Much as genre producer Travis Stevens’ feature debut, the haunted house movie Girl On The Third Floor (2019), exposed the toxic masculinity at the heart – and in the very architecture – of the American home, so too his follow-up Jakob’s Wife continues this gendered (and genre’d) preoccupation with domestic relations. The very title of the film comes with a paradox that will prove significant: for while it foregrounds the female protagonist, it also defines this character wholly and exclusively in her connection (as slavish chattel) to a husband, denying her any individuality of her own, or even a name.
“Who are you? And what do you want?” asks Anne Fedder (played by the great Barbara Crampton, relishing this character’s every evolving nuance), as she looks at herself in the mirror. For 30 years, in playing the good housewife to her husband, the Church Minister Jakob (played by horror polyhyphenate Larry Fessenden), Anne has sidelined her own identity and appetites. Dutiful, obedient and supportive, she tends the garden, cooks the meals, and in her spare time even does embroidery (that ancient signifier of uxorial piety) – and sits stony-faced through Jakob’s sermons on the sanctity of marriage and the need to “love your wife as Christ loved the Church.” It is not that Jakob is some sort of demonised monster – rather he is a dull, weak, inattentive man who takes his wife entirely for granted, and does not even notice her misery in their marriage. Chronically, over decades, Anne has failed to have her own needs heard let alone met, and she now shuffles through her daily routines like one of the living dead, thirsting for something – anything – that might fulfil her suppressed cravings to travel, to have adventures, to “live a bigger life”.
Anne’s crux comes when ‘bad boy architect’ Tom Low (Robert Rusler) – an old high-school boyfriend from before she married Jakob – returns to town, drawn not just by a project to renovate the old abandoned gin mill into a new retail space, but by the prospect of rekindling the flame with Anne. “Wow this brings back memories,” Tom says to Anne as they revisit the mill, a historic building where these two once enjoyed their own little history, “Remember when you used to come here?” Tom’s words carry an obvious double-meaning that evokes Anne’s once hot, but now frigid, erotic life, and speaks to the wild years that she has put behind herself in marrying Jakob. “Make no mistake, I’m happy,” Anne tells Tom of her marriage, but her facial expression tells a different story. At this moment, where Anne teeters between commitment and temptation, between doing what is expected of a married woman or what she actually wants, Stevens lets the genre in, as a bite on the neck renews Anne’s long-dormant desires, and leaves her having to decide whether to stay with Jakob (albeit on newer, more equal terms), or to serve an altogether different kind of master, or indeed to follow her own independent path into the future. Without ever quite offering a pat resolution to this conundrum – a conundrum which in one way or another most women face within a male-dominated system – Jakob’s Wife will stage, restage and freeze-frame it for the bringing a mordant, genre-bound wit to these scenes from a marriage.
Jakob’s Wife is set in one of the small ‘dying towns’ of (heh) Kinski County – and as this community seeks to restore its fortunes with a development, so too does Anne, newly empowered as she undergoes a transformation that is as much psychological and attitudinal as physical. Here, in spite or perhaps of the destabilising effect it has on the status quo, vampirism proves liberating for women like Anne, in a manner that recalls Dennis Gansel’s We Are The Night (2010) and Brad Michael Elmore’s Bit (2019). And not just women: for through the key location of the historic gin mill – where once slaves would have worked and where now creatures of the night lie in wait to overturn the present order by emancipating the exploited, the excluded and the underprivileged – a point of intersection is found for America’s oppressed, alluding to a long history of slavery that extends beyond a woman’s traditional subservience to a man in marriage. Amelia Humphries (Nyisha Bell), a teenaged African-American member of Jakob’s flock living on the wrong side of town and neglected by her alcoholic single mother, is carefully set up to fall prey to the offensive ‘First to Die’ trope, according to which black characters are always horror’s earliest and most expendable victims – but screenwriters Kathy Charles, Mark Steensland and Stevens neatly subvert this principle, allowing their most marginalised character a brief, exultant moment in the (metaphorical) sun.
Here that slippery tension within society between the forces of conservatism and progressiveness is allowed to unravel, as overlooked, disempowered characters like Anne and Amelia suddenly assume a newfound assertiveness and refusal to play by the rules, inspiring, simultaneously and contradictorily, both admiration and anxiety. For even as these women boldly embody new behavioural modes and ideological models, they terrify as much as vivify with their violent revolution against the prevailing system. As Stevens leaves us unsure who exactly the villains are here, or indeed whether in the end we want Anne to fuck, stay married or kill, he is merely reflecting age-old conflicts within the structures of patriarchy. Anne may be a dangerous vampire, and a slave to her bloodthirsty drives (much as she has long been a slave to Jakob), but she has also become, for the first time in her marriage, a stake holder – and somewhere from these absurd incongruities, domestic comedy emerges to complement all the bloody horror, as we wonder whether Anne and her husband will renew their vows and stay together forever, or get one hell of a murderous divorce.
strap: In Travis Stevens’ comedy horror Jakob’s Wife, an unhappy smalltown housewife finds empowerment and emancipation in vampirism
© Anton Bitel