November 7, 2014
Robert Ben Garant
Sarah Snook as Jessie
Mark Webber as Preston
David Andrews as Leon
Jessabelle (Sarah Snook) is in her early 20s when a horrific car accident takes away her brand new direction in life, her short-term ability to walk and her loving fiancé. With her mother deceased and no one else to turn to, she must reach out to her estranged father (he gave little Jessabelle to an aunt to be raised after her mother’s death), and return to the dreamy, bayou home where she began her life. She’s wheelchair-bound, disoriented and fragile, both physically and emotionally.
Upon arrival to her old family home, where her distant father (David Andrews of World War Z) still lives, she tries to find ways to pass the time – reading books, staring longingly out at the dock on the lake, and snooping around where she shouldn’t. A few convenient coincidences (or are they?) lead her to several hidden VHS tapes (how it is that VHS tapes, which were so prevalent growing up, can now be used as scary old tropes in current films – holy moly, I’m old!) which contain recorded messages from her mother, prior to and immediately after Jessabelle’s birth. There are some chilling tarot card readings on the recordings and a not-so-pretty picture of Jessabelle’s mother’s decline in health due to a rapidly-spreading cancer. It’s a very My Life, lovely path to the mystery that is her mother, and so Jessabelle immediately becomes obsessed with the tapes, to the dismay of her father.
The mystery strengthens, as strange lights can be seen across the bayou, evidence of voo-doo practices are revealed, frightening dreams become commonplace…
And then next – naturally, things in the house start to go bump in the night.
I don’t call this movie quaint as an insult. Far from it. It’s a very contained, atmospheric piece, with A-list performances by generally unknown actors. Quaint simply refers to the fact that the film’s not terribly flashy. There’s very little gore, but some good make-up effects. It has a kind of old-fashioned feel about it. Any bayou movie worth its salt has that air of a not-so-distant past – of plantations and swamps and fireflies and Southern charm. Jessabelle has oodles of this, and it doesn’t have to force it. And this welcoming sense of hospitality always brings with it the mysteries of the deep south, voo-doo secrets, extended family histories in an almost alien-place (certainly for any original northerners).
And the filmmakers have done a unique justice to the story and these beloved locations by giving us the remarkably-gifted Sarah Snook. She’s a freckly-faced red head with wide blue eyes brimming with pain and fear. A great big high-five to the casting folks for finding Ms. Snook, who seems destined for stardom, assuming she can bring this same A-game to every other role she tackles. Her look is a cross between Titanic’s Suzy Amis and the hotter-than-hot at the moment, Emma Stone. There are plenty of tricky emotional moments in the film (the first time she views her mother on those rickety old VHS recordings is heart-breaking) as well as lots of damsel-in-distress bits, and she handles it all like a seasoned master (her IMDb profile shows her first credit from 2009). You talk about the “it” quality? She’s got it. And the fact that so much of the time she’s alone in the scenes, just makes you appreciate her talents all the more. I’ll be keeping my eye on you, Ms. Snook!
She’s backed up by a very handsome Mark Webber as Preston, a high school sweetheart, whom she left rather abruptly to go off to college as well as to escape their small dead-end town. But Preston stayed behind and eventually married. One of the only really humorous scenes involves Preston taking Jessabelle home with him, just for a night after things at the lake house have gotten treacherous, to find his less-than-happy wife, grumpily waiting up. Awkward. There’s also a scene in a local diner, where Preston and Jessabelle catch up on town gossip, and their interactions make it clear that the feelings they assumed were gone, are still as fresh and intoxicating as they used to be. And so we like these two together. They’re sweet and Preston’s a decent guy, so you really hope that things will work out for them. Add this flirtasiousness and school-girl-giggly to Sarah Snook’s skills and you’ll find she hits pretty much every emotional beat a writer could throw out there!
And as must be discussed, there are lots of knee-jerk “boo” moments, plenty of rousing suspense and at one point, I actually felt the prickling of a wave of goosebumps down my back. How often does that happen to this jaded old horror movie-goer? Not terribly often, I can tell you. Either the movie succeeded in scaring me on such a level, or I need to speak to the management about the air-conditioning and start carrying a shawl. Point being, Jessabelle is scary and scary is good.
The ending will not be revealed here, but you know from the get-go that there are lots of untold secrets that simply have to be known, and you won’t be disappointed by their reveal. There will be plenty of those, “maybe I should take a look at the early sections of the film again, just to see what hints they may have dropped” conversations with yourself after the house lights have come up.
The very last line of the film is also worthy of a mention, both in its diva-fun breathiness as well as its semi-promise of a sequel.
There’s nothing particularly lacking in the picture, other than some demerits for lack of originality. It’s certainly not ground-breaking, but it’s still a very enjoyable horror experience.
The film opens on November 7th, and for its quaint Southern charm, for its lead – Sarah Snook and for its ample opportunities to squeal, I recommend you take a gander. Join Jessabelle as she returns to an (almost) empty home. She could certainly use the company.