There’s a reason most horror films don’t take place in modern, shiny and bright locales, and that reason is atmosphere. Those kind of places don’t have it leaving the filmmakers to have to work extra hard to manufacture it. Most horror films rely on their setting – the spooky old house, cemetery, asylum, etc – to create that base atmosphere over which they lay their story, and Jessabelle, the new film from the Blumhouse genre factory, is no different. It’s just chosen a more interesting setting.
Jessabelle (Sarah Snook) is pregnant, happy and moving in with the man she loves, but in an instant all of that is taken from her. Left recovering in a wheelchair and with no other options, she returns to her childhood home along the Louisiana bayou under the care of her distant, alcoholic father. She rolls around the house, staring off across the water and otherwise killing time until she discovers a stash of videotapes made by her mother in the months leading up to and following Jessabelle’s birth. She pops the first one in – a tape meant to be given to her on her 18th birthday – and is greeted by her mom who died from cancer when Jessabelle was very young. She does a tarot card reading that doesn’t seem to match Jessabelle’s life, but it ends on an ominous note about a presence in the house who wants Jessabelle out.
Of course that part seems pretty accurate, and soon Jessabelle is racing (rolling?) to discover the truth behind the house’s ghostly presence, the mysterious lights out in the woods and the reason why she may just be doomed to never leave home again. It’s not all bad though as she also gets to rekindle her forgotten love with the local boy (Mark Webber) she left behind when she bolted away from this podunk town after high school. The question now becomes is Jessabelle a glass half-full kind of girl or a glass half-empty?
Without giving anything away, the answers she seeks are found in part on those videotapes from her mom. The elements we get from them are somewhat intriguing, but the problem is in the execution. (Not to mention the question of how VHS tapes survived the humidity of the deep South for twenty years…) Any sane or logical person would work their way through all of the tapes immediately and consecutively seeing as they grow in their disturbing nature and revelations, but Jessabelle spaces them out for no real reason. Sure her father (David Andrews) is prone to interrupting her and then destroying the tapes, but that doesn’t last long. You think it’d be a priority as odd occurrences and frightening visions increase in intensity.
Beyond the character issue, using the videotape as a device for imparting narrative information becomes laborious and keeps viewers another step removed from the terror. We’re watching a screen on which a character is watching a screen. That distance can also be glimpsed in Jessabelle’s physical limitation. Her lack of mobility seems ideal for increasing tension and scares, but too frequently it simply leaves her separate from the action as little more than a witness.
The third act is historically where too many horror films drop the ball, but Jessabelle accomplishes something a bit unique in that regard. It’s ultimately unsatisfying, but it’s not for lack of trying as the script by Robert Ben Garant takes some fresh turns with what starts out as a generic ghost story. Problems arise from threads that weren’t given due time and effort earlier leaving viewers with an end that feels undeserved.
Story problems aside, the film succeeds in creating a fine, moss-laden and gothic atmosphere at times with teases of witchcraft and murder woven throughout. Director Kevin Greutert cut his teeth on the Saw franchise, and while this is a completely different beast it shows he has some skill for more natural settings and supernatural terrors. Most of the film’s scare’s are expected and digitally accomplished, but he manages a pair of chilling moments – one even allowed to exist without a single sound cue to alert viewers that they should be scared – where the visuals speak for themselves.
The real strength of the film though is in its star as Snook gives a wide eyed and effective performance as the young woman struggling to discover what the hell is happening. She delivers real emotion and genuine fear, and that combination leaves viewers afraid for her character. That’s a rare accomplishment, and it’s just unfortunate the film around her isn’t up to those same standards.
Jessabelle is far from a great horror flick, but its setting and lead performance leave it floating well above Hollywood’s typical teen-oriented genre fare.
The Upside: Sarah Snook; somewhat fresh turns in third act; atmosphere
The Downside: Can’t fully sustain its slow pace; resolution fails to satisfy due to sloppy narrative threads
On the Side: Snook’s next film, Predestination, opens in January and features one hell of a fantastic performance by her.
Jessabelle opens today in limited theatrical release and On Demand.
Related Topics: Horror