Not to be confused with “Annabelle” (although that could only help commercially), “Jessabelle” serves up a murky and underwhelming cauldron of Southern-fried voodoo-horror claptrap. Scaling down a notch into PG-13 territory after two back-to-back “Saw” sequels, director Kevin Greutert manages some nicely drawn-out tension in isolated sequences, but novel twists and effective scares prove few and far between in this ludicrous bayou gothic about a wheelchair-bound young woman excavating a series of unusually dark family secrets. Although Lionsgate’s campaign is touting the involvement of producer Jason Blum (of the “Paranormal Activity,” “Sinister,” “Insidious” and “The Purge” movies), audience prospects look just middling, and franchising opportunities hopefully moot, for this post-Halloween theatrical and VOD release.
It takes barely five minutes for red-headed twentysomething Jessabelle, aka Jessie (Australian actress Sarah Snook), to lose her b.f. (Brian Hallisay) and their unborn child in a horrific car accident. Two months later, significantly recovered but still unable to walk, she heads back to Louisiana to live with her father, Leon (David Andrews), in the ramshackle old house he once shared long ago with her mother, who died of cancer not long after childbirth. Jessie was raised elsewhere in town by her aunt, and so this return to the family abode is not exactly a homecoming. The gruff, hard-drinking Leon is a virtual stranger to her, and he overreacts badly when he catches her watching a collection of VHS tapes that her mother, Kate (Joelle Clark), apparently made for her while Jessie was still in the womb.
In the videos, Kate performs a number of tarot-card readings that foretell a ghastly death for her daughter, while also hinting at a malevolent presence lurking about the house. And soon enough, Jessie finds herself creeped out by intensely vivid glimpses of a dead swamp girl (Amber Stevens) who resembles a cross between a projectile-vomiting Linda Blair and the long-haired female specters from the “Ringu” and “Ju-on” movies — a device that, along with the videos themselves, underscores the picture’s debt to Japanese horror. Indeed, while Greutert has a talent for letting suspense mount slowly and often silently (with an assist from Greg Hedgepath’s sound design), the frights themselves are far too derivative to really deliver; there’s only so much horror to be wrung from a translucent curtain or an old-fashioned porcelain bathtub these days, and Jessie’s immobility, though an obvious factor in the narrative, doesn’t amp up the terror in any significant fashion.
As the body count rises, it becomes clear that no good will come to those who find themselves in Jessie’s midst, which doesn’t bode too well for Preston (Mark Webber), an old high-school “friend” who gallantly tries to help her figure out what’s going on. Preston, as it happens, has a shrew of a wife (Larisa Oleynik, in a thankless one-scene role) who doesn’t take too kindly to the reappearance of this attractive old flame. It’s one of a few wobbly but well-intentioned moments when “Jessabelle” attempts to steer away from its horror-thriller trappings and capture some sense of life in this dead-end backwater, where opportunities are scarce, marriages are unhappy and only a lucky few manage to escape.
A strange, inadvertently fascinating ethnic subtext rises to the surface when Jessabelle and Preston begin digging around in the bayou and find themselves confronted with members of the local Creole population, whose mystical traditions — dancing by firelight, decapitating chickens, etc. — might have something to do with the menacing supernatural forces at work. Without giving away the twist and spoiling the meager fun, “Jessabelle” emerges a curious, borderline-distasteful parable about the return of the repressed, its tale of a vengeful demon taking on unmistakable racial overtones. But none of it is developed substantially enough in a story that feels all too wobbly, secondhand and even arbitrary in the unfolding.
Snook, so brilliant in the forthcoming “Predestination,” makes an engaging scream queen, while Webber (who starred in the Blum-produced thriller “13 Sins”) adds a further humanizing touch to a movie where most of the characters are almost uniformly surly and violent. Making atmospheric use of the Louisiana locations, Michael Fimognari’s digital lensing alternates nicely between pleasingly sun-drenched exteriors and sewer-toned nighttime interiors.