Friday, November 25, 2011
LET'S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH (1971)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *irony*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological*
SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS
For my theoretical system, a film like John Hancock’s LET’S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH presents some categorization problems, because it never definitively declares its phenomenality to be either “uncanny” or “marvelous,” as most metaphenomenal works do. In Tzvetan Todorov’s literary tome THE FANTASTIC—which I’ve discussed in copious detail here—Todorov asserted that works which did not choose existed in a special interstitital category, which he dubbed “the fantastic.” My earlier essays have demonstrated the reasons why I don’t think this special category is necessary. As far as I’m concerned, if a work allows for the possibility that there is no actual departure from causality and/or rational order, then it remains an uncanny work. In my system, in contrast to Todorov’s, the lack of such a radical departure does not automatically align the work with other works of pure naturalism: an uncanny work still conjures with the same quality of “strangeness” seen in a marvelous one.
In most of the films using my “perilous psycho” trope, the focus is upon a madman usually out to slaughter assorted innocents. An exception is BLACK SWAN, but in this film, there’s no suggestion of the marvelous at all: the protagonist’s bizarre visions are purely the result of her own madness. In JESSICA, however, one isn’t quite sure whether or not Jessica is imagining her experiences.
Jessica, a young wife who’s recently received treatment for mental illness at a rest home, travels with her husband Duncan and their male friend Woody to a farm in Connecticut. Like so many film-characters who wind up residing in peculiar old houses, their first and foremost haunting is an economic one. Jessica and Duncan have sunk all their money into making this new start, in part to give Jessica a less stressful environment. Their first setback is meeting someone else squatting in the house: Emily, an odd but winsome young hippie-ish chick who claims to have simply taken up living in the house because she thought it was deserted. Emily makes herself amenable to all of them, particularly a smitten Woody, and they allow her to stay with them. The second setback is that when they take some of the house’s old artifacts into town to sell to an antiques dealer, he tells them a weird story of the former owners, the Bishop family. The daughter supposedly drowned herself in the lake near the farm, but there are rumors that she didn’t truly die, but arose as a vampire. Coincidentally—maybe—the picture of the long-dead Abigail Bishop looks just like Emily.
Jessica’s perceptions are always in question, largely because she frequently hears voices saying that they’ll never leave her. She meets a strange mute girl in the woods who leads her to the dead body of the antiques-dealer, but can’t locate the body for her husband. Duncan does see and touch the mute girl, though, for he helps Jessica catch her. However she escapes again and her presence is never explained. Jessica suspects Emily of coming on to both Duncan and Woody, but even when Jessica’s not present, Emily still projects an air of peculiarity with only Woody for witness. The local townspeople treat Duncan with hostility for no reason, and most of them possess strange scars or wounds that have been bandaged over. Near the climax Emily, clad in Abigail Bishop’s clothing, seems to invade Jessica’s house with her entourage of vampiric thralls. Jessica flees to the lake, on the way finding Woody's death body atop the tractor. She takes refuge in a boat that she steers into the lake. Someone swims out the boat and tries to get aboard; Jessica kills the intruder with a boathook, only to see that she's killed Duncan. As she drifts in the water beside the body of the man who was her last link with sanity, the maybe-vampires watch her from shore, and then walk away. Since Emily had no trouble getting in the water before, one presumes that she isn’t repelled by the lake-water. If she really is the vampiric ghost of Abigail, why doesn’t she just finish off the victim she’s been chasing so assiduously? Are Duncan and Woody really dead, or has Jessica simply surrendered to madness by imagining the climactic vampire scenario, so that her imagined tormentor has no more reason to pursue her? The last words of the film leave Jessica in a liminal space, even as the boat places her in between water and land: “Nightmares or dreams, madness or sanity—I don’t know which is which.”
Director Hancock and his cameramen constantly emphasize this ambivalence, for even in the film’s early scenes, the audience sees commonplace things take on the aura of the bizarre, like the tractor Woody drives while spraying insecticide on the crops. When Duncan warns Jessica not to touch one of the trees because “it’s poison,” he seems to be speaking of the ability of any common thing to take on evil aspects. At times the film’s omissions are as powerful as what it shows, as with the Connecticut town that seems populated largely by weird old men, with no women or children present.
The title suggests the sort of Gothic contrivance seen in the works of Ann Radcliffe, where the supernatural is faked in order to drive someone mad. This scenario is never really suggested in the diegesis, so I still choose to label this film with the trope "delirious dreams and fallacious figments.” In addition, the townspeople are odd enough to justify the “weird families and societies” category.