Jakob’s Wife. 2021. Directed by Travis Stevens. Screenplay Stevens, Kathy Charles, & Mark Steensland.
Starring Barbara Crampton, Larry Fessenden, Bonnie Aarons, Nyisha Bell, Sarah Lind, Mark Kelly, Robert Rusler, Jay DeVon Johnson, & C.M. Punk.
AMP International / Eyevox
Not Rated / 98 minutes
DISCLAIMER: The following essay contains SPOILERS.
Beware—thou wilt be SPOILED!
I was a massive fan of Girl on the Third Floor, Travis Stevens’s debut directorial feature, so I vowed to keep an eye on anything Stevens would do in the future. I went into Jakob’s Wife knowing nothing, other than the fact that legends Barbara Crampton and Larry Fessenden were starring in the lead roles. Most who’ve watched a trailer know that this film is vampire related, but I had no clue. It was a pleasant, bloody surprise to see how Stevens—from a screenplay he co-wrote with Kathy Charles and Mark Steensland—used vampire folklore in order to tell a horrifying, darkly hilarious tale about women’s struggles, particularly against traditional heteronormative relationships dictated by the patriarchy’s ancient rules.
Anne (Crampton) is married to a minister, Jakob (Fessenden). Though Jakob preaches a good game at the pulpit to his congregation about husbands and wives, he’s not exactly the greatest husband. Sure, Jakob doesn’t physically abuse his wife, but Anne is, essentially, lifeless after three decades together—he’s sucked the life out of her. Then one day, everything changes. When Anne meets a former flame with whom she’s about to do business, she has a terrifying encounter with the Master (Bonnie Aarons). Afterwards, she finds a new lease on life. No longer is she being sucked dry by Jakob. Because she’s a vampire.
How can a minister and a vampire stay married? Therapy’s probably not the answer.
Jakob’s Wife is a grim riot and an appropriately bloody vampire flick. Stevens is doing much more serious work underneath the genre elements with which he plays so deliciously. Crampton’s Anne is representative of many women who’ve endured relationships with people like Fessenden’s Jakob; not necessarily experiencing physical domestic violence, but still being consistently ground down psychologically into a nub of a human by patriarchal expectation, misogyny, and sexism. There’s also the undeniably queer aspect of Stevens’s film, in that the Master is a woman turning other women into vampires by way of the intimate, sensual bite, subverting the rules of God and man alike. The Master seeks to unburden women of the heteronormative, patriarchal skin they’ve been made to wear for so long. In the end, Jakob’s Wife is all about power: who has it, who wants it, and what they do with it when they get it.
The patriarchal expectations of women dictate they should be obedient, quiet wives who serv their husband’s needs, whether emotional or physical. When patriarchy and religion combine it’s double tough for women. Jakob opens the film with a sermon that contains a partial reading of Ephesians 5:25: “Husbands, love your wife, as Christ loved the Church, that he might sanctify her.” This is immediately sexist in that it suggests women need cleansing, and that said cleansing comes from her husband; in other words, only man can make woman whole. Then there’s the fact that we don’t hear the prior bit from Ephesians 5:22: “Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do the Lord.” Both of these Biblical quotes speak to the same fact: Christianity posits the husband as God within the confines of a heterosexual marriage; in each quote, the husband is likened to Christ or the Lord.
Jakob’s full name—Jakob Fedder—is loaded with potential symbolism that comes to bear on the religious and patriarchal ideals Stevens explores throughout the film. The name Jakob is originally Hebrew, meaning ‘supplanter,’ or to replace/supersede. This plays into the religious conception of the husband as God in a heterosexual marriage, that Jakob sees himself replacing God, in a sense. Then there’s his last name, Fedder, which is so close to ‘fetter.’ The word ‘fetter’ refers to a chain used to restrain a prisoner, usually placed around the ankles. Anne taking Jakob’s name in marriage holds a lot of symbolism because it resembles ‘fetter,’ and it subverts the typical idea of the wife as ‘ball-and-chain’; Jakob’s the one dragging Anne down, not the other way around. In this film, we see the husband is more often the symbolic manacle around a wife’s ankle when he lords over her like God.
And who needs a husband, anyway? Not vampire ladies.There’s oodles of queerness in Jakob’s Wife, though it may not immediately jump out at the non-queer viewer. The fact the Master is a woman is significant because having a female vampire effectively liberating women from their heteronormative hell puts this depiction of vampires in line with many others in the history of Gothic fiction. The vampire is a queer figure, ever since the days of Carmilla and, yes, Dracula. One of the vampire women tells Jakob she’s going to “tongue fuck a hole” in his neck; a laugh-worthy moment that simultaneously underlines the queerness of the vampires in Jakob’s Wife, as they subvert Christian patriarchy, as well as attack masculinity. The fact this vampire lady is emasculating a man of Christ is even more significant than if she’d delivered the line to any other normal man.
Most important regarding the film’s queerness is how the Master acts as a queer subversion of God. The figure of the vampire itself is generally a queer subversion of God. Most vampires in fiction are depicted at least somewhat ambiguous in gender/sexuality. And the vampire creates new lives by creating new vampires, who in turn create their own new vampires—just as God, to the religious, is the creator of humans, who then go on to create more humans themselves. The Master offers what Anne calls “a love that gives me strength instead of fear,” speaking to the difference between vampirism v. Christianity—at least as Anne, and other women, see it. The Master specifically talks about religion, too. She talks of God’s creation of man and woman, stating that “it was the woman who was deceived” in reference to Eve historically being scapegoated as the deceiver of Adam. Since the earliest days of Christianity, women have been fettered to “the shackles of domestic dependency” by religious patriarchy, and the Master seeks to undo all that by sucking women’s necks to give them new liberated life.
The ending is so funny and very romantic comedy-esque, though again speaks volumes about the issues of male control in the film. The final shot shows both Anne and Jakob ready to strike. He doesn’t trust his wife with her newfound power, whereas she dutifully trusted him for 30 years. As soon as women gain even a modicum of power it makes men scared. Of course, Anne is a vampire. She could easily use her vampire powers to crush her husband, or turn him. Yet Jakob, being a straight cis male, held so much societal power over Anne all these years. He could’ve done so much worse to her than he did emotionally, as many wives have and do experience every day, and likely would’ve gotten away with it. Anne faithfully stood by him in spite of that, but now that she’s the one with the most power he’s uneasy about the gendered imbalance. So Jakob’s mistrust at the end, when Anne has come into her true power, shows how men like him want all the power—he doesn’t want to do things “as equals” like Anne wants, he’d rather wield total control. I’d love to see a sequel a few years down the line when Anne inevitably either kills Jakob or divorces him.
Can you imagine the vampiric adventures of a newly single Anne?
Apart from the excellent themes, and the wonderful performances from the whole cast, Jakob’s Wife incorporates traditional vampire elements in order to pay homage to the fictional bloodsuckers who’ve come before. The rats recall the most-well known vampire, Count Dracula, all but introducing the Master before we actually see her. The Master’s whole look is very reminiscent of Tobe Hooper’s adaptation of ‘Salem’s Lot; Hooper’s vampire, Kurt Barlow, is one of my favourites in all of cinema, and the Master elicits much of the same dread as him. There are also moments that take vampire lore into the contemporary world with unique visuals, such as the scene in the dentist’s office when Anne has an uncomfortable mouth moment that I found ingenious.
We’ve seen so many vampire films throughout film history. The success of Twilight, like it or hate it, renewed an interest in vampires, and we’ve seen many more contemporary takes on the fabled creature since. But, like zombies, vampires have almost been played out, so it takes something special to… pump life… back into them; exactly what Stevens does here. Jakob’s Wife is full of blood and laughs. Beneath the awesome genre work, Stevens is telling a clever story about the price many women pay when they’re trapped by heteronormative, patriarchal expectations, as well as the steep price many will ultimately pay to escape them.