THE STORY – Anne, married to a small-town Minister, feels her life has been shrinking over the past 30 years. Encountering “The Master” brings her a new sense of power and an appetite to live bolder. However, the change comes with a heavy body count.
THE CAST – Barbara Crampton, Larry Fessenden, Bonnie Aarons, Nyisha Bell & Sarah Lind
THE TEAM – Travis Stevens (Director/Writer), Kathy Charles & Mark Steensland (Writers)
THE RUNNING TIME – 98 Minutes
By Danilo Castro
Horror has always been a pliable genre when it comes to allegory. The best horror films can use ghouls and goblins to explore the otherwise controversial subject matter. It makes the subject matter more palatable, but the added level of abstraction allows for different perspectives to enter the picture. “Jakob’s Wife” is a vampire movie, in so much as vampirism exposes the marital unrest of the titular character, Anne (Barbara Crampton).
Anne is married to a small-town minister (Larry Fessenden), and she’s spent the last 30 years as a bystander to her husband’s sermons. A chance encounter with a high school flame revives her appetite for life, but the aftermath of this encounter causes her to develop an appetite for something else… Anne takes back her individuality and pushes against Jakob’s modest lifestyle, even as the collateral damage of the human bodies begins to stack up against her.
“Jakob’s Wife” is directed by Travis Stevens, who has more than a few clever tools up his sleeve. The film opens with Anne listening to one of Jakob’s sermons, but she gradually tunes out the sound of his words and drifts off in thought. This occurs at several key moments in the plot and is an inspired way of communicating Anne’s discontent without relying on exposition. Stevens co-wrote the script with Kathy Charles and Mark Steensland, and it’s to their credit that exposition is rarely needed or relied on here (barring the climax, which we’ll discuss later).
Barbara Crampton is the star of the film in more ways than one. She repeatedly steals the spotlight from her peers by way of her intense, increasingly frantic performance. Take, for example, the scene after Anne’s old hubby is killed. She returns home and tells Jakob that she’s going to bed. She locks herself in the bathroom, unzips her jacket to show a blouse caked in blood, and proceeds to have a panic attack. Crampton doesn’t go for the obvious “movie panic,” though, she allows herself to get short of breath, and her final scream is so pained that it doesn’t even exert a noise. It’s the first real flash of emotion we get from the character, and it’s so unexpectedly raw that it lingers throughout the rest of the performance.
Anne’s transformation into a vampire is where “Jakob’s Wife” starts to come undone. The film’s opening stretch has its surreal touches, but most of the violence and the actions felt grounded in realism. The scene where Anne blasts rock music and struts around the house feels cribbed from a trendy music video, and it breaks the narrative spell that had been building up to that point. Things get back on track with the next scene, but Stevens repeatedly injects these campy detours into the runtime, as if they aren’t poking holes in the plot’s believability.
Yes, I know turning into a vampire and being forced to confront a female version of Nosferatu is not exactly believable. Still, to sell the concept, the film has to make us feel that the characters are taking it seriously. This seriousness is especially important because the script wants to make serious points about women’s roles in the household and how traditional gender roles can often stifle them. It’s a topic with tons of narrative and allegorical possibilities, and implementing campy flourishes only serves to undermine it.
The film runs out of steam in the final act, with Crampton doing her best to keep things intermittently energetic. Her character ultimately comes face to face with the vampiric voice that’s been taunting her, and it’s here, on the lawn of her home, that the script dumps all of the exposition it had been avoiding. The Nosferatu-esque creature tries to appeal to Anne’s sense of womanhood, pointing out that she’s never been given a chance to be herself truly. While some of the points are valid, they’re things we were already able to intuit. Stating them so blatantly only takes away from the subtlety of the storytelling.
Jakob ultimately stabs the creature, and he and Anne reach a compromise regarding their marriage. It’s an anticlimactic ending to a film that had some potential early on, and worst of all, it sidelines Crampton, the single greatest component of the production.
All in all, “Jakob’s Wife” was a disappointment. The premise and the central performance were there, but the script and the inexplicably campy touches keep this thing from realizing its full potential.
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – The film has gruesome horror imagery early on, and Barbara Crampton steals the show with her energetic lead performance.
THE BAD – The film fails to deliver on the promise of its central premise, and the campy touches sprinkled throughout break up the tone.
THE OSCARS – None
THE FINAL SCORE – 4/10