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A vampire film with bite, “Jakob’s Wife” gives star Barbara Crampton one of the meatiest roles of her career — and it’s downright delicious.

Jakob’s Wife is the kind of film that, on paper, looks like an easy horror homerun. The pedigree involved is impressive, with indie icons Larry Fessenden and Barbara Crampton in starring roles and low-budget luminary Travis Stevens (Girl on the Third Floor) at the helm. It’s a film many genre fans, present company included, may be inclined to appreciate even before the flicker of the first frame.

Fortunately, if you’re the kind of horror fan desperate to love this film based on your admiration for those involved, Jackob’s Wife gives you plenty of reasons to feel great about your preconceived notions and unabashed bias.

We first meet pastor Jackob (Larry Fessenden) and his dutiful wife Anne (Barbara Crampton) in church. After decades of marriage, their life together has become dull and lifeless, held together by routine and deference. As Jakob preaches about the importance of a holy union between man and wife, the look in Anne’s eyes suggests she longs for more passion than piety.

We then witness the extent of Anne’s compassion and good nature when we’re introduced to Amelia (Nyisha Bell), a young parishioner with an alcoholic mother. When Amelia mysteriously goes missing on her way back from church, it’s Anne who is left to defend the young girl — however timidly — against the casual racism and misogyny of family members.

Anne’s life of routine and stifling familiarity is shaken up when an old flame, Tom (Robert Rusler), comes to town to assist with a business deal. When the two meet up at the old gin mill, we discover that the now meek and demure church mouse was once vivacious and adventurous. Alone and lost following the death of her mother, she turned to Jakob for comfort and support, unexpectedly falling into a much simpler and subdued life than she once dreamed of.

Tom’s return rekindles old feelings, not just of lost love but of lost youth. She allows herself a kiss, a moment of passion, before rebuking his advances and pledging her love for her husband, right before Tom is engulfed and consumed by a coffin-sized crate full of feral rats. As she stares in horror, a shadowy vampiric figure swoops down on Anne.

After the initial shock and horror of her brutal attack wears off, Anne finds a new zest for life, allowing herself to feel beautiful and desirable for the first time in a very long time.

As you might expect, she’s also developed a strange craving for blood, superhuman strength, and a severe aversion to UV light (discovered during an intense and stressful dentist appointment).

One of my favorite scenes in the entire film is watching a reinvigorated Anne drinking wine glasses full of animal blood while rearranging the living room — lifting heavy furniture with ease— and dancing gleefully to Concrete Blonde’s “Bloodletting”. It’s silly but absolutely joyful, and Crampton is at her most mesmerizing.

Anne’s transformation causes her to behave more erratically, initially leading Jakob to suspect she’s having an affair with Tom. But when he discovers the truth is actually much more shocking and sadistic, he must fight to protect his wife amidst the mounting body count, police intervention, and the ever-present threat of The Master (Bonnie Aarons).

Ironically, once Jakob realizes what his wife has become, he starts to really see and appreciate her for the first time in decades. After spending years as the controlling and dominant force in their marriage (and in the community), he seems to thrive being subservient to his now fierce and confident wife.  This leads to a renewed passion and some steamy, sexy intimacy. In spite of that, Jakob is eager to restore order and return his wife to the woman he expects her to be. He insists on finding and destroying The Master, releasing Anne from the seductive spell she is under.

The problem is Anne isn’t sure she wants to be released.

Vampirism as allegory and monster-as-metaphor is certainly not a new concept in the world of horror cinema.

However, Jakob’s Wife takes a fresh and interesting approach by using vampirism as a metaphor for self-discovery, a reawakening of the light long since snuffed out by complacency and years of passive servitude.

As such, we’re given a unique scenario where the villain is not clearly defined.

There’s certainly a central source of mayhem and bloodshed, but the vampire at the heart of the conflict also offers a message of liberation and empowerment. This isn’t about possession but rather the promise of freedom and personal autonomy; a female-centric power held outside of the constraints of patriarchal oppression.

As newly turned vampire Amelia explains when Jakob suggests salvation by scripture, she’s “found a love that gives me strength instead of fear; a love for myself.”

Thus, we’re led to question who or what the real evil is — and whether The Master offers damnation or salvation. We’re also left with a “victim” who isn’t sure she wants to be saved, considering the very real possibility that she was saved the moment she got bit.

This undoubtedly goes without saying, but both Fessenden and Crampton are extraordinary in this film, and their chemistry together is electric.

Every frame of the film featuring one of these outstanding performers is riveting to watch.

In comparison, the supporting cast does not shine as brightly, existing primarily to move the story along and ramp up the bloody body count. To Stevens’ credit, however, he understands the immensity of the talent at his disposal, and he puts his two dynamic stars front and center, with substantial lead roles, rather than relegating them to supporting roles or quirky cameos, as so many others have been apt to do.

It’s also incredibly refreshing to see two older actors carrying a film, in roles that don’t revolve around their children (they have none).

Crampton especially is allowed to embrace her timeless beauty and sex appeal, while getting to show off her comedic chops, deliver real moments of blood-soaked horror goodness, and thoughtfully address and challenge the perceptions of older women in Hollywood.

In fact, as good as Fessenden is, it’s Crampton that steals the show.

This is, in every way, her film; a wonderfully meaty role that she sinks her capable teeth into and hungrily devours.

At the heart of this film is a woman who hasn’t been allowed to embrace and own who she really is, to the point where she doesn’t even know who that is anymore. She looks in the mirror and doesn’t like what she sees. It’s not until she becomes a “monster” that she truly accepts herself and yearns to acknowledge her own desires rather than simply mold herself to meet the desires of others.

Jakob’s Wife was a passion project for Crampton, a film that she helped produce. It delivered a role she could connect with on a deep and personal level. And it allowed her to comment on the struggles both men and women, but especially women, face as they age. This is especially true for women once hailed as glamorous starlets, who are often cast aside as they get older and no longer seen as vibrant and sexual beings.

Crampton does a beautiful job reflecting the deep insecurities that often accompany aging with believability and relatability. At the same time, she is given the opportunity to prove that older women can still exude enormous sexuality and vitality. They can (and should) still command the screen as leading ladies.

And, as is so often the case (certainly in Crampton’s case), women often shine even brighter the older they get.

Despite all its strengths, Jakob’s Wife does make for a somewhat strange and tonally fluctuating film that may make it harder to unearth the niche audience hungry for what Stevens is serving up.

As discussed, this is a horror movie with a message; it’s about something other than good times and gore. As such, there’s an arthouse horror sensibility considering the film’s mature themes and its atypical exploration of gender roles, societal expectations, and the perception of aging women. In other words, this isn’t your typical vampire film. Despite its obvious love of the sub-genre, taking heavy stylistic influence from films like Nosferatu and Salem’s Lot, it shares more commonality with headier, non-traditional tales like A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night or The Addiction.

That said, the film fully embraces its silly humor and B-movie leanings. As serious as some of its themes may be, there’s no shortage of fun or old-school genre madness. And while the attempt at digging deeper is admirable, there’s far more focus on delivering on the promise of fun rather than mining the depths of the material for more thought-provoking substance.

What it lacks in scares, it makes up for in over-the-top gore and outstanding practical effects. When the kills happen, there’s no seductive vampiric charm, no sensual neck nibbling. This is gruesome, throat-ripping, buckets of blood spewing insanity. And it’s every bit as glorious as it sounds.

Add in a killer soundtrack and a scene-stealing performance from Crampton, and you’ve got a recipe for a crowd-pleasing genre gem.

While not perfect, Jakob’s Wife succeeds at being entertaining as hell.

Perhaps a bit uneven, with some messy plot points and a woefully underused and underdeveloped villain, it’s nevertheless a joy to watch — owed almost entirely to the stellar performances of Fessenden and Crampton.

Stevens asks his stars to carry the weight of this film on their capable shoulders, placing an especially heavy lift on Crampton, and the veteran icons more than deliver. If nothing else worked (never fear, plenty about this film works), it would be worth watching alone to see the dazzling way they shine under the guiding hand of a filmmaker with the savvy to let them do what they do best.

Overall Rating (Out of 5 Butterflies): 4

This review is from a screening of Jakob’s Wife at the Panic Film Fest 2021. 

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