Vampires are a horror staple. These blood-sucking fiends are a tale as old as time, but despite their popularity, they’ve lost their spark with cliché stories that don’t bring anything new to the table. But the paradigm is shifting in favor of these creatures of the night with films such as writer/director Travis Stevens’ Jakob’s Wife, an unconventional and uneven vampire tale all about immortality as freedom rather than a damning prison.
Jakob’s Wife is centered on Annie Fedder (Barbara Crampton), whose husband is Pastor Jakob Fedder (Larry Fessenden). She lives a quiet existence, making breakfast for Jakob, cleaning, gardening and being the perfect vision of a preacher’s wife. She essentially blends in with the wallpaper, nodding her head and doing what will make her husband happy. Yet, she longs for more. She used to want to travel and explore the world; now, after letting the years pass her by, Annie feels trapped in her small town life. But this is all about to change.
Annie is accosted by a vampire known simply as “The Master” (Bonnie Aarons) who transforms this pastor’s wife into an empowered and confident woman who wishes to exist as her own person. Yes, she does have to consume blood for survival, but it seems like a small price to pay for her freedom. When Jakob discovers Annie’s secret, he embarks on a mission to save her from this immortal fate…but maybe Annie does not want to be saved.
More than just a vampire movie, Jakob’s Wife is about trying to escape domesticity and the trappings of a middle-aged married woman’s everyday life. Vampirism is often used as a metaphor for things such as infection (30 Days of Night), power over others (Dracula), sex (Interview With a Vampire) and more. Here, Stevens depicts vampirism as something liberating rather than harrowing. It’s exciting to see a horror movie centered on a woman who isn’t a hot young wife, but rather a woman three decades into her marriage with a cemented routine and years of resentment.
Yet, this unique and fascinating vampire premise utilizes a lot of filmmaking tropes about a quiet woman becoming empowered and transforming from frumpy to sexy that threaten to make Jakob’s Wife cliché. At first, Annie wears her hair back in a low bun, pastel cardigans buttoned up to the neck, modest skirts and nondescript brown shoes. Then, after her bite, her hair is straightened, her dresses are now low-cut and exposing cleavage, she wears make-up and exudes a new confident energy. This kind of transformation is easy to follow but is overwrought, as if aesthetics and outward appearance are all that matter to constructing confidence. Without a discussion about Annie’s love of such clothes or her excitement to finally express herself the way she used to/wants to, this moment feels like a stereotypical makeover moment from a romantic comedy where a bit of lipstick and a hair dryer change a woman’s life.
Annie’s transformation contributes to the tonally uneven script which makes this film feel like a piecemeal cinematic Frankenstein’s monster. In one moment, Jakob’s Wife is a female empowerment fantasy; then it is a thriller about a husband’s jealousy; then it is a campy vampire movie; then it’s a husband helping his doomed monster wife a la Santa Clarita Diet. Tense walks through dark hallways with an ominous droning score suddenly switch to decapitations and gallons of blood spurting towards the camera. While Stevens ultimately never loses sight of the themes of liberation from the domestic, these tonal shifts threaten to topple his fascinating reinterpretation of the vampire. The film can’t decide what it wants to be, so it’s everything at once—something perhaps contributable to the few different writers tackling the script during its long development.
In the midst of the tonal rollercoaster, its female-focused message remains anchored by a career-best performance from Crampton, a horror legend who is no stranger to camp or gore. She showcases a range that’s never been seen before, portraying both a quiet, sad housewife and a powerful, confident vampire with ease. Her subtlety is illustrated in a tense dinner scene where Jakob dominates the conversation but the camera stays on Annie’s face. Crampton is able to portray anger, frustration and exhausted sadness without uttering a word. Then, that subtlety completely shifts as she has a heart-shattering panic attack, realizing she had a run-in with a vampire. She screams and cries, mouth wide open and face twisted in pain. Crampton is able to move from understated to all-out madness in a way that feels much less jarring than the uneven beats in the script. Crampton’s expert command of facial expressions and her embodiment of Annie makes her a shining beacon, guiding the sometimes clumsy movie towards a satisfying finish line.
Opposite Crampton is the surprisingly clean-cut Fessenden as the pious pastor who thinks the influence he has over his clergy extends to his home life. Despite his pressed shirts and careful grooming, Fessenden creates a disgusting character who takes up an inordinate amount of mental and physical space. He loudly brushes his teeth, snores like a chainsaw and chews with his mouth open—he is nauseating both inside and out. I applaud his despicable characterization of Jakob, which works well with Crampton’s more subdued Annie. Fessenden and Crampton are a killer pair—pun intended—who enjoy every second they’re on screen.
The cherry on top of these stunning performances is Aarons, best known for her portrayal of the demonic nun in The Conjuring franchise. “The Master” goes against audience expectations: Aarons’ vampire is implied to have once been a woman and, while she appears androgynous with her Nosferatu-like make-up and simple black suits, she speaks of her past and the trappings of domestic life. Not only is Stevens turning the table on vampires’ monstrousness, but on the expectations of a vampiric leader as a domineering male presence.
Regardless of tonal shakiness and an uncertainty of what exactly it wants to be, Stevens’ creativity and willingness to take risks with his subversion of vampiric lore at least makes Jakob’s Wife a unique and fun reconstruction of genre tropes. Crampton and Fessenden alone make this a film worth watching, as they know exactly how to chew up the scenery. With Jakob’s Wife, come for the campy gore, stay for the surprisingly feminist message about vampirism as a way to set you free.
Director: Travis Stevens
Writer: Mark Steensland, Kathy Charles, Travis Stevens
Starring: Barbara Crampton, Larry Fessenden, Nyisha Bell, Mark Kelly, Sarah Lind, Robert Rusler, Bonnie Aarons, Phil Brooks
Release Date: April 16, 2021
Mary Beth McAndrews is a freelance film journalist with a love of all things horror. She’s written across the Internet about found footage, extreme horror cinema, and more. You can follow her on Twitter to read more of her work, as well as her hot takes about her favorite cryptid, Mothman.