Review: Chemistry between Barbara Crampton and Larry Fessenden fuels 'Jakob's Wife'

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Noel Murray
·3 min read
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Barbara Crampton in 'Jakob's Wife,' premiering as part of the 2021 South by Southwest Film Festival
Barbara Crampton in the movie "Jakob's Wife." (Ava Jazlyn / AMP)

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Barbara Crampton has spent much of her nearly 40-year screen career appearing in challenging and artful horror films like “Re-Animator,” “You’re Next” and “The Lords of Salem.” But she’s never made a movie quite like “Jakob’s Wife,” a slice-of-life vampire story she helped develop and produce — as well as pouring a lot of her own feelings into the part of the heroine, Anne, a small town pastor’s wife whose demonic encounter becomes strangely liberating.

Larry Fessenden — another horror legend, both in front of and behind the camera — plays Jakob, a pompous preacher with a conservative streak. Over the course of their long marriage, Jakob has effectively tamed the woman who used to be known around their hometown as “Adventurous Anne.” As the movie begins, she’s become accustomed to fading into the background while the locals ask her husband for his advice.

Then an old flame comes for a visit and lures Anne to an abandoned old mill for a romantic tryst. What neither of them knows is that someone else is already lurking on the property: an ancient vampire known as “The Master” (Bonnie Aarons). After getting bitten, Anne becomes more assertive, reclaiming her sexuality and confidence.

Then something even odder happens. Jakob walks in on Anne as she’s feasting. (“This wasn’t me,” she insists, while kneeling in a pool of blood. “Of course it was you,” he replies, genuinely peeved.) After an understandable period of freaking out, Jakob adjusts to the new power dynamic. He even seems to enjoy how his wife threatens him with bodily harm if he doesn’t help her fetch fresh victims.

“Jakob’s Wife” was directed by Travis Stevens, who’s also credited as a co-writer with Mark Steensland and Kathy Charles. Stevens is a veteran producer of daring genre pictures and previously directed and co-wrote one of his own, “Girl on the Third Floor.”

Like Stevens’ feature filmmaking debut, his followup includes a handful of memorable horror images: screen-filling gore every now and then, plus a few creepy shots of floating blood-suckers. But the film is more concerned with exploring deeply ingrained gender roles and the pressures of social expectations.

In other words: This isn’t a typical vampire picture. Anyone looking for something more conventionally scary and steeped in ancient myth may be disappointed. “Jakob’s Wife” is more in the vein of high-minded vampire tales like “Near Dark,” “The Hunger” or “The Addiction.”

That said, fans of art-horror might also be let down by “Jakob’s Wife,” which has a subtly comic tone and a fairly straightforward plot, as Jakob tries to keep Anne fed while tracking down the Master. The film can be awfully blunt at times — including during the climactic stand-off with the villain, who delivers a way-too-on-the-nose speech about the mission to free women from a life of timid obedience.

This is where having actors the caliber of Crampton and Fessenden pays off. The themes of “Jakob’s Wife” are a bit simplistic, but the lead performances are incredibly complex, drawing on the two stars’ decades of screen (and life) experience.

These two have such strong chemistry, whether she’s comically rolling her eyes at him as he blusters, “This is what I was trained for, to fight evil,” or he’s sincerely appreciating her passion and personality for the first time in decades. More than a depiction of a curse turned opportunity for a morose, aging housewife, “Jakob’s Wife” is a portrait of a marriage in a rut, saved when the husband stops sucking the life out of his spouse and instead helps her suck the life out of everyone else.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.