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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Barbara Crampton shows why she’s a horror legend in the pulpy, uneven Jakob’s Wife

Barbara Crampton in Jakob’s Wife
Barbara Crampton in Jakob’s Wife
Photo: RLJE Films/Shudder

Note: The writer of this review watched Jakob’s Wife on a digital screener from home. Before making the decision to see it—or any other film—in a movie theater, please consider the health risks involved. Here’s an interview on the matter with scientific experts.

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An ’80s horror ingenue with a sideline in soap operas (or was it the other way around?), Barbara Crampton rose to cult fame as the star of Re-Animator (1985), From Beyond (1986), and, of course, the killer-robots-exploding-horny-teenagers classic Chopping Mall (1986). Not an unusual trajectory; this was the era of the “scream queen,” after all. But where many of her contemporaries have faded, Crampton’s star continues to rise. Since being cast as the matriarch of a dysfunctional family under siege in You’re Next (2011), she’s cannily harnessed a wave of interest in the genre into a thriving new chapter as an actor, producer, Fangoria columnist, and standard-bearer. She’s arguably more influential now than she was back then, which gives her the opportunity to pursue meatier roles—no pun intended—like her turn in Jakob’s Wife.

Crampton stars as the title character, Anne, the wife of small-town minister Jakob (Larry Fessenden). Dutiful and meek, Anne acquires the proverbial “hunger” after being ambushed by a vaguely bat-shaped shadow at a construction site toward the beginning of the film. Ashamed to admit that she was with an old flame when the attack happened, Anne tries to keep her symptoms to herself. But her newfound dissatisfaction with her role as a submissive Christian wife and helpmate—not to mention the dead body on the kitchen floor—gives away her transformation to her husband, who turns out to have a more practical view of love and relationships than the strict patriarchal ideals implied by his opening sermon.

Co-written and directed by Travis Stevens (The Girl On The Third Floor), Jakob’s Wife is a pulpy piece of work. Vampires fall from the ceiling and rip open spurting jugular veins. Ex-pro wrestler CM Punk appears in a supporting role as a cop. A pair of sullen teenagers smoking a joint call Fessenden “old man.” And although Stevens doesn’t have as steady of a hand as Tom Holland, the film rides the line between comedic and horrific in a manner reminiscent of another ’80s classic, Fright Night. The comparison is never so apt as when Jakob’s Wife is riffing on vampire lore, like during a dentist’s office scene where the effects of a tooth-whitening procedure on budding fangs are demonstrated via smoke, prosthetics, and a committed performance from Crampton that cuts the wry bemusement of the scenario with a hint of visceral disgust.

Illustration for article titled Barbara Crampton shows why she’s a horror legend in the pulpy, uneven Jakob’s Wife
Photo: RLJE Films/Shudder
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But Jakob’s Wife has something bigger and more political on its mind as well. The film posits vampirism as a subversive path to feminist liberation, much as George Romero’s underseen Season Of The Witch did with the occult in 1973. Anne is tempted by a spindly, androgynous ghoul called “The Master” (Bonnie Aarons), who whispers, “What do you want?” and the side effects of her transformation, both physical and psychological, give Crampton the opportunity to play seductive, aloof, bloodthirsty, feral, and vulnerable, sometimes all in the same scene. She seems surprised by her own newfound power—although perhaps not as surprised as Jakob at the new passion Anne’s cravings bring to their marriage. Casting Fessenden as a buttoned-up minister is presumably tongue in cheek, given that he wrote and directed the druggy, hedonistic Habit back in the ’90s. That said, he and Crampton have such good chemistry, it’s almost as if they’ve done this before. Twice.

Despite the conviction Crampton and Fessenden bring to their onscreen relationship, however, Jakob’s Wife is more successful as a gleeful bloodbath than it is as a character-driven horror-drama. That’s mostly due to the screenplay, whose dialogue includes some real clunkers that weigh down the film’s loftier ambitions and keep it anchored in the realm of B-horror. Everyone seems to be having fun, however. Who wouldn’t, when eating worms and lifting a sofa with one hand like it’s made of Styrofoam? Both of those stunts fall to Crampton, by the way, and she attacks them with the enthusiasm of a vampire at a blood bank. After 30-plus years in the industry, she knows how to locate the potential in uneven material. It’s why she’s a legend.

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