[SXSW Review] 'Jakob's Wife' Sees Barbara Crampton on a Gory, Entertaining Journey of Self-Discovery
A common trope in movies involves a submissive woman going from quiet and dowdy to self-confident, sexy, and strong...
...In teen romance films the conversion occurs after a new hair style and wardrobe. In horror, usually something more sinister occurs such as dying, discovering dark magic, or transforming into a completely different creature. We will call this the Undead Makeover Trope. Having just World Premiered at SXSW¸ Jakob’s Wife uses this common trope, but director Travis Stevens (Girl on the Third Floor) takes a slight spin on the idea to create a violently gory yet humorous exploration of one woman’s journey to redefine her life.
Written by Kathy Charles and Mark Steensland, Jakob’s Wife takes place in a dying marriage located within the center of a dying town. The film starts as a domestic horror, but as the story progresses, Stevens adds quite a bit of innovate Vampy-goodness along with some notes of comedy. Larry Fessenden (Like Me, You’re Next) plays Pastor Jakob Fedder and serves his small community as a leader and an overseer of all matters public and personal. Living in the shadow of her public-standing husband, we see the timid and mostly forgotten Anne Fedder played by the strong presence of Barbara Crampton (Reanimator, From Beyond). Serving more as a prop for the Pastor’s sermons and image than as a spouse, Anne lives life as a shuttered woman.
But then she meets the vampire Master.
Right away, Stevens establishes the uneven roles in the Fedder household, but also simultaneously builds the failing atmosphere of the town. The Pastor begins the film with a dry sermon encouraging men to love their wives but does not include a whole lot of conviction. And later while speaking with the Sheriff (Jay Devon Johnson) Jakob speaks over Anne, refusing to acknowledge or accept his wife’s thoughts. Even the placement of the two on screen shows how the husband’s presence overshadows his wife. Fessenden’s face leans into the frame, almost completely eclipsing Crampton. Only allowing her to meekly and silently peek out from behind. Dismissive and disinterested, Jakob barely looks at his wife, and even though Anne makes attempts to be seen and heard, she also does not make eye contact. Instead, she adverts her eyes around the room in a skittish manner. As for the town, saturated yellows in both interior and exterior scenes give the location a consistency of faded parchment as if to subtly permeate the idea that the town is just wasting away. These well-placed shots throughout the film make the whole movie feel like everything and everyone lives a withered existence.
With all this atrophy in the air, something needs to change, and it might as well be Anne. While working on a building restoration project with her old fling Tom Low (Robert Rusler), sparks of romance rekindle as Anne remembers how she used to have fun. Temptation can lead to danger, but so can dozens of ravenous rats brought on by the vampire Master. Including actual living rodents adds a really nice touch to the already gory and wonderful practical effects. A few CGI rats make an appearance, which creates a little bit of a clash in the visual, but the disruptive shots are fleeting. Rats actually play a large role in the film, and I love how Stevens strays away from the sexy vampires used almost exclusively over the last few decades as we see a return to the ancient creatures of Nosferatu fame.
After her encounter with the Master, Anne begins changing and rediscovers herself. Trading in her bland attire for a sexy red ensemble, she might still not get the attention she wants from Jakob, but other guys seem to notice. And aside from standing out, Anne no longer shies away from making eye contact and now chooses to stare down her husband. Standing up for herself and taking the Lord’s name in vain are two qualities Jakob does not want in a wife. With the redefined Anne, the tables turn, and Jakob finds his wife now in control. Even though he made Anne fit his narrative for years, he cannot handle when his life demands change. In the eyes of the Pastor, sacrifice is fine, unless the man of the house (and the man of god) requires growth.
With her transformation, Anne’s embracement of joy shows in the film as the tone goes from dry and stifled to a lighter mood with some noticeable levels of humor. Not the level of the undead cannibal laughs of Santa Clarita Diet, but a fair amount of tongue-in-cheek as the uptight Pastor and the newly defined wife handle their current situation. Jakob and Anne must figure out their new dynamic as minister and undead, which creates an unlikely pairing, but Crampton and Fessenden both embrace the conflict of their characters well. From the outside the marriage does not make sense on any level and even the brief moments of connection between the two cannot completely sell me that this couple should stay together, but the film does a superb job selling their marital problems.
Falling neatly into the Undead Makeover trope, we witness Crampton transform her character through a powerful emotional and sexual awakening. The trope seems a little unfair because the only way a woman can embrace any level of assertiveness or even appreciate her own sexuality she needs to become “other-than-human”. However, the Stevens and Crampton duo place a bit of a spin on the meek woman turned super-being storyline in the way they depict the evolution of Anne.
Jakob’s Wife brings us a vampire story with the less-used rat motif with fantastic makeup and practical effects but does not become a religion versus vamp plot despite the introduction of the pastor character. Instead, the movie stays committed to the initial domestic turmoil shown in the first few scenes and lets Anne develop her own story (but with some new complications). For instance, instead of the very human and dangerously handsome Tom serving as possible impediment to the marriage, the Master now-steps in as the interloper. The mix of head-ripping and comedy would play wonderfully surrounded by horror fans, so if you can (safely), try to watch this movie with friends.
Jakob's Wife comes to VOD and Digital April 16th from RLJE Films.
By Amylou Ahava
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