Bright Lights Film Journal

Tonight, Invite Jessica

With DVDs coming out faster than we can watch them, there’s a whole range of great stuff to rent or buy tonight if you’ve no other plans, rent or buy (it’s under $15) LET’S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH!

A fine example of a “is she is or is she ain’t a nutcase” horror picture that’s lived a consistently below-the-radar life since its brief theatrical premiere in 1971, JESSICA contains almost no gore but watching it alone late at night a few months ago, I finally understood the term “spine-tingling.”

Without giving too much away, the film serves as a missing link between CARNIVAL OF SOULS and THE RING, wherein Disturbed but intelligent and attractive women + Bodies of Water = Deadly Hallucinations. Zorah Lampert is sweet, intelligent and cute as the young married hippy Jessica; the acting is fine and what makes the film work is the sly way the horror elements sneakily coalesce out of ordinary hippie interaction of the “we’re grooving out in this small town, antiquing and fixing the porch”-style vibe. Jessica and her husband and their friend escape from their hectic New York lives to a remote Connecticut farmhouse they’ve bought, complete with all the previous owner’s Victorian-era furnishings. They’re living every stressed-out New Yorkers dream, except it’s a nightmare, or is it?

Already living in the house when they get there is a young red-haired hippy squatter named Emily (Mariclare Costello), the townsfolk are all very hostile, but the acreage is gorgeous and the lake stunning. Emily is a timeless troubadour who plays a lute and sings a Nick Drake-ish song which prompts a bowed acoustic bass accompaniment from Jessica’s instantly smitten husband. Or is Jessica imagining that too?

Another problem is, Jessica keeps hallucinating a drowned woman in a white dress reaching up to her from the bottom of the clear lake whenever she tries to take a swim.

Interesting motifs abound, not only is there an “is she crazy” element but also, especially if you’ve seen SIXTH SENSE or CARNIVAL OF SOULS, an “is she dead already and this is purgatory only she doesn’t know it?” aspect. The three drive around in a hearse, Jessica loves to make brass rubbings in graveyards (an odd hobby for one who hears the dead whispering to her all the time), and at the start of the film we get the impression of a dead woman being loaded into the car, but when they stop at the graveyard, the live Jessica comes rolling out, laughing. What’s going on?

Made at a time when psychedelic drugs had changed the face of American culture, the film is nothing short of elegant in the way it blurs the line between subjective and the “real” – everything ultimately is about perception and by thinking paranoically one can perhaps actually warp reality itself. As the details compile and rearrange themselves, the narrative footing gets slipperier and slipperier, but it never falters. This is fine Halloween choice: terrifying yet intelligent, supernatural yet psychological, poetic yet realistic… and just plain straight-up spooky.