Great classic horror camp is lost amidst a "feminist" message that's never actually uttered.
- 🧛🏻♀️Solid performances from several side characters.
- 🧛🏻♀️A strong film when it leans into its shlocky nature.
- 🧛🏻♀️Major continuity failures.
- 🧛🏻♀️Touts a feminist angle that it never actually meets.
Jakob's Wife is part of our SXSW 2021 coverage. You can find all of our reviews here.
Anne (Barbara Crampton) is the dowdy wife of a small-town minister, Jakob (Larry Fessenden). She had dreams, once, but they started to fade after her wedding until one day they weren’t there at all any longer. She wakes up, she makes breakfast for Jakob, she goes about her day as an active member of their community, then she makes dinner and provides her husband with anything else he needs while he prepares his sermons. She insists on her happiness when her high school flame, Tom Low (Robert Rusler) returns to town to help with a project she spearheaded with the city. She clearly isn’t, but the world’s told her she has to be, so what can she do?
Anne’s life is turned upside down on the day she heads to meet Tom at the abandoned factory. It’s not because of any illicit affair — though the two do share a kiss. Things go sideways for Anne because she’s bitten by some kind of rat vampire who only refers to herself as The Master (Bonnie Aarons). Our protagonist will then find herself caught between two worlds: the familiar life of the docile wife or taking steps into the great unknown without the constraints of societal expectations.
Jakob’s Wife shines when it’s leaning into its classic horror weirdness. Its campy blood-spatter and rough CGI rats are kind of an endearing time capsule of the shlocky horror of yore. The over-the-top Master adds to this vibe, as does the performance of Nyisha Bell as Amelia Humphries after she falls under the Master’s spell. As a matter of fact, Bell’s performance might be the best of the bunch. She didn’t get a ton to do but, when she was on screen, she was having a ball. A shoutout has to go to young Armani Desirae as well. It’s little more than a cameo, but her scene with Barbara Crampton is the funniest thing the film has to offer by a mile.
It’s when it tries to paint itself as progressive that Jakob’s Wife starts to stumble. If you follow my work, you know that I’m never one to wish that a message was removed from a story. But, if you don’t know how to convey that message, perhaps stick with the classic horror camp? The Master’s entire manifesto is that these new powers represent a freedom of which Anne has never experienced. We see her dabble with said powers as she dances around her living room moving furniture with ease in a representation of her newfound strength. It’s a fun moment in the film, to be sure! But it still boils down to the housewife using her abilities to… clean the living room?
When given the opportunity to break free of her somehow both distant and overbearing husband — a man who is frequently shown insisting his wife behave just so, speaking over her, or questioning why his needs aren’t being met — Anne opts for something else. Despite her blood lust, the Minister’s wife elects to passionately kiss her husband. What follows is a scene that gives credence to all the prudish internet comments requesting we stop showing sex in film. Later, when Jakob finally starts to catch onto the fact that he’s been a little (a lot) terrible to his wife, Anne literally says “I’m sorry I didn’t speak up more.” Sure, we’ll keep the onus on the woman. Why not?
There's also an infuriating lack of continuity happening here. As just one example, there's a major scene where Anne has a large smear of blood on her lip — a smear that is actually kind of narratively important. The next time we see her, it's gone and we assume she's simply wiped it off. Yet, two shots later, said smear is right back on her mouth.
The climax of Jakob’s Wife leaves us with similar vibes to the rest of the story. There are some humorous moments with the cops (played by Jay DeVon Johnson and C.M. Punk respectively), and the same aesthetic that makes the film shine is present, but it’s not enough to make it successful in what it’s trying to say. Things will come to a close with a kind of "will she or won't she" freeze-frame, leaving it to the viewer to decide how the once docile wife will respond to having a choice taken from her. But, given what we're shown all the other times Jakob's Wife believes it's illustrating a woman standing up for herself — her final action seems pretty clear.
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