Sunday, October 20, 2013

"Let's Scare Jessica To Death"

Last night, here in our wonderland, we watched this film on the Big Wall outside. I have long considered this film to be on a very short list of best b-movies ever made, but I don't know why I have insisted on even calling it a B movie all these years. Maybe its because I first saw it on "Movie Macabre"? They didn't exactly show Polanski on a regular basis there. Whatever the reason, i think it is quite time to cease calling it and accept the fact that this is an A movie that has simply escaped too many people's attention. And its a real shame. 

Brief synopsis: Made in 1971, "LSJTD" tells the story of Jessica, played to heartbreaking effect by the wonderful Zohra Lampert. Jessica has just been released from a mental hospital, after 6 months of treatment for some vague breakdown we are never really told much about. She and her husband (Barton Heyman) and a hippie friend (Kevin O' Connor) buy a apple farm out in the Connecticut wilds to get away from it all, but strange things begin to happen immediately. The line between what is truly happening and what is simply Jessica going nuts again is of course, made purposely vague and never really comes quite clear. This gives the film a spooky tension that I find much preferable to typical horror over-acceleration. 

Zohra Lampert is the key to much of this film's charm. The fact that she is not a huge star is one more reason to loathe and despise Hollywood. On the other hand, one gets the sense that the only reason she didn't make it is because she probably didn't want to, which is something I could understand. You can tell that she has so much character, so many chops, is so heartfelt and genuine, that she must have been running purposely in the opposite direction from fame and stardom. She MUST have. there is simply no better performance in a movie of this caliber by someone who did not die shortly afterwards that did not lead to more fame than what she has received. Its quite puzzling, and while the film would have still been enjoyable without her in it, she alone raises it to its deserved status as a cult classic.
It also doesn't hurt that she is absolutely gorgeous with such a soulful, expressive manner, and says even the most ordinary things in such an extraordinary way.
It reminds me of something Patty Duke said in her autobio, regarding one of her early films, "Me, Natalie". There was scene featuring Al Pacino in what I think was his very first appearance on film, She commented that you could tell that there was something special about him even tho he only said the phrase, "so, do you put out?" I think her words were, "it was like seeing laurence olivier in dinner theatre in Florida". THAT is how Zohra comes across. Just TOO damn good to have been ignored unless it was by her own choice. One can tell that she is possessed of depths that most actors are not, and I could very much imagine her purposely flying under the radar so she could live a peaceful life and teach pottery to underprivileged kids or something. She is JUST the type.

     Mari-Clare Costello, on the other hand, is much more in the realm of normal acting chops and does a servicable, creepy job as the slutty free-lovin' folk-guitar playin' perhaps-a-vampire girl who tries to sleep her way through the whole house from the get go. Her actions in this film really do freak you out a little bit- she just seems to strike the wrong chord and go too far. Which is a GOOD thing. She gives you an added dimension of psychological squeamishness that is unexpected in the context to a film like this.

Beyond the acting is the overall oft-mentioned atmosphere of the film. It has gotten bad reviews (even from a couple of my friends) for being too slow. Its been called dated, hokey, vague. I don't agree with any of this, of course- one man's vague is another man's atmosphere. This film is filled with so much subtlety that you have to be a fan of subtlety in general to get anything out of this film. I think it takes a page out of Polanski's book in that regard. If you were to sit down and watch "Rosemary's Baby" six times in a row, you would find new things in it every time. Polanksi really does stick little bits in here and there that most people simply don't notice. People are hamhanded and lazy. They like actions that they can decipher without too much thought. They miss subtleties of dialogue because they are checking their voice mail or running their mouths. They have no idea what they miss.

I never understand those types. They miss all kinds of colors.

Another film this reminds me of is "The Innocents". It definitely belongs in some kind of sub-genre of creepy psychological horror- while watching this last night the phrase "gentle horror" came to mind. Something cold like a wind, a steady rise instead of jabs of shock. This is the MOST difficult thing to do, of course- its easier to show tits and blood and car crashes and the black cat that jumps out of the alley. It takes a deft hand to hold back.

Not that this film is without its "gotchas". The above photo of Mariclare coming out of the lake is a prime example. Other shocks are to be had but almost none are on the order of your typical horror film. Many of them are psychological and don't have accompanying action.

One of the most effective traits of this film is the constant self-talk that Jessica hears (or is it voices in her head?). Subtle whispers, shadows, looks exchanged between her and her husband, the tension presented between what Jessica knows to be happening and what she says- incredibly effective and incredibly creepy. I would even go so far as to call this film not a supernatural thriller at all, but psychological at its core. One is never sure where one ends and the other begins.

It has been one of my favorite films for many years. I watched it first, as i mentioned, as a child, and when i saw it again as an adult it actually frightened me even MORE than it had, which is a first for me. The deeper dimensions of this film were more understandable to me as an adult, but as a child the creeping dread and whispery mystery hit me very clearly. I was impressed to find a real gem that was not just a sepia-toned memory as is usually the case with half-remembered films.

Honestly, if any of these sorts of films appeal to you it would be a good bet to simply go buy a copy right off and watch this. Its a gamble worth taking. If you see only ONE film that is new to you this Halloween I highly recommend it be this one- unless you are ham-fisted and like torture porn and blood splattered on tits for two hours. I doubt you would even be reading this blog if you were a knuckledragger such as that, but the internet has many strange corners we find ourselves in. I highly recommend this for anyone with more refined horror sensibilities. I don't think you will be disappointed.

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