be particularly enjoyable and scary. I trusted their instincts because they had a concrete experience of audiences; they knew what people liked and what they didn’t like and in that regard they certainly had an advantage over most studio executives If you are a seasoned exhibitor, you know what kinds of sequences will make audiences get up and go buy candy and what sequences will keep them glued firmly to their seats. So I inserted the things they asked for into the screenplay, thinking, “Well, they are probably smart so I do as they ask.” … I didn’t want to be deemed responsible for these things as a writer, but I was certainly willing to be held accountable for them as a director
HOW DID YOU APPROACH REWORKING THE STORY?
John Hancock: My initial approach to rewriting Jessica was to introduce as much personal and autobiographical material into the film as I possibly could. So the location of the fruit farm, an apple farm, and the image of the crop sprayer spewing pesticide is very much a scene out of my own childhood, have very strong memories of my father arriving back home coated white with poison and I did a lot of spraying myself so that cozy rural milieu was incredibly familiar to me. My father also played the double bass like Jessica’s husband does in the film. That big, black, coffin-like bass case was very much a fixture of my youth. It was something that traveled back and forth with us from our house in Chicago out to our farm in Indiana because, being a musician, Dad would take his bass along so he could practice.
WHY WERE YOU COMPELLED TO INVEST THE FILM WITH SO MANY ASPECTS OF YOUR LIFE?
John Hancock: I probably wanted to appropriate it make it something unique to me. I do think the feeling of being alone on the farm as a child certainly filtered into both the script and the film. I don’t know to what extent I specifically set out to do that, but it did make its presence felt. Jessica is a little like a child’s view of moving out to a farm: that feeling of wonder, curiosity and fear. 1 was very fond of our farm, but the pesticides, the loneliness, the graves and the idea that a lot of other people had actually died in the house where we were living – all of those things crawled out from my conscious and subconscious mind, and informed the movie. In scouting the film, I found several spooky locations that certainly scared me-interiors as well as exteriors. … I used an upstairs hallway in the house where Jessica and her companions are staying that had so many doors there was something quite disturbing about it: the idea that someone – or something – could suddenly come lurching out of the shadows at any moment and grab you. It was very unsettling. I think a couple of the most effective scenes in Jessica are filmed in that hallway
SOME CRITICS FEEL JESSICA EXTRACTS FROM CARNIVAL OF SOULS AND NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. WERE THOSE MOVIES IN ANY WAY INFLUENTIAL FOR YOU?
John Hancock: It’s true that Carnival of Souls and Night of the Living Dead sometimes get mentioned in relation to Jessica, but I had not seen either film before making my picture. As a matter of fact, when I eventually saw Night of the Living Dead a few years later, I didn’t like it at all. Frankly, I found it crude and heavy-handed and I’m still not a fan of it. I don’t wish to offend or dismay anybody by saying that I certainly appreciate the fact that a lot of people consider that picture to be important and influential; I’m merely stating it was neither of those things for me. However, one film I did very much like and I had actually seen it before making Jessica – Was The Haunting. I thought that was a stunning movie and the idea of having a neurotic female as the lead character was an incredibly useful thing. It invited all kinds of underlying tenures, subtleties and developments to our story
SUCH AS THE USE OF AN UNRELIABLE NARRATOR
John Hancock: Yes, and, of course, that was a literary device before it was a cinematic one. There is a recurring tradition in literature, in ghost stories and horror stories of the unreliable narrator. You don’t know if you can trust the observations and perceptions of the main protagonist and you begin to question everything you’ve come to learn about them. Is this really happening or is it all just a by-product of madness and delusion? loved The Turn of the Screw, the way that novel makes you question whether or not the supernatural events are actually occurring or if the heroine is crazy. I thought it would be interesting to have a central female character in Jessica that is recovering from the effects of a nervous breakdown. This fragile- and possibly dangerous – woman is struggling to hold it all together and her slack grip on reality is loosening further. So, there’s an apparent threat that she will relapse and be totally consumed by her illness and I thought that would be a fascinating element to play with.
WERE YOU AMBIVALENT ABOUT THE GENRE AT THIS EARLY JUNCTURE OF YOUR CAREER?
John Hancock: No, I’ve always liked horror films. But I was motivated to make Jessica the kind of horror film that I wanted to see, something that spoke to my fears. I was alarmed by the notion that you can’t defuse or defeat evil – it forever lives inside and all around us – so I worked that fear into the story. I actually scared myself one night when I was writing the script and that experience was revelatory to me. I didn’t think it would ever be possible to scare myself during the act of writing and concentrating, but it did induce the shivers in me. I was writing the script at night and, at that time, I lived on the Hudson River in an old Tory place called Sneden’s Landing That house and the surrounding neighborhood had a peculiar atmosphere and the shadows always seemed very thick and threatening. The air was almost pungent with a Revolutionary War feeling and you really found it easy to believe that ghosts were wandering around that area at night. It was perfect, as I found that unnerving atmosphere assisted in getting me into the proper frame of mind to create a horror movie.
ONE OF THE FILM’S MOST REMARKABLE MOMENTS OCCURS WHEN EMILY SINKS BENEATH THE LAKE IN A CONTEMPORARY BATHING COSTUME ONLY TO SULLENLY RE-EMERGE IN A SODDEN 19TH-CENTURY WEDDING DRESS.
John Hancock: God, I don’t know where that idea came from. I do know that over the years a lot of people have told me they find that scene incredibly unsettling. That image just came to me suddenly one night as I was writing. Actually, that was the same night I told you about earlier when I got scared working on the script. It was that very sequence, and the one that directly follows it where Jessica runs inside the house, barricades herself in the bedroom and hears the voices whispering to her in the darkness…. But the sight of Emily rising out of the water as this dripping apparition in a wedding dress seemed a disturbing one to me for some reason. It’s just so unexpected and weird and potent. I immediately knew it would be very scary if I executed it right
DO YOU RECALL ANYTHING ELSE ABOUT SHOOTING THAT SEQUENCE?
John Hancock: I can distinctly remember feeling glad that I was safely on the shore with the camera shooting Mariclare Costello emerging from the lake. I’d spent a lot of time filming with the actors in the cold November water and, frankly. I was thankful to be out of there! We also had to realize this creature that Jessica sees moving below the surface – and this was before animatronics and mechanical effects were common tools. We didn’t have the time or money to do anything complex. So, the morning before we shot that stuff, Charlie Moss and I worked this thing out in the swimming pool at our motel using a dummy with cement blocks at the bottom attached to various pulleys. We used the buoyancy of the puppet, pulling it up and down, and allowed the movement of the water to emphasise the swirling motion of the hair and the dress It was strangely disturbing to behold, actually.
ONE OF THE MOST QUIETLY DEVASTATING THINGS IN THE FILM IS THE USE OF WHISPERING VOICES ON THE SOUNDTRACK. CAN YOU TALK ABOUT THAT?
John Hancock: I first had the idea for the whispering voices that Jessica hears when I was writing the script, but that approach became far more elaborate during post-production. Since this brittle woman has only just been released from an asylum, I felt there was always the possibility that she might hear voices that this veiled matiness could somehow be roused by her surroundings and the people she meets. Of course, it may all be happening to Jessica for real and this evil entity is indeed out to get her. The auditory elements helped to embellish that uncertainty. So, the whisperings and mutterings on the soundtrack gradually evolved and got thicker and denser. They became this cacophony that is always questioning and disturbing and pleading with Jessica. I can remember sitting down and writing dialogue for the voices whilst we were in the editing room cutting the film. I had to figure out exactly what they were going to say, when they should speak and how they could contribute to the character and the narrative. It was important that the voices gave the ambiguous impression that this woman may be losing her sanity again.
SOME OBSERVERS HAVE COMMENTED IN RETROSPECT THAT JESSICA SERVES AS AN ELEGY FOR THE “BITTER DISAPPOINTMENTS OF THE LOVE GENERATION.” IS THAT HOW YOU READ IT?
John Hancock: I was a little too old to be a hippie. Well, I was a hippie in a way, I guess, but maybe I considered myself to be something of an observer rather than an active participant in the whole Love thing…. I knew a lot of hippies back then and I can remember thinking. This is all just a tad. It will eventually pass and be replaced by Cynicism, Suspicion and despair. Just you wait and see!” And that pretty much came to pass throughout the 1970s. … You could already feel that negativity brewing when we were making Jessica, that things weren’t working out the way some of us had hoped and dreamed they would. There was Vietnam, all the civil unrest, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, and the dream was over. So, was certainly aware that the ideals of the Love Generation were perishing. Maybe that was the significance of Jessica and her friends riding around in a hearse with the word “Love” painted on it. It may have symbolized that those hippie values were now dying or dead. But there was also something weirdly cosmic to me about the contrast present in that image, which spoke to the eternal mysteries of life and death.
FILMED WITHOUT A DISTRIBUTOR, JESSICA WAS THEN PICKED UP BY PARAMOUNT.
John Hancock: Yeah, and Paramount demonstrated great faith in the film. They gave it a wide release – just a sensational release. That title, Let’s Scare Jessica to Death, was Paramount’s title as we originally simply called it Jessica Frank Yablans, who was running Paramount at that point, came in with his team and gave the movie a more commercial-sounding title. I think the studio was right to do that as they really knew how to sell it. They knew how to generate the right heat and it was fascinating to observe them working to create the moody ad campaign for my movie. They did a great poster for it and wanted to emphasize certain aspects more prominently. It was like, “Okay, this is a horror film, so let’s make that fact clear to the audience. Let’s not be hesitant about this. Let’s eagerly embrace it and see how they respond.”
AND HOW DID AUDIENCES RESPOND?
John Hancock: When the picture was first screened at The Criterion, they used all the old kind of ballyhoo: outside the theatre they had a horse-drawn hearse and coffins, and really created this wonderful, celebratory atmosphere. That energy was then carried inside the theatre when the audience sat down to watch the movie and they really had a great time with it. Seeing the picture play as well as it did that night was terrific. It was a packed house with the most vocal crowd I’ve ever been a part of They were about 70 percent black and were constantly yelling at the screen. … It’s obvious that Jessica is a cult film as it touches the hearts and minds of a certain kind of horror movie fan, for somebody who prefers their horror films to be a little more patient and profound -horror that has some emotional resonance and psychological truth to it. But I’m always surprised and delighted by the various reactions to Jessica and the different kinds of people it seems to attract…. A screening was recently organized in Chicago and there was one guy there that actually had his teeth filed to points so that he looked like a vampire. Naturally, he just loved the movie!
LASTLY, HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT RUMORS OF A REMAKE?
John Hancock: I’m not surprised there was talk of a remake. Nothing surprises me in this business anymore. There are so many remakes now it shows you the dearth of good ideas in Hollywood as studios just want to plunder their own past. I’d heard – and maybe this was ten years ago – that Robert Evans was making another picture using the same title. I don’t believe he was planning on doing a faithful remake with the same story and characters, but Let’s Scare Jessica to Death is clearly a good title. It’s a cult film so I imagine the attention would be somewhat modest. But it’s such a vivid title it would probably reawaken interest in my movie. I must confess, though, was delighted when Evans project didn’t happen. I mean, Jessica has aged so beautifully I liken the film to a fine wine: it’s actually gotten better in the barrel as the years have gone by.
The Let’s Scare Jessica to Death shoot ran about 24-25 days, with a budget around $1 million. Filmed without a distributor, Jessica was picked up by Paramount Pictures as the previously moribund studio was starting to come back strong with Love Story, with a subsequent string of blockbusters like The Godfather to come. Former Paramount advertising executive Charles Glenn recalls, “I remember them bringing in the picture, we saw it and I liked it a lot. I felt it was extraordinarily scary. There was something raw about it that for me added to the suspense.
Hancock was incredibly pleased that Jessica was picked up by a major, and he felt the studio did a great job promoting the film. “They did a wonderful campaign, a wonderful poster, and they had a lot of the old ballyhoo outside the theater when they screened it, with a horse-drawn hearse and coffins. Paramount picking it up and that kind of major release was more than I could have hoped for.”
The studio also coined the movie’s final title; Hancock recalls that it had just been called Jessica, while Glenn remembers that it was then called The Satanists. The director confirms that the moniker change was Paramount’s idea, “and boy, were they right.” An advertising firm that worked with Paramount sent in a list of possible titles, and Let’s Scare Jessica to Death immediately leaped out at Glenn. Paramount wanted to change the title “to something more intimate, as though we were doing it, or someone could do it or someone has done it to you,” Glenn explains. “Like when you were a kid, ‘Let’s scare Mary when she comes around the corner.’ It was absolutely more in keeping with the screenplay and the arc of the picture. The title itself helped put it into the marketplace. It made the movie appealing to exhibitors.”
Yet with Let’s Scare Jessica to Death having strayed far from its initial comedic origins, Kalcheim was not thrilled with the finished product. “Honestly, when I saw it, I wasn’t crazy about it,” he says. “I took my name off and put my father’s name [Norman Jonas] on.” If the film had remained a comedy, “I believe it would have worked well. Obviously back in 1971 I didn’t like it much, but it seems to have improved with age. I saw it recently with my kids and some of it holds up very well. John (who also took a pseudonym, Ralph Rose, for his writing credit) created a real mood. It had a very good cast. I knew Zohra Lampert from Second City, and she was a terrific actress.”
Let’s Scare Jessica to Death ultimately turned out to be a modest success for Paramount, and everyone involved was pleased with the film and the experience of making it. Hancock went on to direct the sports drama Bang the Drum Slowly, which featured a breakthrough role for Robert De Niro, for Paramount, yet he says, “My father liked Jessica better!”
Charles B. Moss Jr.
Music Orville Stoeber