Debuting to the world at SXSW 2021 Jakob’s Wife is the second feature film from producer-turned-director Travis Stevens. Backed up by genre icons Barbara Crampton and Larry Fessenden, the film is an interesting exploration of reclaiming one’s feminine power. Stevens has a long-standing career as a prolific producer of indie genre gems. Films he had a hand in bringing into the world include We are Still Here, Starry Eyes, and the brilliant 68 Kill. In 2019 he transitioned from producing into directing with the gooey ick-fest, The Girl on the Third Floor. The film required a very strong constitution as the very walls within which the story was set pussed and oozed all manner of untold bodily fluids. It was a striking debut, Stevens channelling his inner Clive Barker to tell his sticky tale of extremely toxic masculinity. Now comes, what can be for many, the tricky second film.
With Jakob’s Wife Stevens skirts these pitfalls and has created something entirely different, but equally as enticing as The Girl on the Third Floor. Last time around Stevens tackled toxic masculinity, here he explores the repressed female and one woman’s search for her true self. Jakob (Fessenden) is the local pastor, Anne (Crampton) his loving wife. The pair are well respected in the community, but Anne has become restless with her lot in life. Then a dinner with a former flame results in an unexpected meeting with “The Master”. In the days that follow, Anne finds herself stepping out of her rigid routines and embracing her new-found desires. These desires also come with an unusual thirst, one that demands a body-count. Most marriages find themselves tested, but can Jakob and Anne survive this most extreme of challenges?
Fessenden and Crampton have worked together before, their existing rapport and relationship translates well on screen. There’s an ease and familiarity to the pair’s interactions that fully conveys the typical long-term married couple. They also share a history with Stevens and the dynamic between the trio has helped generate on-screen lightening. The trust within the three of them enables both Crampton and Fessenden to access places that we’ve not seen from the pair before. As the blood, mayhem, and more blood, encroach on our central couple, you can feel their bond truly tested. Although told through the spectrum of a genre movie, Jakob’s Wife explores the bonds and sanctity of marriage and the vows that people make to one another as life partners. It also expertly skewers the gender dynamics and power struggles that are present in many relationships, whilst also going so far as to link into very Christian ideals around men, women, temptation, and punishment.
As the title suggests this is a film firmly about Jakob’s wife, and as Anne, Crampton is simply sensational. It’s a different kind of role to which we’ve become accustomed to seeing from her and one that unlocks her truest potential as a performance. Anne starts off rigidly drab and becomes fabulously free as she rediscovers the person she was before Jakob. There’s a frenetic duality to Anne, and Crampton’s performance perfectly personifies each half, and thus creates a beautiful, bold, and ever so slightly broken-down whole. Barbara Crampton has never been better, her complex portrayal of a woman trying to piece herself together again is beautiful to watch.
One of the elements that made The Girl on the Third Floor so special was that it was a film unafraid to get messy. It’s a similar scenario here, there’s a much lesser ick factor, but way more blood on display. Instead of the seeping and oozing goo of the last film, the red stuff literally gushes and splatters across the screen. This is a film with spectacle firmly in mind and is packed with big bold “wow that was cool” gore moments. One scene in particular involving a neck break offers pure midnight movie delight. Given the inclusion of these exuberant instances of splatter, the tone is lighter than its predecessor, not to the point of being silly, but it certainly has a vein of dry and quirky humour pulsing through its core.
In many ways Jakob’s Wife compliments Stevens’ last work of film fiction. There’s the obvious toxic masculinity versus female empowerment, but also there is a tonal balance between the two films that generates an odd yin-yang feeling. One could also argue a case that both stories unfold within the same universe; the look and feel of Jakob’s Wife in places feels like an extension from The Girl on the Third Floor. With the two movies harmonising in strange and unexpected ways, Jakob’s Wife works as both a continuation to the groundwork Stevens has laid out before, whilst also completely reinvigorating one of the oldest movie monsters around. Gender politics and power dynamics are played out within a timeless genre, Jakob’s Wife is a wonderful psychosexual horror thriller with bite.
Jakob’s Wife is available to watch on Shudder now.
This review first appeared on THN.