Jessabelle (not to be confused with the similarly-titled Annabelle, although it’s not much better) is a curious, frustrating Halloween-horror picture. Curious, because it spends its first act not actually being a horror film at all, but instead a slow-burning psychological story about a fractured family in the Louisiana bayou. But frustrating all the same, as it quickly descends into a rote procession of genre clichés steeped in facile Southern Gothic mysticism, which quickly demolishes all the suspense and atmosphere the film spent a third of its running time painstakingly building.
The premise is fairly straightforward: Jessabelle (Sarah Snook) is a happy, pregnant twenty-something about to move in with her generically-handsome boyfriend. He and their unborn child are both killed in a car crash which also leaves Jessie temporarily paralysed from the waist down, and with nowhere else to go, she is forced to return to the familial home in rural Louisiana while she recuperates under the watchful eye of her estranged, alcoholic father, Leon (David Andrews).
Jessie’s mother died long ago; she was diagnosed with a brain tumour during pregnancy and refused treatment for fear of harming the child inside her. She, like Jessie herself, was too ill to sleep upstairs, and so her secret, creepy ground-floor bedroom (hidden behind a dusty shelf, no less) is where Leon suggests Jessie sleeps for the duration of her stay. In that room are a hidden collection of old VHS tapes, recorded by the dying Kate (Joelle Carter) for her daughter to watch on her eighteenth birthday.
The tapes contain a sequence of tarot card readings, which begin as a seemingly innocent prediction of Jessie’s life, but soon take a turn for the worrying when Kate declares that there is an unwanted supernatural presence in the house that wants Jessie gone.
As a basic setup, this is functional if not exactly inspiring, but it’s handled well and anchored by strong performances. Relative newcomer Sarah Snook is a revelation. She has a certain charismatic, wide-eyed appeal that makes her character genuinely sympathetic, and Joelle Carter plays her mother with a captivating sense of unease, frequently leaning into the camera conspiratorially to whisper something shared and secretive between mother and daughter. Those scenes where Jessie watches her on videotape are perhaps the best in the film; at the very least they’re where the Southern-fried heart of the story resides.
The house itself – a dilapidated manor squatting alongside the bayou – is another of Jessabelle’s stronger elements, and certainly its scariest. Seen mainly from Jessie’s perspective as she rolls through the yawning rooms in her wheelchair, it’s a disorienting space which feels authentically lived-in and yet still somewhat divorced from reality. It gives the impression that time has stopped running there without anybody really noticing. And, because the audience is limited to the parts of the house which Jessie has access to – we never see the upstairs, for example – it seems perfectly conceivable that something could be lurking inside.
Eventually Jessie realizes that, yes, something is indeed haunting the creaky old house, and that not only does it present a very real threat to her life, its origins are probably tied up in her family’s troubling and convoluted history. Enter Preston, Jessie’s high school sweetheart (played very well by the talented Mark Webber), who resolves to help her figure out exactly who the ghost is and what it wants.
The romantic subplot is better than it should be because the leads are so likeable, although it does tend to neglect the fact that Preston is married. It’s made fairly clear he isn’t exactly happy being a husband, yet he still has a perplexing amount of spare time to spend ferrying Jessie around. Not only that, but the character doesn’t have much personal agency; he’s largely just a plot device who turns up to (rather literally) help Jessie get out of situations her inability to walk leaves her stuck in. Webber does well with what he has, but the problems are inherent in Ben Garant’s screenplay itself, which eventually chooses to hone in on silly, overt horror tropes rather than maintain the subtle character development and world-building of Jessabelle’s opening scenes.
Jessie’s physical predicament is interesting, but the film can’t really work out what to do with it other than frequently knock her out of the wheelchair and watch her scream on the floor until someone rescues her. There’s a wealth of potential in having a horror protagonist not be able-bodied, but director Kevin Greutert (perhaps best known for his work as the editor of the first five Saw films and the director of the final two) doesn’t attempt to tap into any of it. Her helplessness sits there onscreen unexplored, like so much else in the film. There’s never any thoughtful use of that vulnerability; nothing more than a cursory, surface-level acknowledgement of how physically trapped she is, rather than an examination of what that might mean and how it might matter to her as a character. It’s a neat way of sidestepping certain obligatory questions the audience tends to ask in this genre (“If the house is haunted, why doesn’t she just leave?” etc.), but it also leads to characters like Preston feeling perfunctory and shackled to the plot.
Jessabelle remains intriguing for longer than one might expect on the strength of its atmosphere and how capably it ratchets up tension during the more reserved scenes, but it eventually begins cycling through themes and imagery which are incredibly well-worn (even wheeling out a burned-down occult church like the one in True Detective). Some of it even ends up having undeniably racist implications – there’s no real reason for every single black character in the story to be well-versed in voodoo. It’s almost certainly not intentional, but it’s noticeable all the same, and yet another thing which severely lets the film down as it progresses.
Likewise, the story, which was so deftly-handled in the early stages, collapses under its own weight during the final third, as it frantically scrambles to tie up all the dangling loose ends. That the build-up is more satisfying than the payoff isn’t unusual or even necessarily a deal-breaker; it’s just a shame considering how credible of an attempt Jessabelle makes at being something more grounded and authentic in the overcrowded paranormal-horror genre.
Ultimately though, Jessabelle is a failure. I could tentatively recommend it based on the Southern atmosphere and the handful of strong performances keeping the thing moving, but to do so would be to overlook what an absolute mess it ends up becoming. There’s an intriguing film buried somewhere in Jessabelle’s guts, one which takes the dark family secrets at its core and uses them to tell a story which doesn’t need spooky graveyards or bathtubs full of ghosts to be resonant and powerful. This, unfortunately, is not that film.
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