Saturday, April 17, 2021

Couple's Therapy

Barbara Crampton and Larry Fessenden in Jakob's Wife

I sometimes wonder what would have happened if Brian De Palma had cast Barbara Crampton as the lead in Body Double, rather than as Craig Wasson's faithless girlfriend. It was Crampton's first film role, and her one scene in the film only asked her to take her clothes off for the part. Crampton, for her part, has proven to be a more capable actress than either of that film's ostensible leading ladies. Deborah Shelton had her lines dubbed by another actress in the movie (perhaps as one of the film's metacinematic in-jokes), while Melanie Griffith was launched into the big time with indifferent results. One wonders what Crampton might have made of that kind of career launch. For her part, Crampton attained cult immortality in Chopping Mall, and in a trio of films for Stuart Gordon. I'll take her performance in From Beyond over any performance ever given by Melanie Griffith, thank you very much. She worked for years in soap operas after that and then vanished from the screen for a decade or so in order to raise a family. She could have slipped quietly into obscurity had Adam Wingard not cast her as one of the victims in You're Next. What followed was an unlikely career resurrection that has seen Crampton expand her cult immortality in a series of daring horror movies. The capstone for this resurrection is Jakob's Wife (2021, directed by Travis Stevens), which Crampton produced herself and which co-stars fellow horror luminary, Larry Fessenden.

The story follows Anne and Jakob Fedder. Jakob is the pastor at a church in a mill-town that is on the decline. Anne is a dutiful church wife, who sits quietly in the pews while her husband delivers his sermons. Jakob has old-fashioned, Biblically inclined ideas about how a man should run a marriage, on which he descants from the pulpit while his wife seethes and stares daggers at him. But she is a dutiful wife, and takes an interest in the parishioners well-being alongside her husband. One such parishioner is Amelia, who has been coming to church alone because her mother has taken to drink again. After church, walking home at dusk, Amelia encounters...something...and vanishes. The police interview both Anne and Jakob, who were the last people to see Amelia before she disappeared. Anne can't get a word in edgewise. Her husband talks over her at every opportunity. Anne is on a committee to rehab the town's old mill into an upscale retail space. She takes him to dinner--he is an old flame--and is tempted by him to cheat on her husband. But business is business and she takes the architect on a tour of the space. The mill is inhabited by rats, and by worse than rats. The architect vanishes after an encounter with two mysterious boxes, while Anne returns home changed. She is more assertive. More sexually confident. Less willing to take her husband's bullshit. Jakob doesn't know what to make of her change, but when he discovers the reason for it, he feels it is his calling to save her from damnation. It's his job, after all...

Barbara Crampton in Jakob's Wife

The title of this film bears a close similarity to one of the alternate titles of George Romero's Season of the Witch, which was known as "Jack's Wife" in some quarters. In that film a repressed housewife finds fulfillment and liberation in witchcraft. In this film, Jakob's wife finds fulfillment and liberation in vampirism. Like that film, Jakob's Wife is overtly feminist, confronting patriarchy in no uncertain terms. Vampirism is only the genre dressing. Jakob and Anne are heading for heartbreak even before Anne's change. One of the film's pricklier observations is a montage of the physical reality of living with someone who is beginning to get on one's nerves. Everything about them--the way they sleep, brush their teeth, their eating habits--it's all an ordeal. The film is savvy enough to realize--as its characters do--that this is all part of the way things are. You make a deal with the unpleasant physical reality when you partner up. Everyone does that. No one escapes it. One can escape the other stuff, though, and when Anne is offered an escape, she has to weigh her own fulfillment against what marriage to Jakob actually offers her. It's more complicated than it might seem to a casual observer. Jakob isn't overtly abusive, just an entitled man who expects certain things of marriage. He lays them out in his opening sermon, and in addition to the regressive elements of it, he lives by this quote that is its centerpiece: "Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her." But he doesn't really know how to do this outside of a church-based frame. And Anne is tired of it. 

Barbara Crampton in Jakob's Wife

While horror movies usually live and die by their horrific set pieces, this film attempts the tricky feat of letting its words draw blood, too. One choice exchange finds Jakob putting the blame on Anne for her predicament: "You let sin into your heart and you brought this on yourself," to which she retorts: "You're blaming ME for getting bitten by a vampire?" Another finds Jakob vowing to kill The Master and return Anne to the way she was, to which she asks, "The way I was?" with a touch of disbelief and a little bit of horror in her voice. My favorite exchange comes at the end, when The Master offers her complete freedom if she puts her old life behind her, only to get staked from behind by Jakob. "What have you done?" she asks. "I finished it! That's what I've done," he replies. "It wasn't your choice to make!" she says, offended. That's a loaded exchange, given the feminism at the heart of the story. Men and religions are always making choices for women regardless of what they want. Both Crampton and Fessenden are good enough to make this work. They're old-pros given material that's so much better than what they've sometimes had to play in the past.

Nyisha Bell  in Jakob's Wife

Fortunately for the viewer, this is a film that doesn't take any of this as seriously as it might. Its tongue is usually in its cheek, and it has fun ideas about vampires. When Anne goes to the dentist, the dentist notices that she's growing new teeth, then the film speculates what happens if a vampire gets their teeth whitened with one of those UV whiteners. It's a good joke. So is the scene where the inlaws come to their weekly dinner party only to find out that Anne has already started...drinking. I like the way this film rebukes the old Hammer film formula in which women who encounter vampires become wanton and unclean. Anne discovers her sexuality, true, but The Master frames it as liberation in a way that Anne--and the audience--can believe. The Master vampire--and Amelia as a vampire, too, for that matter--subvert expectations in their depiction. The Master is a variant of Count Orlock from Nosferatu or Mr. Barlow from Tobe Hooper's version of 'Salem's Lot, more rat-like than bat and presaged by rats. The film includes a version of a scene Stephen King cut from 'Salem's Lot in which a character is swarmed by rats. What makes this film a departure, though, is that The Master is female. Female vampires are almost never coded as grotesque. They are almost always sexually alluring, sometimes pornographically so. This film is having none of that. It's effective. That this gets passed on to the film's star might be a shock to an audience who remembers Crampton in the films of her youth. This film is unusual, too, for centering on characters who are middle-aged. This is also to the film's advantage because the characters need a feeling of being "lived-in" for a while, you need to see the disappointment and the grind of marriage in their faces and you're not going to get that with fresh-scrubbed youth. I won't describe this as gravitas--that's not exactly right--so much as it's, I dunno, "mileage?" It certainly adds weight to the film's final frame, which for some reason reminds me of the last frame of Rocky III.

Larry Fessenden in Jakob's Wife

The film's major flaw is that it often doesn't have the resources to bring some of its ideas to life. The design and construction of The Master, for example, seems like DIY cosplay, while the swarming rats are bad CGI. The film gets creepier when it focuses on Crampton's performance, whether roaming the supermarket in sunglasses or feeding on the dude who comes to check on her. This is mostly done without the aid of special effects, and it's a thousand times more effective. The film's obvious cheapness also shows the limitations of director Travis Stevens, given that other directors have done more with less. But this is an actor's film, and on that score it's fine. Both Crampton and Fessenden make the most of it.

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