Upon its release in August 1971, the film received middling reviews from critics, but contemporarily has attained a cult following, with some film scholars drawing comparisons to Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu's novel Carmilla (1871). In 2006, the Chicago Film Critics Association pronounced Let's Scare Jessica to Death the 87th scariest film ever made.
Jessica has been released from a mental institution to the care of her husband, Duncan, who has given up his job as string bassist for the New York Philharmonic and purchased a rundown farmhouse in Connecticut. When Jessica, Duncan, and their hippie friend Woody arrive, they are surprised to find a mysterious drifter, Emily, already living there. When Emily offers to move on, Jessica invites her to dine with them and stay the night.
The following day, Jessica, seeing how attracted Woody is to Emily, asks Duncan to invite her to stay indefinitely. Jessica begins hearing voices and sees a mysterious blonde girl looking at her from a distance before disappearing. Later, Jessica is grabbed by someone under the water in the cove while she is swimming. Jessica is afraid to talk about these things with Duncan or Woody, for fear that they'll think she's relapsing. She also becomes aware that Duncan seems to be attracted to Emily, and that the men in nearby town, all of whom are bandaged in some way, are hostile towards them.
Duncan and Jessica decide to sell antiques found in the house at a local shop, one of which is a silver-framed portrait of the house's former owners, the Bishop family—father, mother, and daughter Abigail. The antique dealer, Sam Dorker, tells them the story of how Abigail drowned in 1880 just before her wedding day. Legend says that she's still alive, roving the island as a vampire. Jessica finds the story fascinating, but Duncan, afraid that hearing about such things will upset his wife, cuts Dorker short. Later, as Jessica prepares to make a headstone rubbing on Abigail Bishop's grave, she notices the blonde girl beckoning her to follow. The girl leads Jessica to a cliff, at the bottom of which lies Dorker's bloodied body. By the time Jessica finds Duncan, however, the body is gone. Jessica and Duncan spot the blonde girl standing on the cliff above them, causing Duncan to give chase. When the girl is caught and questioned by the couple, she remains silent and runs off when Emily approaches.
That night, Duncan tells Jessica that she needs to return to New York to resume her psychiatric treatment. Jessica forces him to sleep on the couch, where he is seduced by Emily. The next day, Jessica finds the portrait of the Bishop family, which she and Duncan had sold to Dorker the previous day, back in the attic; she observes that Abigail Bishop, as seen on the photo, bears a striking resemblance to Emily. Jessica agrees to go with Emily to swim in the cove. While swimming, Emily vanishes from sight; Jessica hears Emily's voice in her head, and watches as Emily emerges from the lake in a wedding gown. Emily attempts to bite her neck, but Jessica flees, locking herself in her bedroom in the house. Hours pass, and Jessica leaves to hitch a ride into town. Woody, who has been working in the orchard, returns to the house, where Emily bites his neck.
When Jessica gets into town, she sees Duncan's car and asks about his whereabouts, but no one will speak to her; she then encounters Sam Dorker, and terrified, runs back to the house. She collapses in orchard, and later is found by Duncan, who takes her home. In their bedroom, the couple go to lie down; Jessica notices a cut on Duncan's neck, and Emily then enters the room brandishing a knife, with the townsmen following behind her. Jessica flees, the house, knocking over Duncan's bass case, which contains the corpse of the mute blonde woman.
Jessica runs through the orchard and comes across Woody's corpse, his throat slashed. At daybreak Jessica makes it to the ferry and tries to board, but the ferryman refuses to let her on. She jumps into a nearby rowboat and paddles out into the lake. When a hand reaches into the boat from the water, she stabs the person in the back several times with a long pick. As the body floats away, she sees that it is Duncan. From the shore, Emily and the townsmen watch her. "I sit here, and I can't believe that it happened," Jessica says to herself in voice over, "and yet I have to believe it. Nightmares or dreams? Madness or sanity? I don't know which is which."Zohra Lampert as Jessica
Barton Heyman as Duncan
Kevin O'Connor as Woody
Gretchen Corbett as The Girl
Alan Manson as Sam Dorker
Mariclare Costello as Emily / Abigail
According to Lee Kalcheim, the original script for the film was far different from the completed film. Hired by producer Charles Moss, Kalcheim's original screenplay, entitled It Drinks Hippy Blood, followed a group of hippies camping on a cove who are attacked by a creature that lives in the water. Kalcheim described his screenplay as a satire: "John [Hancock] turned-the-screw so to speak making it a serious, darker theme. The simplicity of the film worked perfectly to create a scary mood."
Director Hancock reworked Kalcheim's original script in both tone and thematic content, but retained certain elements of Kalcheim's script at the request of the producers; the mute girl, played by Gretchen Corbett, for example, was a character from Kalcheim's original script that Moss requested Hancock retain in his script.
The film was shot in Old Saybrook, Connecticut in August of 1970. The village of Chester was used, as was the Chester–Hadlyme Ferry crossing the Connecticut River. Producer Badalato had suggested the location: "My wife and I had a weekend house in Chester, Connecticut. We loved the area and shared our feelings with John [Hancock] and the Mosses. After a preliminary scout we all agree that this was where Jessica should be filmed."
Mariclare Costello was so loath to perform the scene in which her character kills Jessica's pet mole (which was actually played by a mouse) that she hid on the set when it was time to shoot.
When Costello sings a folk song in Jessica's kitchen, the director and producers considered dubbing her voice with that of a professional singer. However, they later decided to keep Costello's voice as it was recorded.
Let's Scare Jessica to Death had its theatrical debut in New York on August 27, 1971; it premiered in Los Angeles, California the following week, on September 1, 1971.
Upon its release, Stanley Kanfer of Time gave the film a middling review, noting: "With the exception of Zohra Lampert's subtle and knowledgable performance, no one in the cast has enough substance even to be considered humanoid. And after the first reel, the vampires seem to have lost their bite." Roger Greenspun of The New York Times praised Lampert's performance and called it a "thinking man's vampire movie, probably a secret dream for at least half the world's young filmmakers."
Contemporary critical reviews of the film have been mixed: Film scholar John Stanley gave the film a positive review in his 1995 book, writing: "Director John Hancock is to be congratulated for a multi-layered horror film with frightening visuals. There isn't much logic to the story, yet the overall effect is unsettling... the film has a dream-like quality." AllMovie called it an "eerie low-budget chiller". In the early 2010s, Time Out conducted a poll with several authors, directors, actors and critics who have worked within the horror genre to vote for their top horror films. Let's Scare Jessica to Death placed at number 86 on their top 100 list.
In 2006, Eric Henderson of Slant gave the film a negative review, writing: "A lesbian panic melodrama in New England gothic drag, the only things separating Let's Scare Jessica to Death from its cinematic descendants are its narrative incoherence, its lack of a directorial presence (especially surprising considering the colloquial implications of the director's name), [and] its drab, douche commercial mise-en-scène." Author and independent filmmaker John Kenneth Muir gave the film 3 1/2 out of 4 stars, praising the film's cinematography, "unsettling" mood, and its ability to generate a sense of unease, calling it "very disturbing" and noting its "lovely and poetic" visuals. Film critic Leonard Maltin awarded the film 2 1/2 out of a possible 4 stars, calling it "creepy".
In a 2013 article published by the Film Society of Lincoln Center, Erik Luers wrote of the film: "The technical qualities of Let's Scare Jessica to Death are superb. With gorgeous cinematography and an audio track that takes on a life of its own, each sound and image presents a hazy version of reality. As the plot develops, we learn that the world around Jessica is scarier than anything her mind could concoct."
Literature and film scholars have drawn comparisons between Let's Scare Jessica to Death and Irish novelist Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu's novel Carmilla (1871), which tells the story of a female vampire. Scholar Nancy West cites the film as one of several examples of horror films of the 1970s that directly lift the premise of the novel and place it in other historical or cultural contexts: "This languid move reimagines Le Fanu's Laura as Jessica... like Carmilla, Emily is a horror of a houseguest, and after both men have been bitten by her, it becomes apparent that Emily is none other than the one-hundred-year-old vampire who in the course of time has attacked all the men in the nearby town... Is Emily an imaginative projection of Jessica's murderous feelings toward her husband? Of Jessica's frustration with a mental condition that has rendered her sadly dependent on men? The film never makes clear."
The film was released on VHS and Beta by Paramount Pictures in 1984. Paramount released the film on DVD on August 29, 2006 and again on September 15, 2009. Warner Brothers later released the film on August 27, 2013.Maltin, Leonard (2013). Leonard Maltin's 2014 Movie Guide. Penguin. ISBN 978-0-451-41810-4. OCLC 934809257.
Muir, John (2007). Horror Films of the 1970s. 1. Jefferson, N.C: McFarland. ISBN 978-0-786-43104-5. OCLC 182862677.
Ocker, J.W. (2010). The New England Grimpendium. Countrymen Press. ISBN 978-0-881-50919-9. OCLC 918322469.
Smith, Gary A. (2017). Vampire Films of the 1970s: Dracula to Blacula and Every Fang Between. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland. ISBN 978-0-786-49779-9. OCLC 948561000.
Stanley, John (1995). John Stanley's Creature Features Strikes Again Movie Guide. Creatures at Large. ISBN 978-0-940-06409-6. OCLC 475534830.
Weiner, David J. (1991). Videohound's Golden Movie Retriever, 1992. Thomson Gale. ISBN 978-0-810-39404-9. OCLC 34982243.
West, Nancy (2013). "On Celluloid Carmillas". Carmilla: A Critical Edition. Syracuse University Press. ISBN 978-0-815-63311-2. OCLC 973747072.