'Jessabelle': Film Review

Jim Bridges
Dark family secrets won’t remain hidden for long. 

Sarah Snook and Mark Webber co-star in a spiritually tainted horror feature set in the Deep South

Skipping October’s final weekend to avoid the prospect of reduced box office traffic resulting from a Halloween Friday release, Lionsgate and Paranormal Activity franchise producer Blumhouse Productions will need to rely on an enduring appetite for horror material to challenge the upcoming weekend's competition.

Jessabelle’s performance is unlikely to be boosted by an overly familiar premise that bears too much similarity to numerous recent releases: it focuses on Jessie (Sarah Snook), who’s released from a Louisiana hospital two months after a terrible car accident that’s killed her boyfriend and terminated her recent pregnancy, forcing her to rely on her long-estranged father Leon (David Andrews) for support. He’s not particularly enthused to be reunited with his daughter either, particularly since she’s wheelchair-bound while recovering from two broken legs, leaving him no alternative but to bring her back to the bayou home where she grew up after her mother Kate (Joelle Carter) died from cancer shortly after her birth.

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It’s a brooding brick house still concealing dark family secrets that Jessie only begins to understand as she starts watching a collection of VHS tapes that she finds in a box labeled “Jessabelle” among Kate’s possessions. In the videotapes her pregnant mother speaks directly to the camera, hinting at her tumultuous relationship with Leon as she conducts a series of increasingly ominous Tarot readings for Jessabelle, indicating that there’s a mysterious female presence in the house watching her. At the same time, Jessie begins to experience frightening ghostly visitations in her mother’s bedroom where she’s frequently confined, along with terrifying nightmares and strange noises around the big empty house when her father is out.

Even after a terrifying corpse-like woman that only Jessie can see attacks her when she’s in the bath, Leon won’t discuss the unexpected illness that killed her mother years ago. But when he discovers that she’s been watching more of Kate's videotapes, Leon flies into a rage after one of his frequent bouts of boozing and attempts to burn them, but the fire quickly leaps out of control, killing him in a terrible conflagration. At his funeral, Jessie re-encounters her former high school boyfriend Preston (Mark Webber), now married but still carrying a torch for her. Preston expresses his alarm after she relates the frightening events transpiring at her house and resolves to protect her, but the increasingly violent hauntings quickly reveal that neither one of them is prepared to deal with the sinister forces they’re up against.

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Although prolific actor and screenwriter Robert Ben Garant begins the film on a distinctly Southern Gothic note, a different type of regionalism takes over as the demon that haunts Jessie’s home discloses its true intentions. However, Garant’s gradual revelation that traditional Haitian Voodoo rites and a related curse may be the source of her predicament is handled unevenly, initially revealed only partially through Jessie’s tumultuous, recurring nightmares and cryptic comments from minor characters, before awkwardly introduced plot developments clarify the extent of her mother’s connection to a menacing man involved with an unconventional local church.

With the exception of the videotapes featuring the recordings by Jessie’s mother, Saw franchise director and editor Kevin Greutert abandons the found-footage approach that has frequently characterized Blumhouse productions, settling instead on an atmospheric style that draws on the film’s rural Louisiana setting and familiar haunted house genre conventions. The too-infrequent scare techniques, however, are mostly by the book, rarely developing sufficient dread to heighten the film’s rather unremarkable climax. Repeated minor plot inconsistencies take a heightening toll as well, undermining both narrative efficacy and credible character motivation.

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Constrained by limited mobility throughout almost the entire film, Snook finds scant opportunity to develop Jessie’s character beyond the generic template lain out by the filmmakers, although some of the more intense scenes reveal a degree of sympathetic grit. Had Webber’s Preston appeared at an earlier point in the film he might have seemed more integral to the plot, but instead comes off as essentially reactive.

As the malevolent spirit haunting Jessie, Amber Stevens makes a gratifyingly repellent impression, enhanced by Michael Fimognari’s foreboding cinematography and Jade Healy’s spooky production design.

Production companies: Lionsgate, Blumhouse Productions, Principato-Young Entertainment
Cast:
Sarah Snook, Mark Webber, David Andrews, Joelle Carter, Ana de la Reguera, Larisa Oleynik, Chris Ellis, Amber Stevens
Director: Kevin Greutert
Screenwriter: Robert Ben Garant
Producers: Jason Blum, Paul Young, Peter Principato
Executive producers: Robert Ben Garant, Jerry P. Jacobs, Matt Kaplan
Director of photography: Michael Fimognari
Production designer: Jade Healy
Costume designer: Carol Cutshall
Editor: Kevin Greutert
Music: Anton Sanko
Casting director: Michelle Morris Gertz
Rated PG-13, 90 minutes 

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