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Jakob's Wife Review: Domestic Bliss, Interrupted

There's a telling moment late in Travis Stevens' new horror flick Jakob's Wife when the film's central antagonist, the head vampire of this bloodsucking tale, asks the titular character (played by scream queen Barbara Crampton) what she truly wants from life.

Well, in her particular case, from afterlife.

Crampton's Anne Fedder, the doting spouse to the overbearing and selfish preacher Jakob (Larry Fessenden), spends her entire existence on the sidelines in debilitating subservience. She's never asked herself such a question.

The mysterious relationship between Anne and the Master (The Nun's Bonnie Aarons) who has turned her into a carnivorous ghost doesn't mirror the psychosexual seduction games often witnessed in this particular subgenre. In fact, the vampire seems less like an alabaster scoundrel from the cover of a trashy erotic novel and more like a fanged Iyanla Vanzant, dropping in to fix Anne's life before it's too late.

So while Jakob's Wife technically fails as a thrilling genre entry luxuriating in all the stylistic hallmarks of the vampire picture, it more than makes up for it by being a truly affecting character portrait of a woman at a crossroads, freed of her earthly shackles by a little preternaturally inspired mid-life crisis. Instead of something in the vein of Anne Rice, you get an Eat Pray Love alternative with wanderlust swapped for blood lust. Gauche as that may sound, it's actually quite striking. It's also a fantastic showcase for Crampton, an iconic talent who deserves more roles like this in her future.

Warm blood feels good

But before the big, transformative bite can take place, the film begins as a slow burn. Stevens takes his time introducing us to the pallid monotony of Anne's daily life. When we meet her, she's already prepared for hiding out from the sun, as vampires do, since she's always seen withering under Jakob's shadow. Her husband is a good enough man, a sincere and devout follower of the good book who is active in his community. He just isn't present for his wife and can't seem to see her as more than an accessory.

The gift of his good service to others and the curse of his homebound neglect dovetail at the film's first major turning point. The night before Jakob can visit an alcoholic elder who has fallen off the wagon, her daughter — who brought that predicament to him in the first place — turns up missing. Local law enforcement (a sheriff and deputy played by Jay DeVon Johnson and former WWE superstar CM Punk, respectively) tries to investigate what we've already seen go down: The young woman's been snatched by some offscreen evil. At the same time, Anne goes on a business lunch with a former flame, finding herself breaking the bonds of her marriage as she falls prey to his kiss.

This passionate yet unintentional indiscretion ought to be the wakeup call Anne needs to realize she's craving more than her marriage can provide, but she remains steadfast. She refuses his further advances, so the story has no choice but to inflict otherworldly interference upon her, with a horde of vampire rats descending on her would-be side piece and Anne herself being bitten by the vampire's kiss.

In subsequent scenes, we know Anne has been turned into a vampire because she can suddenly lift furniture one-handed, gets randy seeing pig's blood at the deli, and grows a few telling shades paler. (It also helps that a throbbing '80s synth jam literally about vampirism plays on the soundtrack over much of these sequences.) But the only reason Jakob notices anything amiss is because she's less present mentally and starts looking sexier. He's such an inattentive louse he doesn't catch on that his wife has been turned into a nocturnal predator, but he immediately bristles at her morphing into the first verse from Drake's "Hotline Bling."

Stevens does some fun stuff with the vampire angle here, to be honest. There's a fun little scene in which Anne goes to the dentist and the UV light they use for teeth-whitening burns and scars her face. He also finds time to get into some light Cronenbergian body horror, with Anne fingering at the fang holes in her neck while bathing, further selling the metaphor vampirism here plays with sexual reawakening.

That's really where Jakob's Wife finds its sweet spot. Sure, there are plenty of savagery and orgiastic blood baths throughout the second and final acts to entertain those seeking an indulgent gorefest. But its strengths lie in its exploration of Anne's body and heart changing with the hunger she's repressed for so long made literal and impossible to hide.

Seeing her transformation stunted as Jakob discovers her true nature and turns into an amateur Van Helsing in the hopes of factory resetting his wife, the Master returns to put him out of his misery. But Anne, still clinging to the status quo that's held her down, saves Jakob by turning him, too. For a moment, the animalistic passion they display toward one another suggests this might be a fascinating take on the staid married couple finding new life in kink, in opening up or spicing up their marriage.

But that's not quite where the story goes.

Making the most of the night...

Because, while becoming a vampire made Anne feel more alive than she has in years, Jakob is still the same, only more. Fessenden walks a fine line between making Jakob a despicable figure we want to see torn from Anne's orbit and making him feel like a relatable everyman who's just too dumb to understand the woman he's spent decades with. Watching him struggle to maintain control in this clearly uncontrollable situation is both infuriating and a little tragic.

Rather than giving in to the reckless abandon that makes Anne feel so free, he seeks to put rules and constrictions on their thirst, having difficulty reconciling their new status with his faith, but also just refusing to accept a new reality where he isn't the arbiter of every decision involving his wife. At first, this approach works out fine, with Jakob finding the aforementioned alcoholic mother from the church half-dead in her home and still able to be harvested for blood. But when Anne's caught feasting by Jakob's brother and his wife, the Master returns to force her to make a true and final choice. Anne has only two options left: die or thrive.

When Jakob plays her white knight and seemingly frees her of having to make that choice, he robs her of the rare opportunity this fantastic set of circumstances has provided her. The "die" in the Master's ultimatum wasn't suicide in its literal definition, but in the self-destructive decision to stay the course that's ruined her life for so long.

Jakob may have done the "right" thing, destroying the head vampire to save the day, but it's all too late. Anne likes who she's become. That gene isn't going to fit back inside the bottle, no matter how hard he forces it.

Yet somewhat tellingly, the film doesn't take the easy way out, with Anne finally dispatching Jakob and riding off into the sunrise on her own, a simple and obvious conclusion that would have happily placed this alongside The Witch and Midsommar in the "good for her" cinematic universe. It instead leaves us with a man and woman forced to reckon with the push and pull of their respective needs and desires, of a couple who has survived a storm they must now continue to weather every day until one or both of them finally decide to call it quits.

At the film's bloody climax, the sheriff asks the deputy how he's going to write this up in his report, to which he responds, "Domestic dispute. Non-violent." He's not wrong. Jakob's Wife is plenty brutal, but none of the violence takes place between its central protagonists. No, all that damage is purely emotional.