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Jakob’s Wife [Video Review]

The Pastor and the Master: Stevens Enjoyably Re-Vamps Domestic Distress in Grisly Black Comedy

Travis Stephens Jakob's Wife ReviewBehind every man is a diminished woman, or so goes the underlying takeaway of Jakob’s Wife, the sophomore effort from director Travis Stephens, reuniting cult genre stalwarts Barbara Crampton and Larry Fessenden (both who appeared in 2015’s We Are Still Here). Crampton, well known to cinephiles as the muse of Stuart Gordon (who passed away in 2020), from his 1980s classics like Reanimator (1985) and From Beyond (1986), also starred in his 1995 television production Castle Freak, remade last year and penned by Kathy Charles, who serves as screenwriter (alongside Stevens and Mark Steensland) this time around.

Stevens assembles a delectable cast and crew from intersecting genre periods and stylings for his follow-up to 2019’s The Girl on the Third Floor, and again succeeds in balancing the ridiculousness of a B-grade scenario while delivering an oft-poignant metaphor on marriage.

For over three decades, Anne (Crampton) has been the long-suffering wife of Pastor Jakob (Fessenden), oblivious to his spouse’s dreams deferred. At the same time congregation member Amelia (Nyisha Bell) mysteriously disappears, Anne forges a titillating opportunity for a business meeting with her old flame, Tom Low (Robert Rusler) under the ruse of hiring him as a contractor to restore the old gin mill for retail space and tourist opportunities. The old mill was also one of their old haunts as teen lovers, and just as Tom makes a move to rekindle their shared lust, they discover an ancient evil roosting inside the dilapidated remnant of industry. While Tom is overtaken by the minions of the unseen evil, Anne escapes the altercation. However, the two new orifices in her neck initiate a troubling change. As Anne becomes more assertive at home, Jakob is convinced she’s having an affair, a paranoia enhanced by his meddlesome brother (Mark Kelly) and his self-consumed sister-in-law (Sarah Lind). Discovering Anne’s developing bloodlust, Jakob decides to assist his wife by finding and killing the Master who has changed her, and therefore restore his wife to her prior state. But Anne has begun to enjoy her newfound zest for life, even if it means having to procure blood to satisfy her cravings.

Crampton is at her dreamy best, and fans of the cult icon should bask in this fun lead performance (contemporary directors like Adam Wingard, Zach Clark and Rob Zombie have all utilized her presence as an accent, but rarely has she been able to let loose so magnificently) which finds her game even in the most outrageous, over the top gory set-pieces. Robert Rusler, of The Nightmare on Elm Street 2 (1985) and Vamp (1985) plays her old flame, whose propensity for overriding her wishes is on par with Jakob’s. Stevens and cinematographer Davis Matthews do a commendable job of building the creepiness of the cloaked “Master,” appearing from a distance, always enrobed in shadows. Anne’s initial encounter is well-played, and when Bonnie Aarons (of The Nun, 2018) is finally revealed as the rodent-toothed evildoer, the evaporating fear segues immediately into the film’s poignancy, a feminine take on the agency provided by vampirism (not unlike the sympathetically derived desperation afforded the characters of 1977’s Martin or its contemporary predecessor, 2016’s The Transfiguration).

Choice soundtrack selection (Concrete Blonde’s Bloodletting – The Vampire Song ends up being one of two escapist reveries) along with a score from Tara Busch assist in enhancing the quality, not to mention a number of supporting performances, from relative newcomer Nyisha Bell and character actor Jay Devon Johnson, all contributing to elevating what could have been a silly exercise into something both entertaining and meaningful (C.M. Punk, who starred in Stevens’ previous film, also makes an appearance). Crampton’s Anne is a woman caught between a good and evil, Pastor and Master, whose new dark gifts afford her the opportunity to make her own choices and enhance her own destiny. Amongst the glut of derivative of wholly familiar genre features, Jakob’s Wife reminds us of continual possibilities by reawakening our (blood) lust for great storytelling.

★★★½/☆☆☆☆☆

Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is IONCINEMA.com's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), FIPRESCI, the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2023: The Beast (Bonello) Poor Things (Lanthimos), Master Gardener (Schrader). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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