Does your modern indie horror movie really exist if it doesn’t feature Barbara Crampton or Larry Fessenden? The two horror icons, who have been so good in so many genre movies for so long, are busier than ever, popping up in (and often propping up) countless films made by filmmakers who clearly grew up watching them on well-worn VHS tapes.
But Jakob’s Wife, a gory new horror comedy about a marriage on the rocks before vampirism rears its ugly fangs, understands their appeal more than most. In fact, it knows what horror fans really want: to see them placed front-and-center as leading man and leading lady rather than relegated to supporting role or amusing cameo. And while there are other pleasures to be found in Jakob’s Wife (especially the geysers of blood that erupt with some regularity), these two, together in the spotlight, are the main draw.
While this is not the first time Crampton and Fessenden have been in the same movie together (gems like You’re Next and We Are Still Here are among their shared credits), co-writer and director Travis Stevens gives them characters worthy of their talent. Too often, casting these two feels like a wink, a filmmaker nudging the audience to say “Yes, I too enjoy Re-Animator and/or Wendigo!” Stevens understands that these two aren’t just well-liked names – they’re terrific actors, more-than-capable of carrying an entire movie. And he obliges them.
Crampton is Anne Fedder, a pastor’s wife in a small town who has grown bored and despondent with her life and marriage. Fessenden is Jakob Fedder, a pastor too comfortable and complacent to realize that his wife of several decades is deeply unhappy. But Anne’s attempted dalliance with an old flame in a dark and abandoned mill is cut short by a powerful and ancient vampire. Her romantic partner is snuffed out of the picture, but she finds herself with two fang marks in her neck and a thirst for blood. As the body count rises, Anne and Jakob must come to terms with their new situation and prevent one more casualty: their marriage.
Cast against type as a buttoned-down, conservative preacher, Fessenden digs into the “straight man” dynamic of the film’s duo, finding low-key humor in his exasperation. His eventual turn to vampire hunter is less of a heroic move and more of a reflection of an impatient man desperate to get shit done. It’s fun stuff. But even more fun is Crampton, who gets to vamp (pun intended) as a newly-minted bloodsucker who sees her new abilities as a possible blessing, a second chance in a life gone rote. Whether she’s tearing throats and guzzling gallons of practical gore or effortlessly rearranging her living room with her vampiric super-strength, Crampton’s portrait of late-middle age angst giving way to rebellion and reinvention is the highlight of the film.
Unfortunately, Jakob’s Wife stumbles when the camera isn’t focusing on the two stars and their dynamic. Although not heavy on actual jokey-jokes, the film is very much a blend of horror and sly comedy, a tone that requires a careful balancing act. Fessenden and Crampton, seasoned pros, walk that line and make it look easy. The same cannot be said for the rest of the cast, who never quite nail the slightly unreal tone Stevens is going for. Scenes outside of Anne and Jakob’s strained marriage feel like a slog, especially when either lead shares scenes with performers who cannot keep up with them. Moments that defy conventional logic but could be saved with compelling or humorous performances don’t land. Simultaneously, Jakob’s Wife is a portrait of how to nail a blend of humor and horror and an example of how difficult it can be. Even at 97 minutes, the film drags, mainly because every scene not about the Fedder marriage can’t nail a consistent or compelling tone.
Are these woes the result of the film’s low budget? Perhaps. Maybe. That’s a difficult judgment call to make from the outside looking in. One thing that is certain is that Stevens and his team have the good taste to indulge in practical effects, ripping heads off and impaling bodies like their horror heroes did back in the ’80s. This is a gooey movie, which is certainly going to please the folks who are already excited to watch a movie starring Barbara Crampton and Larry Fessenden. Even if Jakob’s Wife isn’t quite as compelling as Stevens’ directorial debut, the gonzo haunted house movie Girl on the Third Floor, it marks him as a talent to keep watching.
Jakob’s Wife is the kind of movie that will play best after midnight, perhaps found after scrolling through Shudder for a few minutes and seeing the poster and realizing “Oh man, I really like those actors!” As a showcase for its legendary leads, and as late-night snack for those who like scores synthesized and their blood practical, it’s certainly a good enough time at the movies.
/Film Rating: 6.5 out of 10
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