Low-budget necessity is often the mother of low-budget invention, but sadly not so much in Travis Stevens’ “Jakob’s Wife,” a thin, half-hearted reworking of the vampire mythos that can’t quite decide if it’s spoofy or serious, and doesn’t have the smarts to be both. While it’s theoretically promising to attempt a hybrid tone in which schlocky effects and spurting necks are offset by genuine psychological insight into the discontented life of a long-married small-town pastor’s wife, in practice, the impulses just cancel each other out, whittling down the movie’s stakes long before they’re plunged into anyone’s chest.
You can see, however, how the project might have attracted its chief draw, who is also ultimately its most underserved asset. Actress Barbara Crampton (who also produces) has been a horror icon since starring in 1985’s beloved cult horror-comedy “Re-Animator” and returned to the big screen in 2011 with well-regarded slasher “You’re Next.” For Crampton, now in her 60s, the prospect of a lead role in a story in her specialist genre that deals directly with the disillusionments of women in late-middle-age, must have been tantalizing. So it’s a shame that that is exactly where the screenplay, co-written by Mark Steensland, Kathy Charles and Stevens, lets her down, providing neither enough character depth to be a moving commentary on older women facing down later-life disillusionment and sexual invisibility, nor enough shocks and thrills to work as genuinely frightening, or even funny-scary horror.
Crampton plays Anne Fedder, meekly married to decent but dull local pastor Jakob (Larry Fessenden, who also appeared in “You’re Next”). Their decades of marriage have worn down to a comfortable, unexciting routine, and when Jakob preaches that “a husband should love his wife as Christ loves the Church” a glint in Anne’s eye suggests she’d rather a passion that wasn’t quite so holy.
Then Amelia (Nyisha Bell), a pious young parishioner with an alcoholic mother, goes missing on her way back from church one evening, and while Jakob’s brother Bob (Mark Kelly) and his wife Carol (Sarah Lind) drop casually racist and classist remarks as they brush aside the disappearance, Anne defends the young girl. Again, meekly — whatever social relevance might be suggested by certain casting choices and stray lines of dialogue, is never further developed.
Anne spends her days on housework, gardening, peppy keep-fit routines and cooking, only to be irritated by her husband’s loud chewing at mealtimes and kept chastely awake by his louder snoring at night. So when an old flame of hers, Tom (Robert Rusler), arrives back in town, Anne is excited to perhaps feel a little spark of something again, though naturally she denies it to Jakob. She and Tom meet at a diner, then agree to revisit an abandoned mill where they used to have their trysts.
Anne pulls back at the last minute, professing her faithfulness to Jakob, when, wouldn’t you know it, a coffin-sized crate filled with feral rats consumes Tom whole and a shadowy figure swoops down from the rafters to engulf Anne. Next thing, she’s wearing low-cut dresses, buying blood in bulk from bemused supermarket butchers and murdering well-meaning neighbors. Which is only slightly less realistic than Jakob’s reaction once he finds out: If Anne’s transformation from demure to demonic is rapid and weightless, Jakob’s morphing from starchy, mansplaining God-botherer to body-hiding, police-evading, helpful-hubby is just as glib.
The disregard for the mounting body count would not matter so much if this were more of an outright parody. And indeed some of the creakier filmmaking (Stevens’ craftsmanship has slipped down a notch from his convincingly gross directing debut “The Girl on the Third Floor”), such as the Master vampire (Bonnie Aarons) descending awkwardly from a rooftop like a Halloween decoration on a pulley, or the tendency for DP David Matthews to set his otherwise functional camera spinning in circles to cover up the lack of anything actually scary going on, another signal that maybe parody is the aim.
But if this is all just malarkey, why all the talky exposition about Anne finding herself, and the soul-searching husband-and-wife exchanges as they tackle her vampirism like it’s just another mundane challenge in their decades-long marriage? “Jakob’s Wife,” for all its garish horror trappings, pilfered from a wide range of sources from Cronenbergian suppurating neck wounds to “Nosferatu”-style fangs and fingers, is shaped as a fairly bland journey-of-self-fulfillment, where we’re apparently meant to care as little about the collateral deaths as Anne does, and to cheer on this newly minted murderer just for finally gaining the confidence to dress sexy. Despite Crampton and Fessenden’s game playing, and a few nicely icky practical effects, “Jakob’s Wife” feels strangely anemic, which, as we all know is more fatal to the already iron-deficient movie vampire than garlic, holy water and sunshine combined.