Backwater horror gone horribly wrong


Rating JessabelleJessabelleJessabelleJessabelle

Directed by Kevin Greutert. Starring Sarah Snook, Mark Webber, Joelle Carter, David Andrews, Amber Stevens, Ana de la Reguera, Larisa Oleynik, Chris Ellis, Brian Hallisay. Written by Robert Ben Garant.

Here’s one I thought I’d never see: a supernatural horror movie where the ghost behaves as a Talking Killer. As our heroine cowers in fear during the climax of Jessabelle, the evil spirit appears to her and explains the plot of the movie to us, telling poor Jessie why she is being haunted and what the ghosts plan to do with her now. Just like a Bond movie

Not that the ghosts’ plan makes any kind of sense. But I wouldn’t dare spoil the ending of Jessabelle: as campy and deranged as it is, it’s the only element of the entire movie that raises interest in the proceedings above ‘mild’.

At the outset, I assumed this to be another Carnival of Souls knockoff: Jessabelle opens with pregnant twentysomething Jessie (Sarah Snook) and her fiancé about to embark on a new life together when… wham! You know the scene: movie characters love to drive through intersections without looking for oncoming traffic. They never see the eighteen-wheeler barrelling towards them. 

The accident leaves fiancé and unborn child dead, and Jessabelle confined to a wheelchair. Since she apparently has no friends or other family members to aid her, or even visit her in the hospital, she falls into the care of estranged father Leon (David Andrews), who she hasn’t seen in years. Leon hauls her back to the old family house in a Louisiana swamp, where her condition confines her to the room her mother died in over 20 years ago. 

The premise is promising: not only do we have an atmospheric, isolated locale, but also a Rear Window heroine who cannot run – or even walk – away from the scary stuff. As Jessabelle becomes tormented by ghostly beings in this backwater prison, the film ought to be building up an overwhelming sense of claustrophobic terror. 

But that never really comes. After establishing that there is, indeed, a ghostly being inside the house – the standard-order The Ring/The Grudge black-haired zombie girl – the film, and its heroine, become shockingly disinterested in the supernatural: instead we’re treated to a half-baked mystery about why the ghost is there. In terms of scares, Jessabelle is a complete bust. 

While the film’s promotional material touts it as coming from the producers of recent hits like Insidious, The Purge, and the Paranormal Activity films, Jessabelle instead dials things back to the J-horror supernatural mystery of films like The Ring and The Grudge. From the Louisiana setting to the voodoo theatrics to the ghostly ending, it’s also strikingly similar to the 2005 Kate Hudson flick The Skeleton Key

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Jessabelle was written by former The State/Reno 911 member Robert Ben Garant, who also penned last years’ parody Hell Baby. That film got its laughs by playing up all the usual genre stereotypes; this one flounders by checking them off with a straight face. Director Kevin Greutert is best known from the Saw franchise, editing the first five films and directing Saw 6 and Saw 3D.

Jessabelle was originally scheduled for release nearly a year ago, before being pushed back in the schedule; regardless, it appears to have gone straight to VOD in the USA. Still, it registers a theatrical release in the Czech Republic while genuinely well-crafted – and scary – ghost stories like Oculus or The Babadook will go unseen.

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