It has taken me several days to getting around to writing this post, because I had a lot to process. Let me start by saying I finally arrived at an answer to the question posed above, which shall be revealed at the end. For those who care about seeing this film, never having done so, be aware I need to discuss revelations within, so it would be wise to stop reading here.
Anyway, this is how it went down.
Last Friday evening, a friend of mine and her husband, took David and I out to dinner. They were not able to come to our shindig, so this was a way of making up for that. We went to an exotic restaurant, near the Grand Army Plaza Brooklyn Public Library, called Cheryl's Global Soul Food. The food was good, and exotic, though not my idea of traditional soul food.
As many of you on here know, I was raised Catholic, but am no Bernadette or Jacinta. Still, I try and do my best, by observing meatless Fridays during Lent. Which I did here, ordering some type of Cuban black bean soup, a vegetable dish with couscous, and a blueberry bread pudding, with vanilla ice cream. Scrumptious, though I noticed with the main dish, it was rather spicy. Each time I ingested it, my mouth tingled, and my sinuses opened so much I felt able to sing "Norma" at the Met.
We said our good nights, and went home. We made all the right connections, getting home sooner than expected, which meant we got to bed sooner than planned. Both of us went right to sleep. But, three hours later, I awoke. My stomach was rumbling and moving, like the English Channel during a storm. I realized if I did not get to the bathroom, there would be a catastrophe. I made it, sat down. What followed you can guess. I was in there for twenty minutes.
The following day, we were supposed to go to visit friends in New Jersey. So, I thought, let's see if I can go back to sleep, and see how I feel. I did, but, when I awoke, my stomach still did not feel right. I told David what had happened, and how fearful I still was of having an accident, should we travel. He agreed, and we cancelled our plans.
Because I still was out of sorts, I couldn't concentrate enough to read, so I just surfed the Web. Ho hum. Suddenly, in the late afternoon, David calls from the bedroom--"Hey, 'Let's Scare Jessica To Death' is on. You want to watch it?"
I thought this would be a perfect distraction. I had heard about this film since it came out, in 1971, but never got around to seeing it. I was aware it had a cult following, and I was curious as to why. Well, darlings, your guess is as good as mine.
The film features Zohra Lampert in the title role. Next to Angelina in "Splendor In The Grass," ten years before, this is her best known role. Jessica is an emotionally disturbed woman, released from a mental institution, and transported by her asshole husband Brian, and hippy friend, Woody, to a remote country house, in an equally remote country town in Connecticut. Poor Jessica; as a mental patient she is in a no win situation. Isolation is not the best choice, but neither is the driving pace of Manhattan. What's a girl to do????????????
By virtue of the title, I thought this would basically be "Gaslight" with some ambiguous, supernatural overtones. But it is more than that. As I said, recently, about "La La Land," the film has great visuals, and that is it. There are some brilliant images in "Jessica'--the house, the mist shrouded lake, a couple of iconic shots-- but there is nothing to support it, because the script starts to go in so many directions, and the acting seems it is improvised as they go along. Lampert was a devotee of the Strasberg Method, and she uses every trick in the book here, and gets away with it, because she is playing a former mental patient. No one else in this film has an excuse. But there is actually one performance that is on a par with Lampert's; at times almost steals the show from her, and that is character actress Mariclaire Costello (whom I knew from her role as the mother in "The Fitzpatricks," and her bit role in "Ordinary People") as this strange, post-hippy type girl they meet, named Emily. Whom they just casually allow--a total stranger, mind you; never mind what she turns out to be--to crash their place and live with them. A seemingly itinerant drifter!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
The arrival of Emily is both when things start to liven up, and fall apart. I immediately caught on that Emily is not at all what she seems, but when Jessica starts seeing the Mute Girl, and hearing voices, I thought one actress was playing both roles. The voices Jessica hears are clearly overlaps of Mariclaire's, so I, at first thought, it was she playing the Mute Girl, who, like Peter Quint and Miss Jessel in "The Turn Of The Screw," (one of many genre works this film references) is always seen from a distance. Later, in a confrontation scene with a close-up, it can be seen Mariclaire is not playing this role; it is actually Gretchen Corbett, best known from "The Rockford Files."
Mariclaire, as Emily, just steals the show. This iconic shot of her rising out of the water, is a great iconic moment; one of the few the film has. By this point, if you have not figured out that Emily is not what she says she is, the point is made apparent, now.
But is she a supernatural being? Or an adultress who just wants to get rid of Jessica, to get her husband? Well--
There is definitely a supernatural component. Jessica and her husband find this nineteenth century daguerreotype of the home's previous owners, the Bishop family. To the left is the Bishop's young daughter, Abigail. Abigail is modeling a wedding dress she was to be married in, but never made it to the altar, because she drowned in the lake's cove, back in 1880, at the age of twenty. This really peaked my interest. I wanted the film to further explore Abigail's story, as to who she was supposed to marry, and why she drowned. Was it murder? Suicide? Who? And why? Had the film taken this route, it would have met with my artistic approval. But the filmmaker, John Hancock (!!!!!) obviously only cares about getting off cheap; to hell with logic. Or maybe he really thought he was making a low budget masterpiece, because there are those out there, who consider it such.
The truth about Abigail is revealed by an antique dealer Jessica and her husband seek out, attempting to sell the daguerreotype. He reveals the body was never found, and that she is still said to be roaming the countryside, as a vampire!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Say, what?????????? No one who drowns becomes a vampire. UNLESS her death was a suicide, because, according to lore, suicides are said to become vampires, at the time of their death. But, though Hancock is skillful enough to homage "Carnival Of Souls," with Emily's rising out of the water in Abigail's wedding gown, I don't think he is aware enough to be didactic in the literary sense. Though even that begs to be questioned.
Because there is something of a lesbian component to the Emily-Jessica scenes, comparison to Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu's vampire work, "Carmilla," have been made. Now, I have never read this work, so this is something I must remedy right away. The component is clearly there, but whether it is an actual homage to the work, or just a cheap coincidence, will require another post, once I read "Carmilla!!!!!!!!!!!"
The question of Abigail's vampiric state is played fast and loose. She is seen about in the daylight, and when she goes for the jugular, most of the time she slits victims' throats with a knife, before drinking their blood. Vampires have teeth for that, darlings!!!!!!!!! Yet, in some instances--especially with Brian (the husband), Woody (the friend) and Jessica, she does bite!!!!!!!!!! Huh??????????????????
Also, why are Emily and Jessica the only women around? Clearly, the men of the town are all dead--another iconic shot, as all of them, with Emily/Abigail, watch Jessica in the boat on the lake. Why they give up on her, when she has to return to land, is as much of a mystery as everything else!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
So, the town is a ghost town. And vampires need blood to stay alive. So, what do Emily and the men (who must be vampires, as they all have marks on their throats) supposed to do? Clearly, they will never leave the area! So, will they just die, or what??????????????
As you can see, nothing in this film makes any kind of sense. Is it all some kind of dream? Maybe! Yet, horror has to have some kind of structural foundation to tell a convincing enough story, and this one does not. It is not brilliant enough to be masterful, or fun enough to be campy.
What might have be interesting would have been if the film had kept its original intentions. It was to have been a spoof, entitled "It Drinks Hippy Blood," and the Emily/Abigail character was to have been some sort of hairy creature. When director Hancock decided to go for a so-called darker, more Gothic sensibility, he and the screenwriter, Lee Kalcheim, had a falling out. Though Kalcheim's name (as Norman Jonas) appears on the credits, as does Hancock's (as Ralph Rose).
The visuals offer a lot of potential, which the script does not live up to, resulting in as frustrating an experience as "La La Land." Yet, such renowned practitioners of the genre, like Stephen King and the late Rod Serling, consider this film a masterwork. I simply don't get it.
And, yet, I do. Here is the answer you have been awaiting. The devotees of this film see in it whatever it is they want to see. The non-devoted see right through it.