SXSW: JAKOB'S WIFE (2021)

Jakob's Wife.jpg

Studio:      Shudder/RLJE Films
Director:    Travis Stevens
Writer:      Mark Steensland, Kathy Charles, Travis Stevens
Producer:  Barbara Crampton, Bob Portal, Inderpal Singh, Travis Stevens
Stars:     Barbara Crampton, Larry Fessenden, Nyisha Bell, Sarah Lind, Mark Kelly, Robert Rusler, Jay DeVon Johnson, Phil Brooks, Bonnie Aarons

Review Score:

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Summary:

After suffering a vampire¡¯s bite, an unsatisfied pastor¡¯s wife takes on a new identity that transforms her marriage in the wake of a bloody body count.


Synopsis:     

Review:

¡°Jakob¡¯s Wife¡± scared me. My intimidation had nothing to do with the film¡¯s content. I don¡¯t mean it like that.

The trouble for objective genre critics is that filmmaker Travis Stevens and stars Barbara Crampton and Larry Fessenden are highly regarded luminaries in low-budget horror. That¡¯s thanks to several seminal movies they¡¯ve been crucial in creating in addition to having genial demeanors that warmly welcome fans. So let¡¯s just say not everyone in the field of fright film coverage starts from a neutral position when their names are involved. Groupthink virtually requires everyone to support any move they make to the point where, if you dare deliver anything close to an unflattering word, you can be branded as a bitter enemy of indie horror.

Fortunately for me, I genuinely enjoyed ¡°Jakob¡¯s Wife¡± for the most part. Not everyone will for reasons I¡¯ll try to touch on. But at least I can speak freely about the film without tiptoeing around couched terms for fear of my horror community membership card being revoked.

It¡¯s no accident that Anne is referred to as ¡°Jakob¡¯s Wife.¡± That¡¯s how she¡¯s seen, even when looking in the mirror. While dealing with the death of her mother after an old flame moved away, Anne was seduced by the safety of small town complacency. With her fire for adventure snuffed out, Anne settled for a life of ¡°don¡¯t rock the boat¡± routine where rarely does she speak up, make decisions for herself, or explore her personal identity.

Things change after a vampire bites her. As a predominantly pious pastor, Jakob doesn¡¯t know what to do with his wife once Anne starts behaving with more aggressive assertiveness, renewed sexuality, and motivation to be her own woman. That¡¯s to say nothing of Anne¡¯s sudden bloodlust. Anne¡¯s reformed personality already challenges the restrictions on her relationship with Jakob. The couple encounters more criminal complications when Anne¡¯s transformation coincides with the creation of new corpses. To save their marriage, Anne and her husband might have to stake the master vampire who turned her. The problem is, Anne isn¡¯t sure she wants to go back to being the subservient housewife she was before.

Being someone born in the previous century, something I immediately appreciate about ¡°Jakob¡¯s Wife¡± is its focus on people ¡°of a certain age.¡± A trio of teens or twentysomethings bumps up the low body count. But we tour this sideways slice of suburbia with an average adult couple as our guides, not attractive college students, horny high-schoolers, or curious kids who more typically tread such territory. Although trends have started swinging in this direction more often, you don¡¯t see too many men and women over 50 as main movers or regular people in horror. They¡¯re usually pigeonholed into playing parents or supporting ¡°old people¡± parts.

Specifically for fans of Fessenden and Crampton, another terrific thing about ¡°Jakob¡¯s Wife¡± is that it is a performance-centric character play with robust roles the duo can truly tear into. Since her return to acting, I don¡¯t think Crampton has been a movie¡¯s cast member with the most screen time, even when receiving top billing. She has more frequently been relegated to elevated cameos of marginal value. Her casting here is not a name recognition stunt. ¡°Jakob¡¯s Wife¡± is definitely Barbara Crampton¡¯s film and she takes off with the ball at top speed with meaty minutes that showcase the full range of her talent.

As for Fessenden, it¡¯s always refreshing to see him playing anything other than a backwoods cornpone for a change. He¡¯s another guy whose inclusions as an actor in lower-level horror tend to be gimmicky. Yet like Crampton, ¡°Jakob¡¯s Wife¡± affords him opportunities to be funny, furious, kind, and cowardly, and he fires on all cylinders to make sure he matches Crampton¡¯s temperature, which impressively alternates between dagger-staring coolness and fang-baring heat.

Some probably see ¡°vampires¡± and think they¡¯ll be in for a bevy of blood and violence. ¡°Jakob¡¯s Wife¡± has splatter in spurts, which comes in the form of explosively gory FX fresh from an uncensored Fangoria centerfold. No one should expect an action-packed successor to ¡°Blade¡± or ¡°Underworld¡± however. ¡°Jakob¡¯s Wife¡± has its heart in more meaningful matters. It¡¯s a horror movie that¡¯s ¡°about¡± something. In this case that something is a woman who has lost her sense of self in an unsatisfying marriage. Unexpectedly, vampirism affords her the freedom to rediscover who she is and what she wants. ¡°Jakob¡¯s Wife¡± is really a marital drama dressed up as a Stephen King story with light licks of dark comedy that shift the setting just slightly outside of our reality.

Instead of waiting until after, I made the mistake of reading another ¡°Jakob¡¯s Wife¡± review prior to writing this one. That writer criticized the film¡¯s iffy fun factor for being too fickle to deliver a clear comedic identity. Because the movie doesn¡¯t start striping itself with winking humor until deep into the runtime, when the mood does turn madcap, it feels like the film¡¯s subdued style hasn¡¯t earned the right to get wild or weird.

I disagree with that person¡¯s perspective that ¡°Jakob¡¯s Wife¡± should have fully embraced outrageous camp. But upon considering her comments, I¡¯m inclined to agree that the unevenness I detected in tone is at least partly due to how laughs are inconsistently applied. The other part is due to the drabness in Anne and Jakob¡¯s ordinary existence. No matter what takes place, unless David Bowie spontaneously rides in on a tiger made of lightning, a dentist office visit is never going to be an exciting scene in any movie.

Erratic instances of laughter and mundane mirrors held up to everyday existence are the hurdles that have to be jumped with ¡°Jakob¡¯s Wife.¡± The mix of thematic maturity with B-movie mirth creates a quirky cocktail that¡¯s enjoyably smooth to tuned tongues. Others will find the same flavors too flat to sip for a whole film. ¡°Jakob¡¯s Wife¡± only sprints in short bursts, requiring attention spans to slow so they can synch with more patiently paced drama.

Independent of how successful or unsuccessful ¡°Jakob¡¯s Wife¡± is with its horror, humor, and observational commentary on codependent commitments, everyone familiar with the two stars and their ardent admirers can agree on one thing. Barbara Crampton and Larry Fessenden are fantastic in the film. Faithful fanbases for both indie icons will not be disappointed with their idols. That fact alone is enough for ¡°Jakob¡¯s Wife¡± to make a mark, even if its bite doesn¡¯t pierce all the way down to the bone.

Review Score: 65