By Alex McPherson
An allegorical horror film with more on its mind than gore-splattered carnage, “Jakob’s Wife” provides some thematically juicy morsels for viewers to sink their teeth into.
Directed by Travis Stevens, the gonzo film centers around Anne (Barbara Crampton), the wife of a small-town Christian minister named Jakob (Larry Fessenden). Anne’s not happy in her marriage, and Jakob is unaware of the ways he casually disrespects her. He frequently talks over her and seems content with maintaining rigid gender norms in their household. His condescending actions have nibbled away at Anne’s psyche, leaving her feeling depressed and quietly despondent.
A Nosferatu-esque creature has different plans for her. After a brief romantic rendezvous with an old flame (Robert Rusler), Anne is bitten by the aforementioned blood-sucker, and she soon adopts a very different, ravenous lifestyle. Possessing renewed confidence in her daily life, she refuses to put up with Jakob’s B.S. any longer. She risks throwing away her previous existence if she chooses to fully give herself over to the strange presence targeting her.
“Jakob’s Wife” has a rough start, indulging in tropes such as dooming the first Black character introduced and deploying easily foreseeable jump scares. To its credit, the beginning of the film establishes a monotonous rhythm that slowly but surely builds suspense as Anne’s malaise reaches a boiling point. Thankfully, after she’s bitten by “The Master” — a pasty, scabbed-up entity spookily portrayed by Bonnie Aarons — “Jakob’s Wife” really starts to pick up. Stevens deploys a more flamboyant style in keeping with Anne’s newfound boldness that keeps viewers on their toes, notwithstanding some formulaic plot points.
Crampton is perfect for her role, and viewers see her simultaneously experience fear and thrill from her urges with real pathos. Scenes of Anne twirling around her living room holding a lamp and tasting blood within a meat package at a local grocery store are off-puttingly hilarious, particularly when juxtaposing them with her initially mild-mannered demeanor. For all The Master’s promises of liberation, though, Anne still loves Jakob, and she isn’t immediately ready to throw her old life away. Her inner battle of temptation takes center-stage in the film’s second half, where we aren’t sure whose side she will ultimately take.
Viewers might expect characters like the titular Jakob to be promptly disposed of, but “Jakob’s Wife” renders him a more complicated presence capable of positive change, despite the sharp left-turn in his arc that’s difficult to buy. Yes, he’s still cartoonish, and his high-and-mighty insistence on being the hero is deeply ironic, but “Jakob’s Wife” provides a refreshing change of pace for how these sorts of stories usually play out. Fessenden is able to flex his comedic muscles as a “man of the household” encountering a shifting power dynamic.
The more traditional genre aspects of “Jakob’s Wife” are less involving, but they get the job done with enough gruesome kills to satiate fans’ bloodlust. The film incorporates deliciously visceral practical effects and a large helping of gallows humor. Indeed, “Jakob’s Wife” loses some of its scare factor and emotional resonance through its tonal shifts, but the humor itself works well, for the most part — the kind of dry self-awareness that this tongue-in-cheek material benefits from. Jay DeVon Johnson is particularly amusing as a jaded police sheriff who wouldn’t be out of place in a Coen Brothers joint.
It’s disappointing, however, that the themes are staked so heavy-handedly into viewers’ brains by the end. Stevens brings up prescient topics — sexism and what it means to live your life on your own terms among them — without reaching anything particularly illuminating. The satirical, B-movie qualities rub against its more serious implications, rendering both somewhat less biting by the other.
Most sins being forgiven, there’s still enough batty fun here to recommend “Jakob’s Wife.” Stevens’ film is a knowingly goofy, surprisingly multifaceted horror outing. It delivers fittingly violent set pieces, while also wrapping its ghoulish tale up in important, disconcerting societal truths.
“Jakob’s Wife” is a 2021 horror film directed by Travis Stevens and starring Barbara Crampton and Larry Fessenden. It is not rated and runs 1 hour, 38 minutes. It is available streaming on Shudder and on video on demand platforms. Alex’s Grade: B
Lynn Venhaus has had a continuous byline in St. Louis metro region publications since 1978. She is a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, currently reviews films for Webster-Kirkwood Times and KTRS Radio, covers entertainment for PopLifeSTL.com and co-hosts podcast PopLifeSTL.com…Presents, and writes features and news for Belleville News-Democrat and contributes to other publications. She is a member of CCA, AWFJ and St. Louis Film Critics Association. She is a founding member of the St. Louis Theater Circle.