This isn’t news, but horror/comedies are among the most difficult subgenres to nail as finding the right tonal balance can be trickier than sucking coagulated blood through a paper straw. Add in the ubiquitous vampire threat, and filmmaker Travis Stevens‘ latest film is fighting an uphill battle of sorts from the very start. That Jakob’s Wife works as often as not is no small thing, but the tone never really gels leaving its success to falls mostly to the combined talents of two leads whose energy carries the film across the finish line with a smile.
Anne Fedder (Barbara Crampton) is a minister’s wife, and she’s exactly what Jakob (Larry Fessenden) expects her to be — loving, docile, demure, and supportive — but something within her is yearning to break free. When an old flame returns to town for a business deal Anne sees an opportunity to rekindle the liveliness of her youth, if not the relationship itself, but after allowing a kiss in an old mill she withdraws from any further touch. It’s good timing on her part as the man is quickly attacked by a horde of hungry rats, but her fear and disgust are soon muted by a caped figure swooping in from the rafters.
She returns home bloodied and pale, with her own taste for the red stuff, but while the physical changes are evident it’s her inner shift that takes center stage. Newly alive, confident, and sexually vibrant, Anne is reborn — but what will Jakob think of his wife now?
Jakob’s Wife raises the kinds of questions we rarely see in film, horror or otherwise, regarding the identity and worth of middle-aged women, and if it doesn’t quite follow them through, there’s still value in their presence. That lack of follow-up, though, is on point with a script (by Kathy Charles, Mark Steensland, and Stevens) that also feels uncertain as to its tonal intentions. After playing its first act straight and teased with commentary on race, age, and responsibility, the film shifts into a far more comedic mode as Anne and Jakob deal not only with her affliction but with the master vampire causing havoc around town. Stevens does an admirable job trying to wrangle it all, but it’s clear his heart is with the latter and his leads.
A young Black woman is the vampire’s first victim, and while Anne shows concern for her well-being that serious nature fades after she’s bitten. It’s a clunky transition as that kindness for others takes a back seat, but once Jakob’s Wife gives in to the genre silliness fans of both Crampton and Fessenden are rewarded with some fun times. The film’s highlight — and one of the year’s best scenes, period — sees Anne rearranging her living room, lifting heavy furniture without issue, and dancing to Concrete Blonde’s “Bloodletting.” It’s such a pure distillation of her newfound joy and ability, and you can almost feel Stevens smiling just out of frame. The films works best in these types of scenes as the filmmaker has clear fun encouraging the energetic silliness.
Crampton takes big bites with her performance here, both metaphorical and literal — an open neck feast sequence is a gif-worthy triumph — and she embraces Anne’s liberation with excitement, glee, and sexual confidence. She shows off her comedic chops too, finding the fun in situations that grow increasingly bloody and absurd, and while she’ll always be best-known for Re-Animator (1985) I’d argue that 2021 has quickly become her strongest year as an actor with terrific performances both here and in Sacrifice. Fessenden’s better known for his work behind the camera, but as he does in Ted Geoghegan’s excellent We Are Still Here (2015), he’s a physical talent made for amusing characters forced into panic mode. “This is what I was trained for,” says Jakob to his wife, “to fight evil.” It’s a silly line, but Fessenden sells the bit with his enthusiastic belief.
Stevens handles the darker, more serious threads with a stronger hand in his debut, Girl on the Third Floor (2019), but he’s every bit as invested in the gory goods for his sophomore effort. From vomiting blood to a nasty UV teeth-whitening burn to vamps who are messy eaters, it’s a bloody ride filled with prosthetic goodness. The lead vamp (Bonnie Aarons) may be heavily themed on Nosferatu (1922), but it’s equally deserving of praise for its genre-bending nature. The low budget is present in some of the bigger beats in Jakob’s Wife, but these smaller gore hits and design choices deliver.
“I’m gonna tongue-fuck a hole in your neck until I puke blood,” is a great line more befitting the tone of From Dusk til Dawn (1996) than a serious exploration of middle-aged discontent, and therein rests the unfortunate disconnect in Jakob’s Wife. The minister is at first put off and afraid of a wife with her own identity, and it’s a fantastically worthy dynamic, but it’s gone too soon to be replaced by dead body shenanigans, energetic canoodling, and goofy hijinks. These beats work, but they’re part of a somewhat disjointed whole. Still, you can’t possibly go wrong with a movie that lets Crampton tell a little girl to fuck off.