By Scott Dorward
Jakob’s Wife (USA, 2021)
Horror films are usually made for a young audience. It’s simple economics — more young people watch horror. When combined with Hollywood’s general disdain for older actresses, the odds of seeing a vampire film starring a woman in her sixties, exploring the relationship between an older married couple, are pretty remote. And yet here we are.
Jakob’s Wife is very much Barbara Crampton’s film. While she never entirely vanished from our screens, her career has undergone a welcome revival in recent years. She has matured from the scream queen of the classic Stuart Gordon films into a leading lady who can carry a weaker film on her own. And here, where she’s perfectly cast and has a strong script? We’re in for a bloody good time!
Anne (Barbara Crampton) has been married to Jakob (Larry Fessenden), a small-town pastor, for 30 years. Their relationship has long settled into routine and Anne has sublimated her own desires and even her sense of self to support her husband and his career. In conversation, Jakob habitually speaks for his wife, and usually over her.
And yet a spark of the wilder person Anne was in her youth still burns. When Tom, a former lover, comes back to town on business, Anne is eager to see him. Their meeting at an abandoned industrial site he is renovating is interrupted by a vampire, however, leaving Tom dead and Anne bitten.
As Anne begins to change, so does her marriage. Jakob struggles to adapt to his newly confident and outspoken wife. When the vampire who turned Anne takes an interest in her transformation, Anne and Jakob become locked in a battle for both survival and to redefine the basis of their relationship.
Vampires have always been useful metaphors. They work fine as monsters but all the better when used to explore addiction, sexuality or social issues. Jakob’s Wife offers us a relatively fresh interpretation that is still rooted in classic vampire cinema.
There is certainly nothing new in a story of empowerment through becoming a monster. Books like Elizabeth Engstrom’s Black Ambrosia and Sarah Gran’s Come Closer, not to mention films like The Company of Wolves or The Witch, have shown us women gaining power by embracing their monstrous sides. The situation in Jakob’s Wife is more complicated, however, and handled with nuance. While Anne is unhappy with what her life has become, she is not ready to tear it all down either. This is a story of gradual transformation more than wholesale reinvention.
Jakob’s Wife is also an unashamedly sexual film. While there is nothing new about vampirism as a metaphor for sexual awakening (or reawakening, in this case), it is rare to see this expressed by an older woman. This is every bit the kind of sexual transformation we’ve seen in films like Fright Night, but the age of the protagonist makes it something more poignant than simple wish fulfilment.
While the emotional arc of Jakob’s Wife may be relatively novel, its depiction of vampires isn’t. And that’s fine — reinventing the vampire isn’t the point of this film. The strengths and limitations of these vampires and the stages of Anne’s transformation will all be very familiar to anyone with even a passing familiarity with vampire cinema. That said, there are some nice flourishes, especially as Anne discovers just how her body is changing through a visit to the dentist.
This sense of familiarity is not just limited to Anne’s transformation. Barring one major aspect, the Master who turns her could have walked out of Salem’s Lot. There is also a significant debt to Nosferatu, especially the Werner Herzog remake, in the Master’s appearance and the use of rats as vampiric harbingers.
Travis Stevens caught my attention a couple of years ago with his haunted brothel yarn, Girl on the Third Floor (which I maintain should have been titled The House That Dripped Spooge). While Girl was an interesting and pleasingly uncomfortable film, it fell short of being a great one. Still, it showed promise and I was interested in seeing what Stevens did next.
Well, he’s delivered. Jakob’s Wife is an outstanding film. It works beautifully as horror entertainment but gives us so much more. I wasn’t entirely convinced by the premise until a little over halfway in, when the pieces started coming together. While there weren’t any great plot revelations, the emotional beats caught me off-guard and genuinely delighted me. I can’t remember the last time I saw a horror film combine such maturity and anarchic fun.
For a film that mixes comedy with its horror, Jakob’s Wife is played far straighter than you might imagine. The changing nature of the relationship between Anne and Jakob is explored achingly well. It is messy and never one-sided. Jakob could have been a stock character, using his position and authority to keep Anne under his thumb, but the societal expectations that drive his reactions are tempered by his genuine love for his wife. This is a situation that does not lend itself to easy answers.
The performances from the leads are fantastic. These are two long-standing horror favourites at the peak of their game. Barbara Crampton is still instantly recognisable from her ’80s career. Larry Fessenden, on the other hand, seems to have aged 20 years since his last film. This is probably the haircut and the extra weight he’s carrying for the role, but I might have struggled to recognise him if I hadn’t read the credits.
The ending is absolutely perfect. It is always a relief and a pleasure when a horror film finds an emotionally satisfying resolution. So many blow it in their final minutes but Jakob’s Wife stays true until the credits roll.
The October Horror Movie Challenge
Please do join in and share your own thoughts with us about this or any other films as the month goes on. You can usually find us on Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, Discord, or lurking in the dark corners of your home.
If you would like to play along at home, my provisional selections are:
- Possessor (2020)
- The Boogey Man (1980)
- Jakob’s Wife (2021)
- The Queen of Black Magic (2019)
- Cold Hell (2017)
- Seance (2021)
- The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane (1976)
- Dachra (2018)
- Isle of the Dead (1945)
- After Midnight (2019)
- The Baby (1973)
- Hagazussa (2017)
- Frightmare (1974)
- The Eyes of My Mother (2016)
- Dave Made a Maze (2017)
- Raw (2016)
- The Old Ways (2020)
- Terror Train (1980)
- mon mon mon MONSTERS (2017)
- Sator (2019)
- Don’t Torture a Duckling (1972)
- The Lighthouse (2019)
- Anything For Jackson (2020)
- Warning: Do Not Play (Amjeon) (2019)
- Only Lovers Left Alive (2013)
- The Field Guide to Evil (2019)
- A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014)
- The Wizard of Gore (1970)
- Fingers (2019)
- Lake Bodom (2016)
- Island of Lost Souls (1932)
A Final Note
If you have been enticed here by these posts, please do look around at some of our other film reviews. We also have a podcast, called The Good Friends of Jackson Elias, which occasionally covers horror films. If this appeals, you might want to check out some of the following episodes.
- The Changeling
- The Endless
- Our favourite Cthulhu Mythos media
- The Fly
- A Dark Song
- The Thing
- The Ritual
- The Wicker Man
- The Stone Tape
- Event Horizon
- The Witch
- INLAND EMPIRE
- Nightbreed and Lord of Illusions
- Maléfique and The Ninth Gate
- Re-Animator and From Beyond
- Repulsion and The Babdook
- Man Bites Dog, Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon and S&man
- A selection of weird films
- David Cronenberg
- The films that scared us most
If you dig through the archives, you will also find episodes about a wide variety of horror stories and games. Happy nightmares!