Jakob's Wife [SXSW Film Festival Review]

The title Jakob's Wife is intentionally ironic, because this is a horror/dark comedy about a woman struggling to be seen on her own terms, independent of her spouse. The woman in question is Anne Fedder (Barbara Crampton), the wife of small-town minister Jakob (Larry Fessenden). If she tends to fade into the background, it's because he has taught her to over the course of their long marriage. Whenever someone asks for her opinion or thoughts, he answers on her behalf. Anne's job is to make the right appearance and nothing more.

The Fedders' lives change dramatically when Anne is reunited with Tom (Robert Rusler), an old flame who's come to town on business. They have a friendly, flirty dinner, then go to an abandoned mill where some spooky things happen, including Anne getting bitten by a vampire-like creature. Upon returning home, she is fundamentally changed. She glams up her look, exhibits more confidence, and has an insatiable thirst for blood. Jakob is shocked and bewildered, not knowing how to digest his wife's sudden transformation.

Most good movies have at least one scene that you really want to talk to other people about. Jakob's Wife has nearly a dozen of those as the new, improved Anne deals with both the advantages and disadvantages of her vampiric state. There's a funny scene involving how she moves furniture, a horrific incident in a dentist's office, a gruesome feeding in her kitchen, and so much more. They all build to a wild climactic encounter with “The Master” (Bonnie Aarons), the head vampire who, if you're paying attention, has a careful selection process when it comes to choosing who she'll turn.

Director Travis Stevens (who wrote the script with Kathy Charles and Mark Steensland) fills the picture with inventive, unpredictable events, each of which guides Anne on her journey to self-fulfillment. One of the shrewdest notes Jakob's Wife hits is that she likes her new form, even as it horrifies her husband. She has no desire to return to shrinking violet status. Jakob has to learn how to accept that Anne will never regress back into her old self.

Barbara Crampton is a horror icon, not just because of appearing in classics like Re-Animator and recent favorites such as You're Next. No, she's beloved by genre fans because she's an immensely talented actress who knows how to bring humanity and authenticity to horror. That's absolutely the case here. Through her efforts, we can feel how much this newfound liberation means to Anne. It's exhilarating. Oh sure, she's got to drink other people's blood to survive, but small price to pay, right?

Crampton is pleasingly reteamed with Fessenden, another horror icon, with whom she previously worked on You're Next and We Are Still Here. They need to make all the movies together. What's cool about Fessenden's performance is that it's perfectly calibrated to Crampton's. As Anne gains control, Jakob proportionally loses it. He doesn't know what to do, how to react, or what to make of things. Watching her find herself and him lose himself simultaneously provides a wickedly satiric look at the power dynamics in marriage.

Jakob's Wife is freaky, gory, darkly funny, and, best of all, substantive. I very much want to see it again. This is easily my favorite movie from the 2021 SXSW Film Festival.

out of four

Jakob's Wife is unrated, but contains adult language, graphic bloody violence, and sexual situations. The running time is 1 hour and 38 minutes.