A dissatisfied house wife approaches middle age with newfound vampire powers that give her a different outlook on her unfulfilling life
Barbara Crampton was a major star of the 80s horror scene, having graced the genre throughout the decade with appearances in films like Re-Animator, Chopping Mall, From Beyond and many others. But much like hair metal meeting its end with the arrival of grunge, Crampton’s time as a scream queen seemed to come to a dissatisfying end once the 90s rolled in. While she continued to work on other projects, her love for scary movies never seemed to go away. It wouldn’t be until Adam Wingard’s 2011 slasher You’re Next that she would make a triumphant return to horror hits, and with that came a slew of other films like Rob Zombie’s Lords of Salem, anthology flick Tales of Halloween, the critically acclaimed Beyond the Gates and more.
Crampton now develops her own films, serving as a producer as well as starring in Shudder’s latest exclusive, Jakob’s Wife, a fresh and blood-soaked take on the vampire subgenre. Crampton plays Anne Fedder, a woman trepidly settling into the routines of middle age who has lived a peaceful but unsatisfying life thus far. Anne is a dutiful wife to her husband Jakob (Larry Fessenden, who Crampton previously acted with in 2015’s We Are Still Here), the local minister of the small town the couple have resided in for all these years. She quietly listens to his sermons every Sunday about how couples should adhere to the traditional gender roles set out by the Bible, prepares a hot breakfast for him every morning, and allows him to both talk over and for her in social situations.
Director Travis Stevens, alongside editor Aaron Crozier, uses whip-smart editing to show us just how dissatisfied Anne has become with everything, and the onset of older age has only exacerbated her malcontent. Unflattering shots of Jakob vigorously brushing his teeth are followed by looks from Anne that portray both disgust and contempt, and the way he barely glances up from his newspaper as she attempts to get conversation out of him show how inattentive and unconcerned he is when it comes to his wife. Anne rarely ever feels seen by him anymore, and with her good looks beginning to fade (at least in her mind), she’s driven to meet up with an old childhood flame of hers (Robert Rusler) in hopes of spicing things up.
When Anne finally returns home that night, she’s a changed woman in more ways than one. Her rendezvous with another man ended up taking a terrifying and supernatural turn with the arrival of a vampire called The Master (Conjuring 2 and The Nun star Bonnie Aarons), a menacing, Nosferatu-like creature who leaves Anne with two gaping holes in her neck and newfound abilities, like an insatiable thirst for blood and lots of it. As she tries to adjust to her drastically altered state of being and keep Jakob in the dark about what’s happening to her, she begins to realize that she may actually enjoy this new macabre way of life. She’s never felt so confident or filled with strength before, and once Jakob fearfully notices how much his wife is changing – or simply becoming more of herself- their marriage is forced to come under scrutiny by the two of them.
Crampton and Fessenden expand on the film’s intelligent script by delivering some career-best performances, making both Anne and Jakob feel like truly three-dimensional, complicated characters with fantastic chemistry. You don’t often find a legit horror movie with a focus on two middle-aged people and their marital drama, at least not one with as much gory carnage to go with it as Jakob’s Wife. Anne’s gotta eat, and it seems The Master has been busy turning other select townsfolk into bloodsuckers as well, making for some gnarly kills throughout the film with fountains of blood. The classic design of the vampires themselves are also a welcome throwback and wise move away from the more modern iterations of the monsters, with The Master in particular standing tall as a feat of transformative makeup and prosthetics once she’s finally revealed in full.
Jakob’s Wife is much more than its grisly high body count. The film is a fun and often funny exploration of the limits of piety and the suppressive role in life that women like Anne often find themselves stuck in. It’s undoubtedly a story of liberation, but it also isn’t afraid to add layers to the conflict between its two central characters. Anne may hold understandable resentment towards her husband, but she does actually love him. Likewise, Jakob is a complacent man that certainly needs to do better, but the film never paints him as irredeemable. He’s a good person that’s quick to act when he really needs to, and as the film progresses, the couple’s issues become less about the vampire business and more about the loss of passion in their relationship.
Those more interested in the blood and guts though will still have more than enough to enjoy here; Stevens and his team stage some memorable sequences of dismemberment and vampire slaying that manage to delightfully surprise in their sheer insanity. The film plays with its tone in unexpected ways (the realization that some moments are played for laughs often hits you a scene or two later) and while this can sometimes make things a bit uneven, the cast always sucks you right back in. Just when it seems like vampire entertainment has bled itself dry, along comes something like Jakob’s Wife with the right amount of smarts and gore to bring it back from the dead. It’s a wonderful look at the kind of projects Crampton seems interested in bringing to audiences and whatever she does next will be well worth keeping an eye on.
‘Jakob’s Wife’ is now streaming exclusively on Shudder.