Barbara Crampton got her start in the mid-’80s with a regular role on the NBC soap opera “Days of Our Lives,” and she continued to work in various soaps through the years. But it is through horror films that she became an icon, with “Re-Animator” (1985), “Chopping Mall” (1986) and “From Beyond” (also 1986). At a certain point, those roles stopped coming. Her recent comeback period, with “You're Next” “The Lords of Salem,” and “We Are Still Here” was gratifying for horror fans who had missed her presence. After 40-odd years in the business, Crampton is now developing her own projects, and if the witty “Jakob’s Wife” is any indication this is a very exciting development. In “Jakob’s Wife,” the classic vampire theme is looped into an insightful and often very funny commentary on marriage and the limitations placed on women. When Crampton’s Anne, a submissive pastor’s wife, gets bitten by a vampire, she finds the change exhilarating. Her husband, played by another horror icon, Larry Fessenden, is not so exhilarated. The marriage’s status quo is threatened. Hijinx ensue.
With script by Kathy Charles, Mark Steensland, and Travis Stevens (who also directed), “Jakob’s Wife” teeters on that horror-comedy line, a line many directors find difficult to navigate. But Stevens is aware of the comedic possibilities as well as the dramatic. The film sacrifices neither. The stakes (wooden and otherwise) could not be higher. Both Fessenden and Crampton play their roles with dramatic intensity, managing to be comedic and poignant, while also creating three-dimensional characters. Amateurs need not apply! This is what it looks like when you have two very experienced actors dig into a script worthy of them. Both Crampton and Fessenden approach their roles with utter seriousness, giving a sense of a real and complicated relationship between the pastor and his wife. Fessenden’s Pastor Jakob is first seen sermonizing to his congregation about marriage, warning men and women to assume the roles as laid out in the Bible. Outside of the pulpit, he is insufferable and controlling. He never lets his wife finish a sentence. He expects hot breakfast every morning. He barely looks at her.
Anne, meanwhile, simmers and seethes. She sits in the pew, listening to her husband bluster on about marriage, and the look in her eyes could turn water to ice. When he brushes his teeth, she watches him with a look of such contempt you fear for his safety. Everything changes when Anne meets up with an old flame (Robert Rusler), and encounters an unseen something in an old abandoned mill. She comes home a changed woman. She can lift a sofa by herself. She is sexually alert. She has a sudden unquenchable thirst for blood. She wears gigantic Gena Rowlands-esque sunglasses. She takes the reins of her relationship. No More Mrs. Nice Wife.
Vampires, typically, are not just immortal beings. They come with a lot of sexual baggage, and “Jakob’s Wife” has fun with that idea. Vampires don’t just hunger for blood: they exist in a state of sexual anticipation, seeking satiation, endlessly hungry. Maybe the sexual connotations come from the bite-marks on the neck—it is such an erotic way to “turn.” Poor Pastor Jakob does not know what to do with this new wife, confident, outspoken, rebellious.
“Jakob’s Wife” takes a turn, just as Anne has taken a “turn.” When Jakob finds out what his wife has become, in the most horrifying way possible, he clumsily assumes the role of heroic vampire hunter, and the two of them set out on a quest to find “The Master,” the vampire who “turned” her. Jakob proclaims, with no sense of irony whatsoever, “I am a Minster of the Lord. This is what I was trained for. To fight Evil.” If Anne has been transformed, so has Jakob.
Because Crampton and Fessenden so expertly play the rhythms of this repressed couple, two people who barely know how to deal with each other outside of Biblically-prescribed roles, there’s no need for the final-act monologue about the limits placed on women’s self-expression. Crampton has already shown us the glories of her liberation in that deliberate glamorous stalk through the grocery store, and Fessenden has already shown us the heady blend of fear and excitement Jakob feels when confronted with this new unpredictable creature he’s married. He’s not entirely displeased with who she’s become, even though he is terrified of her too. When Anne says to Jakob in a moment of distress, “You don’t know how to fight for me because you’ve never done it,” we have the whole story right there.
How they get to the end, though, is the fun of it. There are a couple of very well-conceived and well-executed sequences where Jakob and Anne try to solve the problem on their hands. Stevens really pushes the absurdity in an almost slapstick fashion, and then Fessenden and Crampton play it real. “Jakob’s Wife” is part “The Hunger,” part “Scenes from a Marriage.”
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