In Jakob’s Wife, horror icon Barbara Crampton plays Anne, quietly unfulfilled wife to small-town pastor Jakob Fedder (Larry Fessenden). Although the film hints at an energetic and adventurous past, Anne’s wildest days are behind her, her spirit steamrolled by her overbearing husband. Something is kindled within her when an old flame comes back to town in the form of Tom (Robert Rusler), who seems to offer her an adulterous escape from a life of tedium. But when they steal a kiss together in an abandoned building, a vampire of the old-school variety (cape, bald, grey skin, Nosferatu-style rat teeth) bursts in, leaving Tom dead on the floor and Anne with a new set of blasphemous appetites.
This sudden switch of gears very much sets the tone for a film that revels in its ability to juxtapose mild-mannered suburban drama with gory, B-movie schlock. With its over-the-top horror aesthetics, the film’s classic vampire figure is more likely to rip out throats and shower itself in the resulting gout of blood than to suck daintily on a neck wound. However, there’s something decidedly funny about these gory spectacles contrasting with the humdrum tale of small-town marital grievances.
Despite the preposterous visuals the film offers, this relationship friction is presented in a much subtler way than you might expect. Anne’s feelings of being trapped in her relationship and hemmed in by social expectations are palpable, but have not yet boiled over into active hostility. Instead they merely simmer, finding expression in Crampton’s expert sighs, seething scowls and occasional sneers.
Meanwhile, Jakob is pompous and boorish. Where we’re used to seeing Fessenden play greasy dirtbags on-screen, his straight-laced look makes him seem babyish and absurd. In time-honoured tradition, Anne’s transformation into a creature of the night goes hand in hand with a sexual awakening and a revived sense of rebellion and empowerment. The spluttering Jakob has no choice but to accommodate a new, assertive and aggressive spouse, despite his conservative hang-ups. He even goes so far as to help her transport one of her victims in a rolled-up carpet.
Jakob, too, finds himself with a new, long-overdue sense of purpose, taking up stakes and holy water to become a modern-day vampire hunter, sworn to take down ‘The Master,’ who is terrorising his flock. It’s clear that the film is positioning vampirism as a kind of experimental, blood-streaked marriage therapy, and having a great deal of fun with that conceit.
It’s really these twin performances by Crampton and Fessenden that make the movie. It hits the expected vampire flick beats, including a great sequence in which Anne finds herself at the butcher’s counter in a supermarket buying bags of blood. However, Crampton brings such scream queen swagger to her role that she makes these sequences feel like so much more than genre box-ticking.
Fessenden, meanwhile, brings a great deal of likability and depth to Jakob, which is crucial when our engagement with the story hinges on our not immediately writing him off as a typical blowhard conservative preacher. The film has a little to say on this last point, showing us glimpses of sermons that illustrate the role of religion in shoring up the patriarchy by prescribing strict roles to husbands and wives.
With these two performances at its heart, there’s a tendency for other roles to feel underdeveloped, particularly when minor characters are introduced only to further the plot for the protagonists (often in ways that require a mop and bucket). One exception to this is Jay DeVon Johnson‘s portrayal of Sheriff Mike Hess, whose scenes are always engaging. His neighbourly attitude soon sours into incredulous suspicion when he learns more about what’s happening in his sleepy town, and he delivers some of the best lines in the script.
With a plot that feels like a mix of campy ’80s horror, like Salem’s Lot and Near Dark, and more innocuous small-town drama, Jakob’s Wife is much more intelligent than it lets on. This is not a film about either striving against the dark side or embracing it. It’s more interested in the thorny issue of how a real couple might forge their own, third way. While a lot of its ideas have been explored before, it has an endearing sense of impish fun (embodied by copious amounts of fake blood and a lively score) and a pair of top-notch performances from two genuine horror greats. Campy and irreverent, it may not be the funniest or scariest, but it should win over its intended audience.