“Dreams or nightmares, madness or sanity . . . I don’t know which is which.”
A near masterpiece of mood and subjective horror, Let’s Scare Jessica to Death (an admittedly terrible and inaccurate title) opens with the titular Jessica, recently released from an insane asylum, en route to a new life with her husband and good friend. They intend to move to the country for a while, get out of the city for Jessica. Almost immediately, Jessica begins seeing things but saying nothing – she desperately wants to be as well as her husband wishes her to be. Soon, however, a meeting with a mysterious drifter starts a chain of unsettling events that force Jessica (and the audience) to question her sanity.
There’s a moment early on here which captures the beautiful tragedy and horror of this picture perfectly; the trio arrive in their new house and Jessica sees a figure dash across the stairs. She is at first frightened, but then her husband confirms that he saw the figure, too, and Jessica breaks out in happy laughter. The horror was counteracted by her delight at just not being alone – at feeling sane for once. And as the world around her descends into (potentially real) chaos, Jessica becomes less upset at the supernatural elements and more at her lack of control.
Zohra Lampert is truly incredible in the lead role. She displays a terrible fragility that she cannot hide with her strong face, and her shift to outright paranoia late in the film is fantastic.
But the true feat of this film is its escalation and mood. This is a horror film in which most of the scares happens in broad daylight and much of the terror is ambiguous, but I was on the absolute edge by the last – truly disturbing – reel. I read this described as ‘the A Woman Under the Influence of horror films’ and, while I wouldn’t quite compare it to that in terms of quality, it is a truly sophisticated and powerful descent into an unstable psyche.