Don’t misunderstand: I’m not harping on the great cinema entries from the late 1970’s or the early-to-mid 1980’s. There are many truly good motion pictures from that epoch that touched a nerve – albeit briefly in the grand scope of things – and are revered today, some so much so that they get rebooted. But many of them were little more than exploitative fare meant to highlight how films could capitalize on their ability to shock an audience. They underscored how watching a 90-minute yarn could be a visceral experience, one meant to shock or thrill or disturb or reduce you to fright-filled tears. These weren’t Award-winning films, though I suspect a few of them captured a trophy from some obscure art society or review board. Mostly, these films just came and went, and that was largely owed to the fact that rentals and retailers wanted something fresh, new, and different to hawk to their customers next Friday or Saturday night.
Think of them as ‘disposable art,’ and you’re probably not all that far off the beaten path.
What did have potential to last longer were the men and women telling these stories. Some of them were actors and actresses. Some were directors. Some were screenwriters. For example, Joel and Ethan Coen – two of the bigger names in Hollywood – kinda/sorta dropped onto the scene with a B-Movie noir called Blood Simple (1984). Academy Award nominee John Sayles penned the script that would become Roger Corman’s Battle Beyond The Stars (1980), a space-based knock-off of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954) if there ever were. Another name to emerge from that flick? James Cameron. He toiled behind-the-scenes on the effects and production details and – some have argued – directing.
As the B-Movie era moved along, the features grew a bit more perplexing, a bit bloodier, but no less inventive. Some of the titles – The Toxic Avenger (1985) and Class Of Nuke ‘Em High (1986) – came from the same label: Troma Pictures enjoyed incredible success tapping this vein of oddball visuals, pulpy performances, and bargain basement production. Their titles live on even today with their own streaming outlet. (At least, the last I checked, it was still churning out flicks for subscribers.) And that brings me to Empire International Pictures, an outfit which lasted only a scant five years but produced some of the decade’s most popular stuff. Trancers (1984), Re-Animator (1985), From Beyond (1986), and Robot Jox (1989) were video store staples, the kind of releases that home audiences would watch again and again and again. These are titles that are still being discovered today …
… And that brings me to one of my favorite actresses to come on the scene in those days, the lovely Barbara Crampton. This award-winning Thespian was in many of the great B-Movies of the 80’s and 90’s. In fact, I’d argue she did most of the best acting featured in any of them! (Can you tell I’m biased?) As one of the most recognizable faces in these second-tiered films, her participation in any project carried a certain guarantee: if she was in it, it was worth watching, even if only once. Features that otherwise would’ve been forgotten were elevated to prominence by her mere presence, and she put her skills to great use whenever called upon in every project I’ve had the good fortune to view.
You can’t imagine how reassuring I find it that today, decades after she first dazzled us in lights, she’s doing much the same in a little something something I received in the mail: Jakob’s Wife – as imperfect as it is – is still a better film with her presence. Let me tell you why.
From the product packaging:
“Anne is married to a small-town minister and feels like her life and marriage have been shrinking over the past 30 years. After a chance encounter with ‘The Master,’ she discovers bite marks on her neck, a new sense of power and an appetite to live bigger and bolder than ever. As Anne is increasingly torn between her enticing new existence and her life before, the body count grows and Jakob realizes he will have to fight for the wife he took for granted.”
Vampire films are near-and-dear to me. They always have been. In fact, I revere the whole vampire subculture of film and books so much I’ve researched and written my own novel (Rainville) which I promote from time-to-time in this space. I’ve always thought that there was something intriguing about being blessed with the gift of eternal life while simultaneously being cursed with living those years out as a monster, and I suspect many storytellers are drawn to this world for much the same reason.
Jakob’s Wife – written-in-part and directed by Travis Stevens – never quite goes hard-core vamp the way the bloodier pictures of the 80’s did. There are some kills, sure, but they’re all quite tame by comparison to Near Dark (1987) or From Dusk Til Dawn (1996). Even 2008’s Let The Right One In capitalized on the gore in a horrific sequence or two, but Jakob’s Wife never quite reaches that mark of glorifying the bloodshed, instead producing maybe a few unintended chuckles at some laughable blood spray. Here, when The Master or one under his tutelage go to work, seemingly ever drop in the victim’s body gushes out in a matter of seconds; and, yes, I couldn’t help but snicker. (I’m assuming they were underfunded in the effects department.)
Now, I suspect part of this lack of attention to gory detail may be owed to Wife’s narrative focus: yes, Anne Fedder is in the process of transforming into a bloodsucker, but what Stevens and co-scripters Kathy Charles and Mark Steensland chose as the center of their tale is the role a woman plays in life. In other words, maybe the whole ‘turning into a monster’ was the picture’s true B-plot while what truly mattered was an examination of gender in today’s culture. Filmmakers, in particular, are very sneaky about slipping in ideas where angels fear to tread; and with issues like female empowerment being increasingly in our headlines in the modern #MeToo era, I’d be a fool if I didn’t point out what stuck with me after the credits rolled was our lead character’s emotional dilemma.
As much as I’d like to praise Crampton for her work as she descends into the madness of being a monster, I’d rather sing a song about how she deftly maneuvers through this film’s opening moments. Here, she displays a grasp of nuance that can only be mastered with age and work, two things she has decidedly in her favor. It’s so easy to see her as a put-upon wife that audiences are probably rooting for her to succumb to The Master’s wishes and embrace her darker side – which she does to a degree – and that’s owed to some solid screenwriting and the actress’s skills. Her transition? Yeah. It’s interesting. It’s colorful. True, I could watch her sipping blood from a chalice and slow dancing to Concrete Blonde’s “Bloodletting” for hours, as could any Crampton fan. But it’s handled with some predictable aplomb and the proper hint of comedy, so much so that I wanted to honestly spend a bit more time with that dour frau from earlier.
Also, I think Anne’s transition arc gets bogged down by a script that unnecessarily wallows a bit too often in its empowerment messaging. It’s clear that the preacher’s wife finds a different existence once she’s well on-the-road to becoming something undead, but – here’s the flaw in my book – ANYONE would suffer that same epiphany in those circumstances! Here’s a woman who – for better or for worse – agreed to “for better or for worse” in a small town in the middle of nowhere; most folks I’ve met who reside under those circumstances knew full well what they’re getting into when they signed up for it. It’s played here as a bit of a revelation – a screenwriter’s convenience – and I think that’s far from reality. Anne’s lived the bulk of her adult life in service to a mortal man whose day job involves the ‘blood of Christ,’ so is there anyone in the audience who didn’t see that big ironic hook coming? I doubt it.
There are some other jabs of the things Hollywood typically turns its nose up at (small town life, gung-ho cops, religion, and family), but I think Jakob’s Wife still succeeds largely on Crampton’s work here. As she did in the 80’s and 90’s, she makes a film stronger by just being in it. Let’s hope she eventually gets the attention both her and her characters deserve.
Recommended. While Jakob’s Wife doesn’t bring anything new to the vampire meal, I found most of it still bloody entertaining. As an indie feature, it’s assembled quite nice; and its story hits a lot of relatable topics like love, lust, morality, and the like. I’d encourage viewers not to make all that much out of the film’s female empowerment message as it’s incomplete, serves little purpose, and might only confuse more than it enlightens. I think having three cooks in the kitchen didn’t serve the script as well as it should have, but it’s still nonetheless refreshing to see a workman-style production hit its marks and move along.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at RLJE Films provided me with a complimentary DVD of Jakob’s Wife by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review; and their contribution to me in no way, shape, or form influenced my opinion of it.