When seasoned genre performers Barbara Crampton and Larry Fessenden star in a movie—even individually—it is guaranteed to be something interesting. Jakob’s Wife surely does not disappoint in that regard.
Indie horror producer-turned-director Travis Stevens told a haunted-house story in his feature debut, 2019’s gooey and genuinely creepy Girl on the Third Floor, from the main perspective of a man in need of learning his lesson. Stevens’ sophomore effort is all about a man’s wife who gets a new lease on life and becomes more than someone’s possession. Like the best kinds of genre fare, Jakob’s Wife is a B-movie with something thematically on its mind, like domestic dependency and the ups and downs of a mundane marriage. It really is an empowerment tale that would work just as well stripped of all the supernatural elements as a portrait of a middle-aged woman finally gaining control of her own life and making her own decisions.
Fessenden plays the titular Jakob—Reverend Jakob Fedder, actually—a church minister in a sleepy small town. Anne (Crampton) is Jakob’s wife, always by his side and politely smiling but not always getting a word in edgewise. She is an obedient homemaker, taking time early in the day for herself through gardening and working out before making breakfast for Jakob. One day after church, Anne notices that one of the churchgoers, Amelia (Nyisha Bell), has been attending services alone without her mother, who’s been known to have a drinking problem. Jakob plans to stop by her house the next day to talk with the mother, but Amelia ends up going missing. This shakes up Anne, as everyone else, including Jakob’s brother Bob (Mark Kelly) and Bob’s wife Carol (Sarah Lind), is so quick to blame Amelia.
Quite palpably, Anne is tired, maybe even disgusted by her husband at times. Crampton’s ready-to-kill looks are priceless as she stares at Jakob aggressively brushing his teeth, or lying wide awake in bed as her husband is loudly sawing logs. The night she is kept awake and busy at macramé, a magazine article is open on Tom Low (Robert Rusler), Anne’s old flame who’s coming to town. She tells Jakob in the morning about her meeting with Tom to discuss a business proposal on turning the town’s historical gin mill into a retail space for tourism.
Seeing Tom (and some martini courage) again reignites old feelings. He reminds Anne of how she used to be adventurous with exciting plans, like moving to Cairo. Jakob and the church gave her steady support and comfort, though, after her mother died, and here she is. When Anne and Tom actually get to the mill, she is tempted by a torrid affair that gets cut short when they stumble upon something thumping around in wooden crates. An attack by hundreds of rats leaves Tom bloody and dead, but Anne returns home to Jakob fully changed. Telling him that she’s going to bed, Anne unbuttons her white blouse to reveal that it is blood-soaked. Being bitten by a vampiric creature, known as “The Master” (played by Bonnie Aarons), gives Anne more life, more lust, and allows her to take hold of her agency. She will no longer be pushed aside or silenced or forced to live in Jakob’s shadow, but when she gets thirsty, look out!
If one were to read the script, written by director Stevens, Kathy Charles, and Mark Steensland, it would be hard to discern how it registers tonally. On-screen, Jakob’s Wife plays like a straight domestic drama rather than a bright-but-bloody extension of Netflix’s irresistible series Santa Clarita Diet. But once the actual horror kicks in, the sanguine fluid flows, and the practical effects come out to play, the film embraces its weirder side that’s fun to watch. As is the proper approach, everyone is playing this material seriously—even when Anne unironically calls her former beau “dangerously handsome”—and an icon like Barbara Crampton can only make everything better.
Crampton’s warm presence and 110% commitment are key to making Anne’s personal story of reclaiming her independence count and making sure the horror or blackly comic elements deliver. Her grocery shopping with sunglasses and poking into the plastic of the raw, bloody beef to lick her finger at the butcher counter is deliciously funny. When Anne celebrates her newfound powers with a wine glass of blood, Crampton’s dance with a lamp and rearranging of furniture as Concrete Blonde’s bitchin’ “Bloodletting” blares on the radio is THE moment. It’s alive and just indelible until Anne projectile vomits and realizes she needs a different form of blood. A teeth-cleaning at the dentist also goes horribly wrong, much to our enjoyment. Even as Anne’s situation grows increasingly absurd—and delightfully so—Crampton always finds an emotional authenticity. And, hello, Barbara Crampton gets to have fun being a vampire licking a neighbor’s blood off the kitchen floor and telling a little neighbor girl to “f**k off” when stealing a body. This allows the actress the chance to utilize her soap opera experience and really revel in heightened emotions for her performance style, as well as prove a deadpan comic timing when Anne rips off a fence post as a stake.
In a way, Larry Fessenden gets the thankless husband role when it’s usually the women playing “Dutiful Housewife” who get very little to do. Fessenden still ensures that Jakob is more of a character than a mere symbol. He’s a self-serious man of faith who isn’t sure if he can save his wife by faith in God alone. Jakob does love his wife after all, even if he has taken her for granted and cuts her off in conversation (and a police interrogation). The script is clearly more on Anne’s side, but it never really makes Jakob an outright villain. Between Crampton and Fessenden, they do create a believable history of knowing each other for 40 years and being stuck in a marriage that has lost its passion and has become more of a codependent living arrangement. Anne may be Jakob’s wife, but he is lost without her. The morning after Anne has been bitten, he wakes up alone and looks for breakfast that has not been made. And to find his wife masturbating, an outrage! In one of the film’s lovelier grace-note scenes, Jakob gets Anne’s mind off her thirst for blood by giving her a joint, illustrating the love they still have for one another.
Deserving of credibility as much as transformative creature actor Javier Botet, Bonnie Aarons (The Nun) makes for one hell of a Master, too. It’s refreshing to find a woman being cast as a head vampire, and Aarons makes for a freaky Nosferatu who’s as creepy from afar in the shadows as she is in close-up. Jakob’s first face-to-face with the Master is a real jolt, being accompanied by Tara Busch’s cool, rousing synthesizer score.
As is true of any film venturing out of one lane and hopping into another, the horror-comedy subgenre can be the trickiest. It’s kind of like hiding your wife’s recently discovered desire for blood from your family and neighbors. Jakob’s Wife might feel at odds with itself tonally and doesn’t exactly address its thematic aims with the subtlest of touches, but these are features, not bugs, making this genre treat all the more fresh, entertaining, and unexpectedly substantive. That tone-jumping is just all part of the movie’s lusty, gory, campy charm. Even the film’s final button, a still frame that signals Kitten’s “Church” and the end credits, is vamp’s-kiss perfection. Barbara Crampton particularly understands what kind of movie she signed up for, and she’s relishing every minute with glee, like devouring a human neck as if it’s a red velvet cake.
RLJE Films and Shudder will release Jakob’s Wife in theaters, on demand, and digital on April 16, 2021.