Eric’s Review: Jakob’s Wife (2021) (SXSW Festival)

ATMOSfx! Woo!
★★★★ out of ★★★★★

Jakob’s Wife is an essay on a mid-life menopausal crisis, by way of vampirism. Jakob’s Wife delivers great character arcs and engaging acting. Barbara Crampton has been given a meaty role, and she delivers perhaps her best screen performance in memory. Larry Fessenden also is stellar as the well intentioned minister Jakob.

Directed by Travis Stevens

Middle age never looked so good. Jakob’s Wife reunites two of the horror genre’s icons with Barbara Crampton and Larry Fessenden. Crampton is something of an ageless wonder, one who as a young woman was a staple in Stuart Gordon’s Full Moon franchises but found herself cut adrift from film for the bulk of her thirties, only to have her career resurrected with You’re Next. Since that time she has been one of the most active genre actresses in the business, as her transition from scream queen beauty to leading lady has given her a number of more nuanced characters to inhabit.

Crampton remains beautiful, but she has aged into it, without the scary and obvious artificiality that some actresses have embraced to remain viable in the misogynist movie market. She plays Anne Fedder, a meek woman who is struggling with the decisions in her life. As a young woman, she was an ambitious dreamer with ambition about traveling the world, but she chose the easier, more comfortable existence by marrying the local minister, Jakob, who she grew up with. A nice man. A good man. But in the end, a little bland and boring. It is no coincidence that the movie is titled Jakob’s Wife, as that is her role, the submissive wife… but things are about to change.

Interestingly, Larry Fessenden also looks better than ever in this movie. That may be a low threshold, given that he often looks like a man who has been out for many nights in a row, only to find himself on the losing end of a bar fight. With his wild hair, wild eyes, and gapped tooth grin, he is rarely given the chance to be the leading man, but Jakob’s Wife puts him at the center of the story. Going against his usual sketchy drifter character role, he plays a buttoned up everyman. In this movie he gets to play Jakob, a devout minister, and he plays it straight-up. Jakob is not your stereotypical horror movie preacher. He’s not a fanatical fire and brimstone moralist so often found in the genre. Jakob is a kind man, if perhaps a bit aloof, but he’s a man unused to pressure and anxiety. For Fessenden, the collar fits, and he inhabits the character nicely.

Anne has been coasting her way through life, and her marriage. She has become a “stand by your man” wife, rarely questioning her role and suppressing her latent adventurous spirit. A moment arrives where an old flame, Tom Low (Robert Rusler… remember him from A Nightmare on Elm Street 2?) arrives back in town, and she conspires to rekindle a moment with him at their old haunt, an abandoned mill at the edge of town. Unfortunately for them, the old mill is not just a place for romantic trysts, but also is the home of The Master (Bonnie Aarons) a rat infused vampire, who has been claiming victims throughout the town.

The Master gets the jump on Anne and Tom, and the bloody encounter sends Anne scrambling back home, a changed woman. She has become a thrall of The Master, and begins to exhibit classic signs of vampirism. At first the signs are subtle, and Anne masks them. Jakob discerns a change in her. A defiant and distant attitude, and he blames the presence of Tom coming back to town. Anne gives way to her thirst and murders a curious neighbor, Jakob discovers her indulging in the blood of her victim.

Although shocked and dismayed, Jakob loves Anne enough to help her find a way to heal from her vampirism. They turn their attention to try and defeat the Master, who has been slaying and converting other members of their town. She has descended like a plague on their town, devoid of work and eroding at the soul. All too easy for a vampire to set up camp in a down with modern ruins in its midst. A town where Jakob’s ministry is to but a few souls. Jakob and Anne realize that despite their relationship being on rocky ground, they do love each other, sealing the relationship in particularly dramatic fashion. Anne’s new found assertive streak and Jakob’s acceptance of this new version of his wife, moves their relationship to a new phase, renewing their bonds to FIGHT EVIL! But first, time to slake the bloodlust with some fresh supplies… and the rare meat in the fridge just won’t do.

This kind of story often gets told where the protagonist is a teenager, an adolescent in the emergent stages of life. The beauty of this story is that it allows somebody to go through the transformation of a bold new (and treacherous) life, but bringing along the baggage from a lifetime of experience, both good and bad. It’s still a coming of age movie, but this is the chrysalis of menopause, not puberty. Who is to say that it’s still not a transformative stage in life?

The movie is infused with some nicely timed light humor, particularly after Anne and Jakob recommit to each other. Their terrific interaction with a nosey local girl is a real hoot. It’s another layer to some terrific character arc development to see the comraderie between them, borne of a lifetime together, and it FEELS like they’ve grown comfortable together. After seeing the two actors host a cocktail hour during the Nightstream streaming event last November, you can tell that the actors have deep affection for each other, and that relationship really shows up on screen. It’s natural.

You may have noticed that I haven’t spent a lot of time describing the monstrous aspects of the movie. Curiously, it’s probably the weakest part of this film. The vampires are suitably creepy Nosferatu vermin-like creatures with long incisors rather than canines, and are a decidely scruffy lot. Bonnie Aarons is yet again under a lot of makeup, as she was playing the demonic Valak in The Nun, and is imposing, if a bit stiff. There is an incongruity with the style of the action here though. The overall tone of the movie is fairly serious, with somber overtones, but the vampire action is Sam Raimi spewy mayhem. The vampires don’t look particularly powerful, and they don’t move particularly fast, but every bite, every swing of claw draws geysers of blood from their victims. The heart can’t pump blood like a fire hydrant, but that’s the way this plays out. It’s comical, and it doesn’t match the tenor of the film. (Though admittedly it is a bit fun.)

This is Travis Steven’s second feature film, after having done the well received Girl on the Third Floor, a bloody haunted house flick. Jakob’s Wife feels like a maturation in his directing chops after having been a movie producer for the better part of the decade. He has given his actors room to breathe, and his facility with dialogue timing and plot development are strong. For a movie that is heavily invested in personal relationships, the film never gets bogged down, and it is entertaining from front to back. Additional work with tonal consistency will be what I’m looking to see in his next feature, and I do hope he stays in the genre.

So, come for the great character development and actor commitment, and get a side helping of fountains of caro syrup blood to go with it. The movie was tailor made for both Crampton and Fessenden, and they were a joy to watch on screen. Supporting players including Jay DeVon Johnson and C.M. Punk (The latest pro-wrestler to cross over in acting) as helpful local law enforcement, Nyisha Bell as an early victim, and Mark Kelly and Sarah Lind who play Jakob’s brother and sister-in-law are all up to the task in fleshing out the plot.

The film premiered at SXSW, but you won’t have to wait long for it to appear on Shudder, as it is scheduled for release on April 16. At this time the film is not rated, as it likely go straight to streaming without a major theatrical release. It would be rated R for geysers of blood, and some brief nudity from both Barbara (who still looks great partially naked at 62) and Larry (Um… yeah. Not so much.)

Review by Eric Li
Categories: Festivals, ReviewsTags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


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