In a small town, a minister’s wife, Anne (Barbara Crampton) stands pallid and unhappy at her husband’s Jakob’s (Larry Fessenden) side after his sermon as he receives the accolades of his flock. It almost seems like she’s not really there. Sinister things start to happen as rats start to appear nearby. Anne, ever more pallid – but now wearing bright colors, starts to assert herself, to her husband’s confusion and dismay. What is Anne becoming and who is responsible for these strange events? How will her marriage survive her awakening to her own power? Will Jakob ever get breakfast? Who will be the true master of their fates? The answers to these questions can be found in JAKOB’S WIFE.
JAKOB’S WIFE is a vampire film in the true spirit of the vampire mythos, particularly Bram Stoker’s Dracula. The filmmakers definitely did their research and there are references scattered in the film to other classic films that have come before it. Where it’s different is that it observes the horror of a vampire story through the lens of a woman who has allowed the patriarchal demands of marriage and her husband to drain the life from her. A woman who is getting older and views the damages that time and subservience have wrought on her corporeal body and her spirit. There’s something very clever to this allegory in the reversal of who the vampires are. From time to time, people talk about energy vampires, people who suck the life from others, and JAKOB’S WIFE could be seen as something akin to that.
The Master Vampire who comes to town isn’t the first to victimize Anne. Her husband and the patriarchy that marriage upholds got there first. Much like how a prospective victim must invite the vampire inside of their home, Anne had to consent to be made into a handmaiden of a minister through the marriage vow. The allegory is powerful on different levels as it implies that society’s patriarchal structure and men themselves are the vampires, draining women of their color and spark as they choose the most beautiful and attractive women to convert into domestic servants without wills or lives of their own.
In addition, Barbara Crampton has taken a bold step with this film much like the character of Anne. One of the most deadly threats to a woman’s career in the acting profession is the natural process of aging. While men can get all the wrinkles they want and still be considered sexy and handsome studs, women are considered “over the hill” when they are put into the category of young mothers at age 25. Recently a critic took Carey Mulligan to task for not being attractive enough for the character she played in Promising Young Woman and outright said that one of the producers of the film, Margot Robbie, would be more suitable for the role. The critic didn’t think that Mulligan was sexy and attractive enough for what he considered paramount for the character, not even considering that maybe his view might be wrong. Mulligan is 35 and Robbie is 30. Actresses face this type of ageism and judgment of their looks as the sum total of their talent and value, not only as actresses, but as human beings for most of their lives. In JAKOB’S WIFE, Anne steps forward and finally has her way with her marriage and her life and in JAKOB’S WIFE, Crampton refuses to be seen as less sexy, less beautiful, or less talented, simply because she is no longer 21. She is hungry for life and for freedom and she has the power to show you the value of what a woman really is. It’s a bravura turn.
Director Travis Stevens, who previously made his mark as a producer of many genre films and as a writer/director with The Girl On The Third Floor, has a fantastic grasp of the horror elements and the film’s macabre humor. For those unfamiliar, The Girl On The Third Floor was a story that criticized the sexism of seemingly good men and mourned the misuse of women and girls as sexual objects to be disposed of when convenient. The film told that story and related that allegory through the genre standard of the haunted house. Stevens’s already audacious and unconventional storytelling powers have gotten even stronger and his aim has become even more true. You can see a thematic thread of the fight against sexism in human romantic relationships winding through both films. There are three writers on this script, Mark Steensland, the writer of the original script, Kathy Charles, and Stevens himself and it turned out wonderfully.
The examination of the power structure of marriage, the savage transformation of Anne and Jakob, and the howling scream at the social structures that condemn women to less than what they deserve. As I mentioned earlier, the knowledge of the genre tropes and vampire lore is impressive. The appearance of rats and the scenes of the Master’s arrivals both call back to the past, (see Dracula), and strikingly outline the future of vampire lore. One of the scenes with the Master shocked, frightened, and made my gore-loving, James Herbert fan heart spout pure blood. It was beautiful. These vampires are the vicious kind, not the sparkly kind. There’s some significantly gruesome and terrifying vampire activity in this film. I see allusions to films like Salem’s Lot and Messiah of Evil just after two viewings and I’m sure I’ll find more as I watch it again. Tara Busch composed the unsettling score and it adds a sinister spice to the proceedings.
The performances of the actors are notable in their quality. There’s a subtle weaving of horror and comedy involved in their work. Crampton and Fessenden are very believable as a married couple set in a routine. Crampton really gets to shine with her character’s switch from unhappy wife to vamp, but Fessenden has the skill to show a man who is part of the sexist machine, but who really does love his wife and who is shockingly willing to do whatever it takes to make her happy and protect her. Despite everything, you can see why Anne loves him. Nyisha Bell (Amelia Humphries) is outstanding as a young woman who has her own transformation. Sarah Lind (Carol Fedder) and Mark Kelly (Bob Fedder) are adorable and able as the central couple’s in-laws who are ready and willing to do what’s right. Jay DeVon Johnson (Sheriff Mike Hess) and C.M. Punk (Deputy Colton and his mustache) are hilariously and squarely in the horror movie tradition as the clueless local police. See, I found some other allusions, think back to the comedy cops of The Last House On The Left and I Spit On Your Grave and you’ll see what I mean. Bonnie Aarons as the Master, who is very Kurt Barlow in looks, but much more interested in freedom. She is a strong and sensual presence with a small amount of screen time. It’s like the shadow play of Dracula, where the fiend is mostly an unseen presence of evil. There are so many loving touches in this film to vampire history. Watching Barbara Crampton deal with the thirst in a modern setting is disturbing and disarming not just because of what she does, but the natural innocence she does it with.
JAKOB’S WIFE is a vital and shocking modern vampire story that seduces you with your own fears and longing. It is empowerment by exsanguination. Using the fantasy construct of the classic vampire tale, it tackles the unfairness of how women are treated in our world and our potential to reclaim that power again. The story’s veins flow with the red blood cells of rebellion and power. The film pulses with joy and the electricity that flows through the human heart.
JAKOB’S WIFE had its world premiere at the 2021 SXSW Film Festival. You can catch it next at the upcoming Panic Fest, where you can get tickets here. It will then be available in theaters, On-Demand, and on Digital on April 16, 2021.