Kim Newman is an accomplished journalist, film critic and fiction writer.
But he is perhaps most recognised in the horror sphere as he’s seen to be one of the foremost authorities on the genre on the planet.
“I saw John Hancock’s Let’s Scare Jessica to Death (1971) on its UK release in 1973, at the Palace Theatre, Bridgwater, when I was fourteen and it was the top half of a value-for-money double bill with the French gangster movie Borsalino. Though its title suggests one of those post-Diaboliques it’s-all-a-plot films in which a beleaguered heroine is driven out of her mind by a conspiracy of grasping heirs, it’s actually a sort of crossbreed of Robert Altman’s Images, the one in which Susannah York goes out of her mind in a rural retreat, and Night of the Living Dead.
Jessica (Zohra Lampert), a fragile woman, is just out of hospital after a breakdown, and has come (in a hearse with ‘love’ painted on the side) to an autumnal apple orchard in New England with her musician husband Duncan (Barton Heyman) and their semi-hippie pal Woody (Kevin O’Connor). In the first of several Lewton-type scares, the newcomers explore their darkened new home and are startled by the appearance of Emily (Mariclare Costello), a flower child squatter whom they ask to stay on. A mute girl in a nightie (Gretchen Corbett) lurks in a nearby graveyard, and there are local stories about a girl who drowned herself in the lake but lives on as a vampire. Either Jessica goes out of her mind, or the vampire comes out of the lake and tries to get her.
It’s one of those stories where there’s ambiguity as to how much of what we see is going on in the heroine’s mind, and the film is at least as much character study as horror film. Lampert – an unusual-looking New York actress who crops up in Elia Kazan’s Splendor in the Grass and John Cassavetes’ Opening Night but only got a chance to shine in a lead role in this picture – does awards-quality work as the hesitant, smiling, troubled, perhaps-dangerous Jessica.
However, what impressed me most on first viewing is the film’s commitment to being scary, combining the relentless approach of Romero as shuffling townsfolk (all bearing a scar that indicates they’ve been bled by the vampire) besiege the farm and Jessica finds her friends taken from or turned against her with the quieter, deeper chills of the best ghost stories.
I still find the sequence where Emily and Jessica take a swim among the most purely frightening things I’ve ever seen: shot in broad daylight, it has a great Jaws/Black Lagoon sense of menace on the dark water (Hancock was fired from Jaws 2) as the nervous Jessica is spooked by Emily’s blank-faced playfulness as she starts dunking her, and a truly chilling payoff as Emily disappears under water while wearing a black bathing suit only to bob up moments later in a soaked 19th Century wedding dress and advance zombie-like out of the lake.
Though it draws on earlier films, it’s a movie that doesn’t seem constrained by genre: it was made by people who wanted to do something scary but for whom that wasn’t the limit of their ambitions. It’s unlike any other vampire movie, coming up with a fresh American take on overworked material, and it stakes out a New England horror look, all quiet lakes and red leaves, that seems now prescient of the creepier efforts of King (Pet Sematary) and Straub (Ghost Story – another girl in the lake legend).
For ages, it was a film only I seemed to have seen… Though its stature as a minor classic is rising. Horror films ought to be personal, ought to work on specific fears and interests. Certainly, there are loose connections between Jessica and my own experience: as a child, I was moved from the city to the country by craftsman parents who bought a derelict farmhouse (with an orchard) and made a going concern of the place despite a certain hostility from the locals. But the real reason I rate it now (as I rated it in 1973) is that it was the first film to deliver on the promise of the X certificate, of grasping the heart and mind with icy fists, leaving a permanent impression on the psyche.
Kim Newman’s new novel An English Ghost Story will be out in the UK from Titan on October 10th.
His book on Quatermass and the Pit will be published by Palgrave-Macmillan on October 31st.
For more information, visit: www.johnnyalucard.com