Poll position: in praise of Let’s Scare Jessica to Death

Mine may be a lone vote for a cult horror film, but the Greatest Films poll is rightly personal

8 November 2022

By Kim Newman

Let’s Scare Jessica to Death (1971)
Sight and Sound

In Sight and Sound’s 2012 poll, John Hancock’s Let’s Scare Jessica to Death (1971) ranks as the 894th Greatest Film of All Time. A further click on the BFI website reveals “one critic voted for this film”. Reader, I am that critic. I’ve voted for it again in 2022. In the build-up to the big reveal, I’m almost more interested to see if the needle moves for Jessica – which has had more attention in recent years – than in whether Vertigo (1958) gets bumped from the Number One spot.

Everyone asked to vote has their own criteria: varying definitions of greatness, personal enthusiasms balanced against reverence for the canon, a zeal to overturn established pantheons and elevate less familiar films to cobwebbed plinths, even a listmaker’s nagging need to ensure a top ten represents a range rather than a cluster from a favourite filmmaker or area of specialisation. The diva who took seven of her own records to that desert island on the wireless has few equivalents in the diverse international electorate. No matter how much consideration the voter might give to the notion of ‘greatness’ as being distinct from ‘favourite’, it is, in the end, a personal choice.

The higher reaches of the list, with films whose votes are up in the hundreds, are where some sort of consensus emerges. Yet even that is arbitrary and fragile. In the inaugural 1952 poll, Robert Flaherty’s Louisiana Story (1948) was joint fifth in the top ten; by 2012, it was ranked 588th, with a vote of two (one more than Jessica, admittedly). A key change is simple: S&S now polls a lot more critics than it did at the outset (Louisiana Story got its place with only 12 votes) and makes an effort to solicit votes from a wider range of voices. This inevitably means a longer list, with many, many more one- and two-vote titles.

So, do I really think that a 1971 horror movie is one of the Ten Greatest Films of All Time? Yes, of course I do. I wouldn’t have voted for it if I didn’t.

Let’s Scare Jessica to Death (1971)

But it’s complicated. And personal. I first saw Let’s Scare Jessica to Death at the Palace Theatre, Bridgwater, in Somerset, in 1973, when I was 14 (ie, underage for the X certificate). It was the first grownup horror film that genuinely terrified me. It combines the relentless approach of George Romero with the quieter chills of the classic ghost story as shuffling townsfolk (bearing scars that show they’ve been bled by the local vampire) besiege a New England farm and mentally fragile incomer Jessica (Zohra Lampert) finds her friends taken from or turned against. A sequence shot in broad daylight in which Jessica and her nemesis Emily (Mariclare Costello) take a swim is among the most purely frightening moments of cinema, with a payoff as Emily disappears under the 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.

It’s a movie unconstrained by genre, made by people who wanted to do something scary but for whom that wasn’t the limit of their ambitions. The lasting impact of a horror film can be gauged by how often subsequent horrors riff on it – decades on, not a week passes without a film xeroxing Psycho (1960), Night of the Living Dead (1968), The Exorcist (1973), Jaws (1975) or Halloween (1978). Jessica is evoked less often, but Alex Ross Perry’s Queen of Earth (2015) and A.D. Calvo’s Sweet, Sweet Lonely Girl (2016) use it as a touchstone.

For ages, it was a film only I seemed to have seen, though its stature as a minor classic has become more secure (it’s central to Kier-La Janisse’s 2012 book House of Psychotic Women). Horror films work on specific fears and interests. Certainly, there are 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. This, loosely, is what happens in Jessica. I had a similar, immediate, personal connection with Don Taylor’s terrifying TV episode ‘The Exorcism’, part of the anthology series Dead of Night (1972).

I can also see how random circumstance – unconnected with the quality of the film but all to do with me – dictates my conviction. I recognise that polling people for the Ten Greatest Anything is inherently absurd, but it’s also interesting. We learn a lot from these lists, about ourselves as much as the films we vote for (or don’t).

If the stars had aligned slightly differently, Willard Huyck’s Messiah of Evil (1973) might have got a UK theatrical release in the 1970s, but it was one of many, many American independent horror films that didn’t (Jessica, in this respect, was lucky – it was made by Paramount). I didn’t see Messiah until it turned up on poor quality VHS in the 1980s; I’ve still never seen it in a cinema. S&S didn’t review it until 2010. Objectively, Messiah of Evil is close to Let’s Scare Jessica to Death in quality. If I’d seen it at 14, in a cinema, it might have left as big an impression on me as Hancock’s film. So when asked to nominate my favourite horror movies or film experiences or Greatest Film of All Time candidates, Jessica is confirmed in my mind while Messiah isn’t.

Now magnify that by every choice made by every critic in the poll.

The new issue of Sight and Sound

Hamaguchi Ryūsuke: insights on and from the Japanese auteur Plus: Mica Levi on their innovative score for The Zone of Interest – Víctor Erice interviewed about his masterful return to feature filmmaking, Close Your Eyes – a festival report from a politically charged Berlinale

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