When it comes to vampires, I’m more or less a purist. There are vampire movies I love, vampire movies I hate. It all comes down to my own personal take on vampires, and what media aligns closest with that take. So a big yes for Martin and The Addiction, and a big hell no for Twilight, Underworld, and any kind of take that involves yet another tired retread of Anne Rice’s beautiful, but tortured, immortal souls. I’m always looking for vampire movies where the premise grabs me. Blood Red Sky did that a year or so ago, and I really enjoyed it, and then along came Jakob’s Wife.
As well as vampires, I’m a big fan of seeing Barbara Crampton, having been a fan since The Reanimator, and From Beyond back in the day, and I like Larry Fassenden a lot too. Both names have become virtually synonymous with low budget, good quality indie horror in the last ten years or so, so I felt like I could trust them going in. The result is a movie of two mismatched halves – one that almost worked for, one that did not work for me at all.
Jakob’s Wife stars Crampton as Anne Fedder, wife to Fassenden’s Jakob Fedder. Jakob is the minister of a small town church. He’s pious, but not overbearingly so, the kind that more often than not allows people to be who they are. There’s no sense that Jakob is meant to be a caricature of the common fire and brimstone Religious Right trope here, but that might have made the plot a little more dynamic. As it is, Jakob is a boring guy, and Anne is his bored wife.
Early on, the movie had a lot of promise. The shots of their small town reminded me a lot of Martin’s blue-collar neighbourhoods and decaying industries, where people live matter-of-fact lives, with small world concerns that mean the whole world to them. That’s my kind of character work. I don’t have a lot of patience for two dimensional characters existing only to either give voice to a writer’s pet peeves, or be so anonymously drawn they’re supposed to appeal to broad swathes of the population. I believed in this setting and its people from the get go.
Anne is bored, and this is where the movie shows its lack of ambition. We’ve seen the bored housewife story before and Anne isn’t written any differently. There’s some nicely subtle acting on the part of Crampton, small expressions and gestures that tell us how bored she is, and frustrated by the life she’s living, repressed and ignored by Jakob. But we’ve seen it all before, so when the opportunity comes to meet an old flame for a business deal at a dilapidated, abandoned industrial plant, Anne cautiously jumps at the chance of a little excitement, and you can guess what happens next. The brief fling is barely started when the main plot kicks in, and I was a little dissatisfied here. Good looking older woman, relatively handsome ex-boyfriend, I get it there is no angst in the moment, but I expected a little more than a scene that could be played by twentysomethings.
It’s in this scene where the story’s echoes of Salem’s Lot arrive, and I was disappointed by this too. Salem’s Lot is iconic in a couple of ways, so I could see a brief homage, but the nods are way more than nods, even to the point of the main vampire looking like Reggie Nalder’s TV version of Barlowe (badly done makeup, though – looks like streaks of dried oatmeal), even referred to as “The Master, as Barlowe himself was by James Mason. Anne and her Cheaters date are attacked, then we focus on Anne. There’s a great scene where Jakob stays up late to wait for Anne to get back home, and when she does and dismisses him to go upstairs, there’s a little of the resentment and bruised ego showing in Jakob, but Fassenden keeps it in check, denying us the power of the confrontational scene the movie badly needs. When we cut to Anne in the bathroom, the terror and pain she feels when revealing to us, and herself, her blood-soaked shirt is terrific. For me, this was the best scene in the movie.
Unfortunately, that’s the last of the great scenes. What follows is some kind of half-hearted attempt to play the rest of the story campy, and it didn’t work for me. Scenes where Anne rearranges her living toom furniture with her new found strength (to the song Bloodletting, by Concrete Blonde, no less) is mildly amusing, but also criminally obvious. Building up a decently realistic portrayal of Anne, I expected more depth here as she reacts to this newly horrible situation, but instead it’s more like a middle-aged fantasy played out for slight smiles. But then the movie delves into the new dynamic between Jakob and his wife, whose libido and lust for life have been awakened by her condition, before slipping back into scenes that border on slapstick.
The movie would have been better with a plot that stayed focused on one aspect or the other, but Jakob’s Wife feels like two different versions of the same movie spliced together in the middle. One could have been a gritty tragedy closer in spirit to Martin, one could have been a funny, sexy horror romp – both could have delivered the same theme of how middle-aged women need not feel their lives are over, even after decades spent in a same old, same old marriage. They both might have been equally enjoyable, for vastly different reasons, but the version we ended up with is unfocused and weak, spoonfeeding its message via dialogue and scenes that could have been in network pap like This Is Us.
The final confrontation with The Master is a talky mess, with too many closeup shots of The Master, woefully played by Bonnie Aarons, adding some badly Autotuned effects to her voice, which only serve to underline how much of a bland creature this is. Barlowe had menace, and didn’t even have to talk for you to know you were in serious trouble in his presence. The final confrontation is just a variation on the crusty old James Bond Villain speech, predictable up to the end, and free of any kind of atmosphere whatsoever.
Listen, you might not be as picky as I am about vampire cinema, or even horror movies as a whole – in which case, you might enjoy Jakob’s Wife. It’s well shot, and Crampton and Fassenden are a good, believable couple, but the writing is weak, and the plot is predictable and underdone. Your mileage may vary, as they say.
© Andrew Hope, 2023