Sunday, January 17, 2010

Dod's Drive-In Double Feature: Let's Scare Jessica To Death and The Legend of Hell House

(First off, a HUGE thank-you to Chuck from Zombies DON'T Run for the sweet new header on the blog - thanks, brother!)

It wasn't exactly a brainstorm, or even a brain light shower, but it came to me this weekend that I'd been craving the old drive-in experience, which I only got to take part in while I was quite young. The drive-in culture, especially during its long boom period, has always fascinated me. Give me a colorful, art-deco facility that shines a variety of grindhouse, horror, action, and comedy made left of center any day. That said, part of my inspiration was the pair of 70's atmospheric horror offerings placed in my mailbox: Let's Scare Jessica To Death and The Legend of Hell House. Each is distinctive in its own way, and could easily be shown as a double feature back in those heady days of disco and mustaches

Let's start the festivities by scaring said Jessica to death. One statement I would like to make about this movie: Everybody in this movie was weird. And I mean everybody. Now let me add that everybody being weird in a movie is definitely a reason to like it. Why should there be any normalcy in what's happening? It's happening to poor Jessica, and that's the key right there. Sit a spell, and I'll tell you:

In what could absolutely find its origins as a campfire story, Let's Scare Jessica To Death revolves around its titular character Jessica (Zohra Lampert), a fragile young woman who has recently been released from a mental care facility. I found her to be almost child-like with that fragility, and also with the sense of wonder she possessed. She wants to be well and she really tries to find happiness in the little things.

Jessica, her husband and Harvey Pekar lookalike Duncan (Barton Heyman), and owner of a sweet 70's porn 'stache and name Woody (Kevin O'Connor) travel to New England to get a fresh start on life on the sprawling grounds of an old house. No sooner are they on the ferry when the ferryman offers some small-town deadpan weirdness. The fact that the trio drives a hearse around town doesn't endear them to the locals, especially a gang of toughs and ne'er-do-wells who...well, actually don't look a day under 90. And they're all sporting bandages.

It doesn't take long for Jessica - whose inner monologue narrates the film with a spooky, almost deep voice - to start having doubts about her sanity. She sees things, like a mysterious girl in white in a cemetery and someone just hidden from view rocking in a chair on the porch of her new house. Give her credit, though, she maintains a bit of strength. Upon exploring the house, we're treated to a true, spill-your-nachos, "bwaaah!" moment when a strange girl bursts into the room, scaring everyone. Everyone, meet Emily (Mariclare Costello), a hippy-chick who's been squatting in the house when she thought it abandoned. Resident horndog Woody is intrigued.

Emily is accepted into the makeshift family as they settle into the new place. Duncan catches a mole for Jessica to have as a pet. Yeah. You read that right. A pet mole. So wonderfully weird. But things aren't all rainbows and unicorns. Jessica begins to suspect that Duncan has a thing for Emily. The mysterious redhead does have that smoky, understated sexuality that easily drew in Woody, but might be reaching Duncan. Not only that, but Emily's getting weirder and weirder as well. She glides rather than walks, it seems. Her voice is lilting and song-like. Not only that, she looks like the daughter in this strange portrait Jessica finds in the attic, a young lady who drowned in the nearby lake and who was never found. They say she haunts the area as a vampire. Oh, those crazy backwoods myths and legends.

Jessica and Duncan finally meet a friendly face when they sell some antiques to the local dealer, who feels funny buying stuff from the place with such a reputation. Still, he's a nice enough guy. Especially after the couple is harassed by a bunch of hooligans: that same roving gang of bandaged old men. Jessica meets the friendly antique dealer again thanks to the direction of the strange girl in white, who shows her the bloody body of the man in a creek. But by the time Duncan gets there, the body's gone. The girl turns out to be real, however, but mute. She seems to be warning them, but of what?

Jessica's world seems to fall in on itself. Someone kills her mole. She notices scars on the townsfolk. She suspects something is up with Emily. She'd be on target with that one. Emily corners Jessica in the attic for some bizarre, uncomfortable conversation then invites her for a swim, despite Jessica's protests that she's afraid of the water. Rightly so, since she had a run-in with something just under the surface (I'm not the only one freaked out by that). Emily assaults her in the water, leading to that scene you see above this paragraph. Eeeeeerie.

Jessica gets away and locks herself in her room until Duncan returns. But it's not just Duncan. It's Emily, too, and that Roving Gang of Old Guys shuffling towards them in a moment that reminded me of the climax of the creepy film The Sentinel. Everyone's got scars, including Duncan. Emily seems to be leading the festivities, indicating the legend must be real. Mustn't it? Jessica escapes the property after finding Woody riding the tractor with his throat slit. The ferryman - scar and all - won't let Jessica on the ferry, forcing her into the rowboat we saw her in during the opening. Duncan tries to creep onto the boat, but Jessica pounds him with a hook before withdrawing into herself and leaving Emily and the islanders to watch her float away.

Smell ya later, Jessica.

The entire movie has that weird, David Lynchian air to it that something's not quite right, but you can't put your finger on it. Sure, you could say that Jessica is nutty as a Payday bar, but is it really that cut and dried? Just because she's narrating it and it's from her point of view doesn't mean the movie veered into the supernatural. Or maybe it does. Maybe she wasn't crazy after all. That's the beauty of it. You never, never know. It could be in her mind. It could be a real malevolent force has manipulated events from the start.

And that almost industrial score. That only added to the creepy air.

Intermission. Let's all go to the lobby.

The second feature, The Legend of Hell House, was based on a book by Richard Matheson, who is a demigod in the horror and science-fiction genres. Feast your eyes on this writing resume: several episodes of the original "Twilight Zone," I Am Legend, Stir of Echoes, Somewhere In Time (originally Bid Time Return), What Dreams May Come, and many more. So, there's some solid ground in the writing. And look: Roddy McDowall. That's all you need right there.

There's no "I" in teamwork.

The plot moves pretty quickly right off the bat. Dr. Lionel Barrett (Clive Revill), a renowned physicist, is hired by a kooky old rich guy who wants proof that there is something after death. Namely, he wants proof of ghosts. What better place to conduct research than the old mansion the guy bought, the old Belasco place. Better known as Hell House. See, there'd been several investigations there, and none of them ended well. Barrett's a stuffed-shirt realist, so he cares more about the cash he'll get than the reputation of Hell House. He's saddled with a team that consists of his wife, Ann (Gayle Hunnicutt), a mental medium named Florence Tanner (Pamela Franklin), and a physical medium, Ben Fischer (McDowall) who is the only survivor of a failed research team. Barrett wants to get an opportunity to use his special machine, but it isn't quite ready yet.

Weird things happen right away. Recordings play on their own, Florence can't go into the chapel, things move on their own. Barrett is attacked by something at dinner and nearly killed. Florence wants to reach out to it, and does during a seance. She takes on the voice of something in the house - not much creepier than a woman talking in low, demonic tones (thanks, The Exorcist) - and seems to connect with what might be the son of the patriarch of the house. Fischer, however, wants no part of the whole thing. He's closed his mind off and only wants to collect the money from being there.

Ann has a few naughty dreams and tries to seduce Fischer at one point, but it appears to be a surface possession. She's slapped back to reality and runs in shame, but of course her husband sees the whole scene and is none too pleased.

Later, exploring the house to find more clues to this Daniel Belasco spirit, the party finds a body chained up in a wall. They're convinced it's Daniel, so they bury his bones with a proper funeral to lay it to rest. That should do it. Wait, this movie's not 45 minutes long, is it? Nope. The voices continue, the weird ambiance still heavy in the house. Florence does battle with a possessed black cat (in a scene parodied in Scary Movie 2) which leaves her bloody and scratched. Thinking it might help - and in certain genres, I'm sure it would - Florence later allows the spirit of Daniel into her bed. Yeah, you get my drift. It doesn't really go well. Florence survives the experience, but that knowing grin spells possession.

Now, during all this, Barrett's machine arrives. As he explains it, the device is designed to absorb all the ambient energy in the house. And, as spirits are pure energy, he is confident the forces tormenting them - forces he doesn't really believe in - will be nullified. In a last ditch effort, the Daniel-possessed Florence tries to smash the machine, but is subdued. Barrett gets the machine running and Florence runs to the chapel to face the demons there. In the chaos, the huge crucifix collapses on her. Before she dies, she traces the letter "B" in blood.

Fischer, finally letting his mind open up, declares the house free. There is no more presence, so he says. It can't really be that easy, could it? You better believe it's not. Barrett is soon attacked and killed off-screen, and Fischer sports a pair and decides to face the remaining entity head-on. Let me just say that Roddy McDowall is badass here. He taunts the spirit, who we now definitely know to be the original Belasco, a perverted possible mass murderer whose ghost really doesn't like visitors.

Fischer battles the entity on a mental level, and like a budding superhero, beats the evil force back. A hidden door is found in the chapel and inside, they find Belasco himself. Well, after his taxidermist had gotten to him. A perfectly preserved body (Michael Gough in an uncredited role) is there, and Fischer figures it all out. Belasco was a stunted man who hated his lack of height, so he had his legs replaced by prosthetics to give him perceived power. The room where he sits is lead-lined, preventing Barrett's machine from reaching him in some deranged genius foresight. Leaving, Fischer activates the machine one more time to ensure the place is clean as the credits roll.

Wild camera angles, strange heavy atmospheres, odd voices. The setting is off-putting since the house's windows are bricked over and the only way you know the time of day is through the time stamp that appears as events occur. It's a Technicolor suspense horror drama perfectly made for making out at going to the drive-in. The acting is juicy without being overdone. Roddy McDowall is surprisingly understated, at least until the end. Then he cuts loose as only he can, and he's actually badass. It's a ripping good yarn with a steady pace and a creepy ambiance.

Two more things:

One charming thing I love about 70's horror movies is the way the title appears over an opening scene. No elaborate title sequences, sometimes no theme music. Just *snap* there's the title and *snap* it's gone. Examples:

I don't know. I just love it.

And the second thing was during The Legend of Hell House, as the team arrives at the Belasco mansion, I couldn't help but think of the fake trailer of Don't that aired during Grindhouse and was directed by Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead). The rest of the movie had elements that may have inspired Wright's fake trailer, but when they first arrive at the gate in the fog, it reminded me of Wright's version.

So as I go, please enjoy the fake trailer so you can spot the references when you watch The Legend of Hell House. Thanks for reading and don't let the moaning of the undead get to you.

1 comment:

  1. Good call spotting out the similarities in that fake Grindhouse trailer. Noticed it myself but haven't seen it mentioned online anywhere else.

    Let's Scare Jessica to Death is an excellent film that really shows how powerful some folklore can be. My review here: