Night #30: Let’s Scare Jessica To Death (1971)

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Directed By: John D Hancock

It’s not the cake!”

Well this is certainly an interesting one. I wanted to jump back and pick up something I hadn’t seen before for the penultimate night and well, this seemed as good a choice as any. With its Giallo-sounding title I expected something else certainly, but what I got was pretty interesting on its own.

The titular Jessica has not long got out of the hospital after a breakdown and with her husband and his friend in tow, find their way to a country house that he’s just purchased. When they get there they find the free-spirited Emily already there and Jessica suggests she stay the night. She doesn’t even seem to mind it all that much when Emily and Jessica’s husband Duncan clearly make a connection.

All the while, Jessica is slowly losing her grip on what is real. There’s the lore that the house she’s just moved into is protected by a Vampire, a woman named Abigail who drowned before her wedding day and all the men in town have bandaged up necks while being outwardly hostile to the new arrivals in town.

What I didn’t expect when I started this was a story about female agency, about mental health and a woman’s spiralling descent in dealing with her own flaws and lack of sexuality. We witness Emily being classically vampish, so to speak, in a way that Jessica is not and see that the more Jessica’s mental state deteriorates the more seductive Emily appears to be.

Even the vampire ‘bites’ are not the penetrative marks that we’re used to and instead take the form of a more vaginal looking slice down the neck. The symbolism of the idea is clear: that to Jessica, Emily is consuming everything she sees. To add to this there are no women glimpsed in the town, only the same interchangeable old looking men.

There’s something about the death of the counter-culture here too. The Tate-LaBianca killings occurred just two years before and by the time the Manson family came to trial the free love and hippy movement was already waning. That air of hostility finds its way into the way the old townspeople treat the younger generation.

This would probably make a great double or triple bill with the is-he-or-isn’t-he-a-vampire shenanigans of George Romero’s great Martin or the similarly dreamlike Messiah Of Evil. What lingers with this though is not the dreamy, deliberate and naturalistic pacing but the central point of view. It’s rare to see a female-focused horror that isn’t somehow targeted towards physical suffering or wrapped in misogyny, let alone one that was created in an era that was still oppressive towards women. I loved it.

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