Much like its lead character, torn between the allure of blood-sucking and a residual sense of suburban obligation, Jakob’s Wife is a conflicted horror-comedy. On the one hand, there are clear aspirations to present vampirism as a metaphor for middle-aged female empowerment, made explicit in one speech, but Barbara Crampton’s (From Beyond) latest vehicle also wants to take an essentially conservative, affirming view of marriage… and then on top of that, it also wants to have fun with vampire tropes and the opportunities for silliness afforded by its scenario.
In small-town America, Jakob (Larry Fessenden) is the pastor of a local church, first seen giving a sermon on how husbands should love their wives, which he doesn’t quite live up to himself, while Anne (Crampton) is his dutiful spouse. There are warning bells that something’s wrong in their community when a member of the congregation, Amelia (Nyisha Bell), goes missing, but Anne is more interested in a reunion with her old flame Tom (Robert Rusler). He’s back in town to work on the renovation of a historic building, and they visit the dusty site together, only to find that some large crates have mysteriously appeared in the basement along with an unusual number of rats…
The rest you can pretty much guess, though predictability doesn’t detract too much from the wry wit of Jakob’s Wife, which not only serves up some obvious ironies (“I won’t bite you”, Tom says to Anne before their tryst’s interrupted by forces of darkness) but also has many subtler little gags to offer. There’s garlic hanging in Jakob and Anne’s kitchen, and a crucifix on the wall; the local newspaper is the Kinski County Reporter (conjuring up Klaus Kinski’s title role in 1979’s Nosferatu the Vampyre), there are plenty of mirrors, plenty of teeth on display, and some very red lipstick.
One of the nicest touches is the way that Anne, now with superhuman strength, casually picks up a sofa to rearrange the living room furniture; one of the most outrageous is a teeth-whitening scene at the dental hygienist’s that goes disastrously wrong; one of the best-staged has Anne dancing around her house, drapes drawn, sipping on a glass of blood that looks just like the wine she rejected the previous night, all to the strains of Concrete Blonde’s Bloodletting.
The film’s emphasis shifts from Anne to Jakob, and then ultimately to them as a couple, and it does flag a little from the halfway point once he discovers Anne’s secret. Intrigue is then replaced by action, but both the script (by Kathy Charles, Mark Steensland, and Travis Stevens) and Stevens’s direction are more enticing, while the trajectory of the story is less certain. Nevertheless, the cinematography by David Matthews is stylish without ever being overdone, which helps Jakob’s Wife to stand out from the pack, as do several of its strong performances.
Crampton is great, but she’s great in exactly the way one might expect. Imagine “Barbara Crampton as a bored middle-aged pastor’s wife rediscovering herself in vampirism” and you’re already envisaging her pretty accurately. She’s never less than watchable, of course, but more interesting is Fessenden’s Jakob—who isn’t a bad man or a deliberately hypocritical one, but demanding and not empathetic, and probably not even aware of the disjunction between his exhortations in church and his behaviour at home. He has a great spoiled-little-boy face, reminiscent of William H. Macy, and indeed there’s something slightly Coen Brothers-ish about this respectable couple’s descent into ever more preposterous schemes and situations.
In a less nuanced part, Bell is fun as Amelia, making the most of a polite young woman’s transformation into a different kind of creature. Bonnie Aarons, meanwhile, is certainly striking as a full-blown old-school vampire known as ‘The Master’, though perhaps in the wrong way, as the campness is overdone here and feels desperate. When finally revealed she has the inescapable air of someone dressing up as Nosferatu for Halloween, at odds with the smarter humour earlier in the film, and detracting from the interest we still have in Jakob and Anne’s relationship.
This exemplifies the ways in which Jakob’s Wife doesn’t quite satisfy. It’s full of good ideas but they don’t always sit comfortably together. It’s a rare horror-comedy that can truly make audiences both laugh and scream, and this one seems to be trying to make us genuinely care about the leads’ relationship too. Still, while it doesn’t deliver consistently enough on any of those three goals, accomplished performances in the two main roles and some authentically funny moments help to lift it a little above the average vampire farce.
USA | 2021 | 98 MINUTES | 2.00:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH
Cast & Crew
director: Travis Stevens.
writers: Kathy Charles, Mark Steensland & Travis Stevens.
starring: Barbara Crampton, Larry Fessenden & Bonnie Aarons.