It's hard for a film called Let's Scare Jessica To Death to live up to its title, and John Hancock's 1971 horror-thriller seems to sense this; it uses the title as just another clue that may or may not explain what the hell is going on. Shot on an obviously limited budget, it uses little more than an overcast lake house, a small town with creepy locals, an overbearing score recorded on primitive synths, and well-timed histrionics to create an atmosphere so creepy that it's easy to forget that there isn't much actually happening beneath it all. Like a lot of effective ghost stories, it's all about misdirection, slow-building tension, and a big shock to make the night feel a little less safe.

Journeyman character actress Zohra Lampert plays Jessica, who has just been released from a mental hospital. With husband Barton Heyman and family friend Kevin O'Connor in tow, she decides to start over in an isolated house, distressing the locals by driving a hearse and engaging in vaguely hippie-like behavior. That's a bummer, but the trio are free-spirited enough to let a mysterious stranger (Gretchen Corbett) already living at the house stay with them a spell, even once she starts flirting with Heyman, sending O'Connor mixed signals, and acting in ways designed to unsettle Lampert.


Or is most of that in Lampert's head? The film plays with that notion and a good half-dozen others—including ghosts and vampires—to explain why Lampert can't sleep at night and tends to freak out whenever she spends too much time near the lake. Then it piles them all on in a finale that doesn't make a lot of sense, but works anyway. It's a classic B-movie move of making much out of little, and while Let's Scare Jessica To Death isn't quite a top-rank B-movie classic, it at least offers further proof that all the teen-idol stars and CGI effects—or a logical plot, for that matter—mean nothing if they don't make you scared to turn out the lights.

Key features: Look elsewhere.