I am a great lover of vampire movies and stories, and am always interested to see how filmmakers and storytellers approach the well-worn vampire mythology. Every vampire story must take time to establish the “rules” of that particular vampiric universe, so the (sub?)genre lends itself to world-building. Some vampires can survive in sunlight, though uncomfortably; others can endure limited exposure; still others burst instantly into flames. Some vampires fear the sign of the Cross; others laugh at it mockingly; still others fear the faith in what the symbol represents, but the symbol is rendered powerless without that faith.
Vampire stories also offer the opportunity to explore interesting themes. Immortality is a common one: what happens when you have forever to live on Earth? Anne Rice’s novel Interview with the Vampire (1976) explores that idea in great detail, specifically the ennui and nihilism that come with earthly eternal “life.” The initial thrill of vampiric power and endless nights of bloody reverie gradually turn to centuries of self-indulgent, murderous moping, as the vampire passively watches the world he loved transform around him into something unrecognizable.
This month, Shudder released a new exclusive, Jakob’s Wife (2021), a feminist-inflected vampire story starring 80s scream queen Barbara Crampton. While the feminist themes were a bit heavy-handed at points, the film handled the subject matter with a surprising degree of nuance. Suffice it to say that, like tell-tale two-pronged mark of the vampire’s bite, this film has stuck with me.
The premise is straightforward: Anne (Crampton) is the dutiful, submissive wife of Jakob (Larry Fessenden), a small town minister of some High Protestant extraction. Jakob is the picture of a comfortable country vicar—pudgy, relaxed, but a bit self-righteous. Anne serves him dutifully, preparing his breakfast daily, and generally supporting his ministry.
When a young parishioner goes missing, Jakob and company write it off as a teen girl running off with her boyfriend. Anne attempts to speak up to the sheriff, noting that it was out of the girl’s character to do such a thing, but Jakob interrupts her and—it seems unwittingly—shuts her down.
Shortly thereafter, Anne’s handsome and successful high school boyfriend, Tom (Robert Rusler) rolls into town, under the pretense of renovating an old factory to turn into a retail and living space. Anne visits the abandoned factory with Tom, where the two kiss, rekindling their old flame, before Anne pushes him away.
If it’s starting to sound like a Lifetime movie, hold on: things take a sinister turn when Tom is attacked by an unseen creature, and Anne is enveloped in the cloaks of a vampire. Anne then appears at home, dazed, but clearly changed by the nightmarish experience.
Soon Anne begins behaving strangely, and realizes the extent of her newfound powers. She stops making her husband breakfast, and begins to dress more lavishly. Her quiet church mouse persona morphs into a live-out-loud, charismatic mode.
Eventually, Anne’s irresistible thirst for human blood gets the better of her, though, and Jakob does what he can to help his wife (including burying one of her victims in the backyard). It’s the very definition of ride-or-die (or, perhaps, ride-or-undead).
The two confront the now-vampiric teenage girl in the factory, but Jakob hesitates to make the killing blow, leaving Anne to do so. Anne is disgusted with Jakob’s weakness and timidity; Jakob is horrified by what Anne has become, and attempts to call the marriage quits, as she is no longer the woman (or, indeed, even the being) that he married.
But Jakob ultimately rises to the occasion. Anne wants to stay with him, but wants more decision-making powers in the relationship.
These tensions come to a head when the vampire that turned Anne, The Master (Bonnie Aarons), offers Anne the opportunity to become fully a vampire, enjoying all of the power and independence that come with that role. At the critical moment, as Anne is on the cusp of making her decision, Jakob pierces The Master from behind with a wooden stake, draws a Cross on the back of her head with her own black bile, and destroys her utterly.
Anne screeches that it was her choice to make, and is frustrated that her husband—who has now grown to be bold and heroic—deprived her of it.
I take the film to be a pro-feminist message piece—Anne desperately wants to be able to enjoy some control over her life, and to indulge in her “wild side”—but it comes across pro-patriarchy, albeit unintentionally. Anne does not fully consider the cost of her choice to become fully vampiric would be. She is clearly behaving recklessly—indeed, murderously—as her full femininity is unleashed from the constraints of her normally religious existence. It takes the heroic action of her husband to free her from the seductive but bloodthirsty Master’s offer.
Indeed, the film seems to suggest how destructive unbridled feminine freedom can be. Anne flirts with committing adultery and murders an innocent neighbor.
But her husband is not without fault, either. Jakob has so suppressed Anne—the film suggests he does so unwittingly—that their marriage is joyless and routine. He’s grown overly complacent and comfortable. The film does show his growing boldness, though, such as when he takes a joint from a teenaged hoodlum who is smoking it in the church parking lot (in a later scene, Jakob and Anne smoke the joint to clear her mind of its vampiric bloodlust).
What the film does well is show the nuance of Jakob and Anne’s decisions, and how their characters grow and transform over the course of the film. Anne remains, it seems, half-vampire at the end of the film, with the couple forging a new understanding of their marriage—and both are full recommitted to it.
There’s more I could say, but it’s a film that defies easy characterization. Knowing the general worldly philosophy of modern films, it does seem likely that Jakob’s Wife is intended to be a female empowerment film, but it shows the pitfalls of that approach, too.