Let’s Scare Jessica to Death (1971) and Piranha (1978)

Let’s Scare Jessica to Death (1971) is a relatively little-seen horror that has built a nice cult reputation, and although its refusal to properly explain itself might frustrate some who like their horror movies to have everything spelt out for them, or god forbid, have their antagonists ‘fleshed out’ with a back-story or rational explanation, the film’s vagueness only makes it all the creepier. It’s about a mentally disturbed young woman (the Jessica of the title) who, with her husband and their friend, move to an old house in the country (bad idea), only for her to experience unnerving visions. The local townsfolk are not very hospitable either, and even though they’re all in their eighties, act like a bunch of no-good teenage punks when they start to antagonise the new kids in town. Oh, and there’s a squatter who looks just like the young woman in the 100 year old photo collecting dust in the attic…

This film was directed by John Hancock, which I thought was a pseudonym, like the kind directors use when they’re embarrassed of their work and use a phoney name to keep their integrity. Turns out he’s real, and any self-respecting director would be very proud to have this on their CV, so that’s my theory shot to pieces. Hancock hasn’t directed much else outside of TV work; in fact, his most famous film might be the one he got thrown off of – he was the original director of Jaws 2 before he was replaced. With this film though, he creates a spellbinding atmosphere, and gets a great performance from Zohra Lambert in the title role. She exudes sympathy and strangeness without resorting to cheap tricks or theatrics, and the decision to let us hear her thoughts is a masterstroke, perfectly capturing her paranoia and fear of madness. The use of location is lovely, with a hazy, rural feel that lulls us into a dreamy comfort zone before throwing us off-balance with some choice shocks and eerie touches. The electronic soundtrack is quite striking given when the film was made, and even though some of the fashions have dated (including one major moustache), that only adds to the old school feel. It’s always a pleasure to discover a lost horror gem after having watched so many already, and for those who fancy a late night chill down the spine, this’ll work a treat.

Less scary but just as entertaining is Joe Dante’s Piranha (1978), which was remade a few years ago in spectacular style (the remake gets a sequel in a few weeks) – Dante is best known for the two Gremlins films, plus other wonderfully funny and imaginative adventures like Explorers and InnerSpace, plus werewolf classic The Howling and one-off black comedy The ‘burbs. Like The Howling, Piranha is decidedly nastier and bloodier than his later works, with rivers of blood pouring freely to delightful effect. An unashamed Jaws knock-off, but made with a much lighter and tongue-in-cheek touch, Piranha sees a wave of genetically modified killer fish accidentally let loose in the direction of a summer camp for kids. Two teens get munched in the opening sequence, and a private investigator (Heather Menzies, who was one of the kids in The Sound of Music) teams up with an alcoholic local expert (Bradford Dillman) to check their whereabouts. They accidentally release the deadly piranha, and must race against time to stop them feeding on the poor children. Without giving too much away, I can nevertheless promise you that this film isn’t one of those that thinks that kids and gory death shouldn’t ever be put together – when the fishies arrive at summer camp, no one is off the menu… This is a modest but very enjoyable B-movie that throws in some genuine suspense amongst the lighter moments – a bit where the ropes connecting a wooden raft together are rapidly gnawed loose by the piranha is wickedly tense, and the shots of carefree legs and arms drifting in the water whilst the critters swim closer never gets dull. There is a mid-way lull when the army and suspicious scientist-types get in on the act, but the final act is a riot. As mentioned before, the copious blood-letting is gleefully excessive (though nothing compared to the remake) and the piranhas themselves are a fearsome presence, rapidly filmed so we don’t get to see them too much. Dante would go on to make better films, but this is a delightfully silly debut.

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