Written by: Kathy Charles, Mark Steensland, Travis Stevens
Directed by: Travis Stevens
Starring: Barbara Crampton, Larry Fessenden, and Bonnie Aarons
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
Some marriages are truly blessed.
When we first meet Anne Fedder (Barbara Crampton), she’s very much assuming her titular role. Sitting dutifully in a church pew, her hair pulled into a modest ponytail, she looks on as her husband, Jakob (Larry Fessenden), preaches from his pulpit about the obligation between husbands and wives. To anyone in the congregation, their marriage seems to be idyllic, with each practicing what the minister is currently preaching. But the film’s audience might pick up on something else as the camera lingers on Anne’s increasingly icy, disinterested face, not to mention the perpetual side-eye she seems to be giving her husband. Something feels slightly amiss here, perhaps some festering marital unrest that indicates that nothing is at it seems, a mantra that comes to embody the playfulness of Jakobs's Wife. To twist the infamous Pieces tagline, it’s not exactly what you think it is.
The wayward glances and the unspoken tension between the Fedders initially suggest the stuff of domestic horror, where the seemingly idyllic marriage hides a terrible secret. It doesn’t help that Fessenden plays Jakob with an almost puritanical sternness, and it definitely doesn’t help that he looks kind of like Rush Limbaugh. When a young girl in his congregation disappears after Sunday service and Jakob acts cagily during a police interview, you think for all the world that’s what you’re dealing with: a classic case of a religious man with a bloodlust, leading to an exploration of fundamentalist hypocrisy. And, to be clear, I would totally watch a movie where Larry Fessenden plays a corrupt, homicidal minister.
But Jakobs's Wife isn’t that movie due to a delightful bait-and-switch that occurs just after the girl disappears. Anne’s old flame Tom (Robert Rusler) rolls into town looking to redevelop an old mill into commercial real estate and invites her out to dinner. Leaping at the opportunity, Anne soon discovers this is a chance to reconnect with her old self: once known as “Adventurous Anne,” she wasn’t always the demure minister’s wife she is now. An innocent dinner between friends blooms into a tryst when Tom and Anne descend into the bowels of the mill. As they’re screwing around down there, they stumble upon some coffins because they don’t realize a vampire has made this his den. Soon enough, the bloodsucker emerges from the shadows and tears Tom’s throat out before turning Anne into one of the undead.
When Anne returns home in a daze, it’s the beginning of her adjusting to a new normal that feels familiar. She once again feels like a free spirit, dressing in more risque clothing and coaxing Jakob to take her out for a night on the town. She’s also done fixing him breakfast, and there’s a renewed purpose to her workout routine. It’s just too bad this new, uninhibited Anne has an insatiable thirst for blood, whether it’s drawn from animal or human flesh. Crampton and director Travis Stevens playfully tease out the possibilities here, leaving viewers to briefly wonder if Jakobs's Wife is a serious, disturbing exploration of repressed femininity or if they’re in for more of a darkly comedic, offbeat take on a housewife grappling with her vampirism. A definitive answer comes during Anne’s trip to the grocery store, where she eyes the meat cooler and asks how much she can buy. When the next shot captures her sauntering in sunglasses with all of the meat in her cart, there’s no doubt that Jakobs's Wife is about to let loose and have a good time—just like its title character.
The film quickly becomes an amusing comedy of errors, especially once Jakob discovers what’s happened to Anne. It’s the most surprising but charming turn of events because it lets Fessenden to join in on the fun as he grapples with a way forward. Jakob’s first impulse is to flee and leave Anne to her own devices, but it turns out there's genuine love here, so much so that this man of the cloth decides he wants to hunt down the vampire that turned his wife. Fessenden has done comedy before, but he’s especially enjoyable here because he’s playing off the severe, buttoned-up persona he creates early in the film. He and Crampton have fantastic chemistry, effortlessly bouncing lines off of each other as their characters go through one of the strangest bouts of marriage therapy imaginable. You know what they say: the couple that slays the undead together, stays together.
Fessenden is no stranger to such material, having helmed and starred in Habit, the story of a lovelorn man who falls for a vampire, but Jakobs's Wife rests on the other end of the spectrum from that film. Where a melancholy pallor hangs over that film, this one is a jaunty affair, its laughs punctuated by geysers of blood and the increasingly bemused outsiders drawn into the couple’s orbit (including Phil “CM Punk” Brooks, who shows up as a cop). It’s morbid as hell, but it also delivers some of the most uproarious laughs I’ve had with a horror movie in recent memory. Let’s just say you’ve rarely seen a priest bless food in such a humorous manner before. I Was a Vampire Housewife or My Wife is a Vampire could have been apt titles.
But Jakobs's Wife is just as apt since it signals the film’s preoccupation with feminine identity. It’s a story of a woman who’s tired of simply being defined by her husband and reclaims her old spark, even if it means succumbing to and embracing vampirism. The script cleverly toys with the typical sexual dynamics of the vampire by presenting Anne’s turn as a source of salvation rather than damnation, effectively defying the boilerplate notion that sexually liberated vampiric women must be returned to their state of grace. Forgive the obvious turn of phrase, but Crampton—who has been trying to get the film produced for five years—is given full permission to vamp out, and she does so with aplomb. Her already legendary career gains another feather in its cap with a crucial performance here that keeps Jakobs's Wife grounded just enough that the script’s thematic underpinning resonates. It’s a funny movie, but it’s not an outright farce thanks to Crampton’s finely-pitched turn, which sees her gradually shaking off Anne’s meekness for a righteous assertiveness as the film’s central dilemma comes into focus: “what if it’s actually better to be a vampire instead of a doting minister’s wife?” Crampton makes this feel like a genuine quandary because the newfound, devious glimmer in Anne’s eye is hard to deny—she is a lot more fun as a bloodsucker.
In this respect, it’s circling the same territory as The Witch, albeit to a much different beat since this one has Barbara Crampton dancing to Concrete Blonde. But the sentiment is very much the same in the empathy it extends towards a woman stuck in a rigid patriarchal structure before she finds an unusual salvation in darkness. Jakobs's Wife indulges its pulpy potential more, though, treating the audience to frequent bloodshed and a killer vampire design that looks like it’s leaped off of the pages of a comic book. And, again, it goes without saying this is not an austere production like The Witch—it’s much more loose and playful, especially in the way it leads you to believe it will be a more hushed, stern affair. Jakobs's Wife is a great act of cinematic disarming: Stevens guides your eyes in one direction, keeping you oblivious to the stake he’s going to jab right into your funny bone. Once he does, the laughs only relent because the film is insightful, affecting, and funny in equal measure as Stevens carves the delicate, tricky path between horror and comedy. He makes it look downright easy, but that’s what happens when you put Barbara Crampton and Larry Fessenden together.
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